Military mom leaves behind special legacy

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Behind every good man is a good woman, but Sgt. Henry L. Brown was lucky. He had two.

His wife, Jodonna Brown, isn’t well known in Natchez, though. It’s Sgt. Brown’s mom that made a difference here. And it’s her story the community will remember today at her funeral.

Rhonda Brown-Hayes didn’t have an easy life.

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Her only child, “my Henry,” as friends say Rhonda always called him, was Natchez’s first causality in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The Army sergeant died April 7, 2003, in Baghdad when a vehicle near him was hit by weapons fire.

For Rhonda, the news came six months after her own mother’s death.

Her personal battle with breast cancer wasn’t far away.

But trials and tribulations couldn’t shake Rhonda’s faith, her friends will tell you, and Henry’s death only gave her a new mission.

Rhonda was welcoming to the newspaper staff in the days after Henry’s death. She shared her despair, invited a reporter to the funeral and kept the faith.

As months and years passed, she was always willing to be a part of stories when we called about her son, the war’s impact on other young men and events memorializing those that were lost.

But it was when she called me that I couldn’t fight the warm, fuzzy feeling in my heart with which her friends and co-workers are oh-so-familiar.

Each time our newspaper reported the death of another young military hero Rhonda called.

She sought contact information for the family of the deceased. She just wanted them to know someone out there had been in their shoes and someone out there cared.

That someone was Rhonda, and caring was her middle name, co-worker Debbie Green said.

Green, a registered nurse, worked with Rhonda for nearly 20 years at Natchez Community Hospital.

Rhonda worked alongside the nurses, but her first priority was patients.

“She was with the patients constantly,” Green said. “She was there for their every need. There is nobody else like her, I promise.”

Green, who will speak at Rhonda’s funeral, asked co-workers at Community to write down their thoughts about Rhonda to be shared with loved ones. Their responses overwhelmed her.

Note after note praised Rhonda’s character, faith, caring heart and smile. Note after note shared stories of how Rhonda had personally touched the life of the author.

“I had known her overwhelming heartbreak in losing her son Henry, and I was in awe of her dealing with it,” one note said.

“She was just so strong and so sure that (Henry) was where she was going,” Green said.

“She turned her grief into a celebration of her son’s life,” another note said.

Rhonda shared her story and faith everywhere she went, from calls to the newspaper to visits with local church groups.

Her faith summed her up, Green said.

“The No. 1 thing you would think of when you thought of Rhonda was her faith,” she said.

“We were so blessed she was a part of our lives. No matter what kind of day you were having, she could help it by her presence.”

Five other local men have died in military service since Sgt. Brown’s death. I don’t know if Rhonda ever connected with the families or not, but I’m certain she sent countless prayers their way.

And today, after a long illness, Rhonda is hopefully fulfilling a dream one of her co-workers mentioned in a note.

“She is a brave mother longing to hold her son once more.”

Julie Cooper is the managing editor of The Natchez Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551 or