Matt Brown remembers his early days in the Army, when he got his “hot and a cot,” otherwise known as three square meals and a place to sleep, and his monthly pay of $62, doled out in cash.
That was in 1966 and soldiers were expected to donate a couple dollars to the local orphanage or whatever project the unit supported. A first sergeant manned the donation table on payday and “strongly encouraged” participation.
“From basic training on, we were told, ‘You need to give back,’ ” recalled Brown, who got the same message from his church going parents. “We knew all about community service before that was a term.”
Brown, a 72-year-old Stafford County resident and Purple Heart recipient, spent 22½ years in the Army and 12 years with Homeland Security before he retired. He served from the Vietnam War through Operation Desert Shield, suffering exposure to Agent Orange and wounds to his left eye and right leg.
Brown is still doing community service, but these days, his focus is on making sure the men and women who wore the uniform of their country get what they’re due from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
He and fellow Vietnam veteran Emmanuel Booth, 79, are two members of the Military Veterans Ministry of Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Stafford County. The church has about 65 veterans or active-duty members in the congregation.
Brown, Booth and other ministry volunteers have helped about 45 veterans and their families navigate the sometimes complicated and time-consuming process of applying for benefits. They meet people at the Howell branch of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library and help them figure out what benefits they’re eligible for and how to go about getting them.
“If it’s out of your element and you don’t know how to do it, it’s Greek and it’s intimidating,” Brown said.
Both know the value of perseverance, especially when it comes to disability compensation.
Booth spent almost 22 years in the service with four years in the Air Force and the rest in the Army. His first tour in Vietnam came in the early 1960s, when Americans were in country, helping villagers build infrastructure and protect themselves from guerrilla attacks.
Booth also did reconnaissance work, checking out locations where American troops later could set up artillery, airstrips and quick exits, if needed.
He considered his early work there as an adviser, and as he and Brown sat recently on a bench outside Veterans of Foreign War Post 3103 in Fredericksburg, he asked Brown how he’d describe it.
“Snooping and pooping?” Brown quipped, and the two slapped their legs in laughter.
After American troops entered the fight in 1965, Booth did two more tours, and things got hot. He was with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, called Sky Soldiers by the Chinese for the way the brigade jumped with allied airborne units.
Brown calls his older “brother” a true hero, one of the Special Forces Rangers who engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat.
“I’m talking about pitched battle fighting” that continued, Brown said, until air strikes were called “to light up the whole area.”
The 173rd Airborne was among the few doing night jumps, and one such instance landed Booth on top of an enemy camp.
“We started descending down, and the bullets started coming up,” he recalled.
Both legs were hit, and doctors eventually pulled out seven slugs. “They’re still finding shrapnel,” Booth said.
The Army declared him 10 percent disabled, saying he was still good to go—he just couldn’t jump out of airplanes anymore. By the time he retired in 1979 with two Purple Hearts and a coveted star on his combat infantry badge, his disability rating had doubled.
Brown’s experience was similar, except that he was injured in countries that he can’t disclose for classified reasons. One injury split his right eye in two, but he considers himself lucky because the shrapnel was hot and cauterized the wound, keeping precious eye fluids from draining.
Like “Brother Booth,” Brown left the service with a 20 percent disability rating.
As the men aged, both began to experience fallout from Agent Orange, a pesticide used to clear jungle vegetation so Americans could see enemy forces. As the two developed problems with blood pressure or prostate, heart issues and diabetes, they also battled with the VA to increase their ratings—and monthly disability payments.
It took the better part of two decades for the VA to qualify each of them as 100 percent disabled. That’s why both are determined to help others with similar battles.
Brown doesn’t want to be adversarial with VA officials and acknowledges they sometimes get a bad rap. He knows veterans, particularly those who are “self-medicating” to deal with problems, can be tough to deal with.
“But that veteran is entitled to the benefits,” Brown said, “and regardless of what’s going on with them, they deserve the respect.”