DEFINING MOMENTSChelsea's Skip Brown reflects on life after the Vietnam War.
By Rene’ Day
Photos by Dawn Harrison
There are defining moments in our lives – those instances that write our life stories. In the September issue of Shelby Living, readers were introduced to Skip Brown of Chelsea and one of those moments as he experienced it in the jungles of Southeast Asia in 1972. And, although it was a touchstone event and earned Brown a Bronze Star, it is far from being the only defining moment in his life. This man has had other extraordinary brushes with history – and one eventually brought him to Shelby County.
When Skip was released from the hospital in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, his main priority was getting on with his life. But just leaving the hospital turned out to be more of an ordeal than he ever imagined. Again, it is important to recall that, at this point in the conflict, America was a nation almost at war with itself over the actions in Vietnam. And returning veterans in uniform became easy scapegoats for anti-war activists’ anger. On the morning he was discharged, Brown remembers an impromptu demonstration began on the first floor of the facility. As a requirement of the military, he dressed in his “Class A” military attire and descended the stairs. His first welcome was the pelting of balloons that, upon bursting, left ugly red bloodstains all over his clothing. Obviously, there would be no welcome parade, and getting on with his life would become more of a challenge than he realized.
By 1976, Brown had met and married Cheryl and they were living in Pennsylvania. Although police work was not a part of his life yet, there were indications that it might be a good fit with this battle-hardened man. He had a solid appreciation for good detective work and was fair in dealing with others, he said. One could even argue that attraction to the law might have been a bit genetic. His grandfather worked in Cleveland, Ohio in the 1930s and 1940s with a young detective by the name of Eliot Ness, who helped to bring down Al Capone.
Trading northeast winters for southern beaches led the Browns to Delray Beach, Florida. But, in order to be a police officer, he had to first make it through the Police Academy. No small feat considering the damage done to his right leg and foot by satchel charge during the war. Brown explains that graduating was one of the proudest moments of his life – because it was one of the toughest things he has ever done. He smiles as he remembers trying to find ways to hide the pain he experienced during the various training exercises and qualification exams. No one at the Academy had any idea about his past.
Brown served as a patrol officer for several years before being approached about leading a new volunteer program involving dogs, he said. For the first time, a K9 unit had been proposed to help with routine patrols and drug inspections. Brown believed the dogs would be assets. For over a decade, Brown said he helped train German shepherds for Delray’s force as well as for those in neighboring towns. It also set in motion his life-long love affair with canines of all breeds – he still helps train pets around his Chelsea neighborhood and keeps busy with his own Nina, Abby and Cooper.
Then September 11, 2001 came, and the world changed forever. Brown’s brush with this date, though, actually began months earlier as many of the hijackers lived in the Delray Beach area, where they trained to fly planes prior to the attacks.
Once this information was discovered, Delray Beach’s population swelled significantly to include federal law enforcement, government officials, journalists, media crews and curious civilians. Understandably, citizens of this and nearby Florida towns were traumatized by the possibilities that local attacks were imminent. Anyone who remembers that time will recall feeling vulnerable.
Brown said he was instrumental in establishing a volunteer patrol program to recruit local veterans. Volunteers were trained to provide extra eyes and ears for the police. The visible patrol presence in public areas helped calm fears in smaller communities and freed up officers for the ongoing terrorist investigation. It was so successful, in fact, that law enforcement officials from a variety of states traveled to Delray to observe and talk with Brown about forming similar programs of their own, he said. One such visitor was Sheriff Chris Curry from Shelby County, Alabama.
Thus, the story comes full circle. If you are familiar with the volunteer C.O.P. (Citizens On Patrol) program in Chelsea, then you know of Brown’s impact on our area. It was modeled after the Delray program. And Curry also convinced Skip and Cheryl to make Shelby County home. They moved to Alabama in 2005. Seven years later, Brown’s former Vietnam commander began communication that would ultimately lead to an April 2017 Bronze Star Award Ceremony in Florida. Over 1,000 former colleagues, friends and neighbors attended the event. And, to a person, none of the Delray police officers there had any idea they worked with an American hero. They were surprised when they learned of his actions under fire. Some remembered that he served in Vietnam – but he never talked about what he did or experienced in 1972.
And, you know, most veterans are like Skip Brown. They don’t consider themselves heroes – they just did what they were called upon to do. However, our communities have been forever enriched because of their contributions. We need to take the time to listen and to learn – and, finally, to say thanks.