Story and photo by Cpl. Brian Adam Jones
CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan – Though he’s spent the past 23 years in the Navy, Rondall Brown’s thick drawl, formed in the Blue Ridge Mountains, distinctly makes its presence known when one word crosses the chaplain’s lips – horror.
Brown’s introduction to horror came 10 years ago and 10,000 miles from here, it came to a lieutenant commander serving as a chaplain for a Coast Guard unit in New England. It came as thousands of innocent Americans lost their lives with a collapse and a cloud of dust.
Brown, who calls the mountains of Haysville, N.C., home spent several weeks in New York’s Ground Zero immediately following 9/11. The chaplain shepherded families through the carnage that took the lives of their loved ones, offering a first step toward closure.
“I remember one lady collapsing and just crying out, ‘Oh my God, my baby, I will never see her again.’ Her husband stood there, big guy, clenched fists, with tears streaming down his face. He never said a word,” Brown spoke with long pauses, successfully repelling waves of persistent tears.
“I apologize,” the chaplain said, running his fingers through his short crop of gray hair. “I’m not normally like this.”
Now far away from the wreckage that changed the world, Brown, a Navy captain, serves in Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, as the command chaplain for the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward).
“In one sense being here brings a peace for me,” said Brown, his face flushed red with emotion. “We are doing something to prevent it from occurring again. If you had been there, and have the vivid memories I do of the horror these families went through, it’s unimaginable. There was nothing to take home. There were no bodies.”
Brown seemed to recall everyone he led through the devastation in Manhattan.
A young man who worked on the 32nd floor of one of the Twin Towers. His wife of five months worked on the 94th, and over the phone she persuaded him to leave the building. He stood outside the door until he was pushed back by firefighters, eventually all the way to the water’s edge. Even as he was swallowed by the dust of the collapse, he held the cell phone to his ear.
A tall woman with short blonde hair who lost her fiancé, a fireman, when he responded to the attack.
A brother and sister who had come from California. Their brother turned 65 Sept. 10., prior to being killed in the collapse. The man had just beaten cancer, and the siblings had just celebrated his victory over the disease.
“In one sense it seems much longer than 10 years ago, but in another sense it feels just like yesterday. I think for the people who had loved ones die, it’s a very vivid memory,” Brown said staring at the floor, allowing memories to carry him back to New York.
“It was such a stench. I can smell it to this day,” Brown said. “They gave me a little ol’ mask to wear, but I never wore it. You can’t talk to people and wear a mask.”
The chaplain said it was important to him to be in Afghanistan on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. He said it was important to work to eradicate violence in this once terror-stricken region.
“There’s never a measurement you can put on the loss of a life, civilian or military. But should we be here? Yes, I think so,” Brown said. “People here are beginning to take leadership. They’re feeling confident with support from the government, with support from the American and coalition troops. When I was in Iraq in Al Anbar, the tide turned there when the people said to the insurgency, ‘OK, we have had enough of what you are doing to the innocent civilians.’”
A fitting vision for a man well acquainted to the horror that follows loss of innocent civilians.