Brown featured in news

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 28, 2003

A Pike County man killed in Iraq is featured in a major news magazine this week.

John Eli Brown, private first class, was the subject of a story written by Julian Barnes in the April 28 edition of US News and World Report. Barnes, who met Brown shortly before his death, wrote fondly of the 21-year-old from "a country town called Troy."

Barnes was embedded with Brown's unit in Iraq, the 101st Airborne, and had interviewed Brown for an article about post-war reconstruction of the nation. Little did he know that his article would take a somber turn.

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Brown died April 14 near the Baghdad Airport in an unexploded ordinance incident that is still under investigation by the military. He was buried April 23 at Ramah Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery.

"I found out about an hour after it happened," Barnes said in an interview with The Messenger. "I was going to write an article about the peacekeeping mission that included some comments from him. I had left Brown a few days before and was at the headquarters when the radio call came through."

"I wasn't sure what had happened and the command sergeant came out and I asked him what happened and he said Foley and Brown had been killed."

Barnes is referring to Spc. Thomas Foley III, who was killed during the same incident that claimed Brown's life.

The US News article is remarkable for several reasons. Barnes had been in touch with Brown's mother Bonnie Brown just days before the incident.

"I had just e-mailed his mother the day before to say he was safe and sound and had seen him that morning," Barnes recalled. "Afterwards, I ended up talking to a lot of people about Brown and Foley that night and writing down some thoughts. The next day, I told my editors that I wanted to do an article and I went out to the memorial service in the desert."

"This was a very unusual article for US News to have done," Barnes said. "It was written in the first person and most are not. Most take a bigger picture look and for this, they sort of said 'submit it' before they saw it and when they saw it, they didn't edit it that much."

Barnes explained the impact of the article.

"It did a couple different things: It showed a look at one soldier and showed the dangers even though the main fighting was over and it showed the growth and transformation of one soldier over the course of the war. The article gave something worthwhile, not just to people who knew him, but to people who didn't know anything about him or Troy, Ala."

Though the article was the last thing Barnes wrote

from Iraq before coming back to the United States last week, his contact with the Brown family continued.

"I got back a week ago Friday and came back on the 18th late at night, but I went down to Troy for the funeral and graveside service," Barnes said. "I had talked to Bonnie Brown from Iraq, but (it was then) I (first) met Ed Brown."

Meeting grief-stricken families isn't new for Barnes, but his visit to Troy for funeral services wasn't just another interview.

"I've talked to many mothers as a journalist and people who've lost loved ones. I worked for the New York Times during 9-11.

"She is, as one would expect, devastated, but they seem like strong people and they're doing better than I would have thought."

Despite his extensive experience as a reporter covering tragedy, the results of his brief relationship with Johnny Brown in Iraq were highly unusual, Barnes said.

"This was unusual," he said. "Usually when you're a reporter, it's a one-way street. You need information to get from the family. But this was a personal piece, so it wasn't that. I was a reporter and they were sources, but I had some stories to tell to them about their son's last days. They had stories about John's childhood. I only knew him for a short time, but I was able to offer some information."

Barnes describes Brown in the article as "likeable and easy-going, a skinny 21-year-old with a big grin, always ready to help a soldier patch a radio or fixing other 'Joes' up with smokes."

He sums up the experiences of writing "Losing Pfc. Brown quite simply.

"He was a wonderful young man," Barnes said. "It was quite a moving experience to see how the town poured out and showed support."