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  • Jess Brown

Bottom Line Up Front – This Doesn’t Add up

BLUF: Trust Your Gut!!

Despite our best avoidance efforts our bodies catalog ALL our trauma. Innately, when trauma impact occurs the nervous system is jolted and alerts the body to initiate survival mode, ultimate goal to keep said body alive. But between the adrenaline flood and cortisol geyser-style pumping into the blood stream, all higher order thinking is stopped. Subsequently, memories of that traumatic event will appear as a mosaic of broken glass shards with seemingly no organizational structure.

"I love the Army…. but I hate what it has turned me into," this conversation I had with Zach the month prior to his departure has continued via closed captioning to narrate my nightmares.

Nightmares are an exaggeration. 

You must sleep to dream, and I wasn’t sleeping. Life had hit me like an Amtrak, and I spent my days stunned and collecting minutes. Suicide loss survivors remind me of white-tail deer, opossums, or armadillos and not the lively, chubby well-fed zoo version. The barely alive roadkill version paralyzed by the speed of life as drivers pass along undeterred. Every hour of the last few days was scrambling to collecting information of an unreconcilable puzzle and debriefing that into my collective consciousness, trying to make any sense of how my little brother and war hero was now…GONE.

Day 2 of IMPACT

5/9/22 - 11:02 AM

Jess "Before he gets cremated, there has to be a research study on soldiers' brains (like athletes) and CTE and TBI, right?!?!

*****CTE stands for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and TBI for Traumatic Brain Injury******

11:03 AM

Julia "I’m sure there is.

Let me do some research,” my cousin chimed in from Colorado.

Jess "Praying you find something.

I know I'm right. He loved that kid more than anything. He wouldn’t have chosen this. 

He was in pain and numbing it."

11:10 AM

Julia "He did. He loved him so much.

 He wouldn’t have, and he was in a place where he was finally accepting the fact that he needed help." 

"I think I found something! (insert UOS-DOD Brain Tissue Repository Website) Here is some of their research."

11:11 AM

Jess "YAS!

Ugh donor must still be living.” 

Julia "It says next of kin can also donate upon death. 

Do you want me to call later and ask?"

12:18 PM

Julia "I don’t mind at all. I can call after 3 when I get off work today.

Breaks my heart to see him hurting so much. He was so close to getting some help."

4:18 PM

Julia "Just spoke with the lady on the first website I sent you. She is very nice! She's going to email me with consent forms. She needs to know where he was stationed and some contact information for that as mortuary affairs contact info. Depending on when he was found and some other logistics. It sounds like they’ll work with us, and they can make things happen pretty quickly. Kelley, being his spouse and next of kin, would need to be the one to sign everything but she's happy to work with me through the process."

Jess "Amazing"

4:20 PM

Julia "She’s on call 24 seven. So, once I receive consents, I'll let you know when I email them. 

Once you have any contact information, I can send that straight to her as well. She said within the next few hours….I'm not sure if it’s possible, but better to try right?"

DAY 3 - May 10, 2022

"Good morning (insert Mortuary Affairs lady’s name i.e not relevant this tale) this is Casualty Assistance Officer HY. I have the wife and sister of SFC Zachary Morgan Brown on the phone this morning," HY stated.

"The first order of business is the misspelling of SFC Brown's first name on his issued dog tags and then on all following correspondence," CAO HY stated.

"That can be an easy fix with a birth certificate do you have that Mrs. Brown, " Mortuary Affairs asked my sister-in-law.

"Zach has that with him. I mean had (insert sob with the uncertainty of past and present). The folder of important documents followed him to the barracks. I'm sure PC (soldier-friend assigned to help Zach) or someone could find it," Kelley said.

"Ok let me know if there is an issue finding that documentation," Mortuary Affairs rebutted.

Kelley was eagerly trying to make any dents in her newly assigned 1000 page, 3 ring binder checklist. "I think we are going to go with burial Option #4. We are just torn if we are going to divide ashes or bury them in a national cemetery."

"You can do both," Mortuary Affairs confirmed.

Mortuary Affairs then discussed limitations. And my body viscerally and physically told me… ESCAPE. Get out now!  Words of urn, cremation, caskets, wood, embalm, flights, dress uniform were all flying around, and I viewed all of this as incorrect.

I wrote on my steno pad...expenses are reimbursable to allotment, and I stayed silent as these three ladies went through what appeared a W-9 form of military death (boxes, exemptions, tiny print, and legal binding signatures).

Then bravely Kelley asked, "what about tissue donation? Can we do that?"

"I’m sorry, but no. You have been misinformed. No. SFC Brown was on active duty when he died. Thus, he is jurisdiction of the Armed Force’s Medical Examiner. We should have been informed of this request prior to the autopsy. I cannot donate him," Mortuary Affairs stated their policy on our international phone call.

 Defeated, Kelley chimed in, "well was his brain examined?"

 “That is a question for Mr. Cobb. He is reached (at insert 13-digit civilian non-friendly number) and can only be asked specific questions from a medically significant standpoint. They have already processed Sergeant First Class Zachary Morgan Brown for autopsy. We can schedule a call later this week with the Medical Examiner if that’s what you wish, but we don’t want to delay scheduling his final rest."

"Once form 3045 is complete we need 10 days to process. We are working on issuing a brand new, most up-to-date version of SFC Brown’s uniform and collecting all his medals and accolades. You can trust us to take care of your loved one, but he will be embalmed tomorrow morning at 0800 hours."

"The funeral home you all choose will make all the arrangements for you. Rest easy. Seargeant First Class is property of the United States Army and as a government entity that supersedes certain requests." 

Mortuary Affairs balanced being stern and low-key empathetic in the symphony of a person who has done this many times before.

 I crawled out of bed (0630 in Oklahoma) to accompany my sister-in-law in Germany, and her Casualty Assistance Officer on this call, set for 1400 Bavaria time. Two days prior (Mother’s Day of all days) our foundation eroded, and the Atlantic Ocean impeded my physical presence being in person to help. The CAO, a rookie who was also personally affected by this loss (knowing Zach) adhered to policy and protocols and accompanied Kelley from the onset of her widow journey. 

 How someone who lived 80 years of life in a mere and compacted 36 and meant so much to so many AND is now reduced to “Property of the US Government scheduled for disposal” was not right to my soul. I couldn’t connect the dots on my own and in these very beginning stages of shock, at least people and resources were actively deploying. That's why I asked my cousin Julia, a huge brained single mom and talented nurse, if she could look for research studies or repositories. I probably didn’t ask for repositories, like so many things on this new journey, the word repository was foreign to me.

The newscasts on Memorial Day and Veterans Day tell us that military/veteran suicide is of the utmost priority to National Security. Is this true or are we in CYB (cover your booty modes)? There seems to be an interest in helping these heroes and their families, but who and where can a nobody like me with zero clearance infiltrate? PTSD (post- traumatic stress disorder), TBI, amongst many other DSM-5 diagnoses can reveal clues. But without accepting injury occurred and no correct diagnoses documented by Behavioral Health, in Zach’s (like many soldiers refusing needed help) there will not be records. I, a simple civilian, also wouldn’t have access to such mental health, addiction counselor, or chaplain notes. They scheduled alcohol rehab with PTSD treatment for a future date BUT my brother had decided weeks before his death, future was not an option.

After the door was metaphorically shut in our faces, I called the researcher. Funny thing about military, Department of Defense, veterans or contractors….it’s a small, incestuous world. She had worked with this Mortuary Affairs woman before and would call her when I hung up. By coincidence, the researcher was on a flight delay at JFK for the next 6 hours and loved having a work challenge to tackle. Despite Mortuary Affairs defensive stance on brain tissue research someone from the DOD’s team was able to get to Zach in Germany before embalming and secure a sample. Even the tiniest of samples includes data. We were told we wouldn’t hear much about their research but six months after his passing and on my sister-in-law’s 38th birthday the neuropath email came through……

I am writing to provide you with an update of progress on our evaluation of the brain donation of your husband, Army SFC, Zacary Brown which you graciously gifted to the DoD/USU Brain Tissue Repository. The process of this evaluation has involved the preparation and investigation of numerous microscopic slides, providing us with an ability to view all of the major cellular constituents of the brain within a large number of anatomic brain compartments. This type of assessment involves a very lengthy and tedious process but is the only way to fully evaluate a case of this type. Accordingly, we thank you for your patience in what may have seemed to be a very slow process

In summary, in our detailed examination of this brain specimen we did notice the presence of some evidence of arteriolosclerosis ("hardening of the arteries") of the small arteries of the brain but no vascular occlusions or strokes were seen. Otherwise, no other significant abnormalities were noted. The availability of specimens of this type does greatly help us to gain insights into our primary areas of research. The field of brain health is constantly improving its tools and techniques, all of which help us to better understand the complexities of the brain and its function

Finally, I want to express our sincere thanks for the gift that you have provided through your donation for this kind of research. The opportunity to study this brain specimen, and others like it, will undoubtedly lead to a better understanding of the extent and nature of brain damage that occurs following exposure to a variety of conditions, especially those occurring on the battlefield. We hope you can take some comfort in knowing that the insights provided through the precious gift you provided through donation of your husband's brain to this research has provided a means by which she can continue to serve his Country. 

If I can answer any questions you might have about our ongoing research work or on the nature of our findings on this case, please do not hesitate to contact me


The Challenge:

This week reach out to an active duty, veteran or one of their family members. Regardless of the era, they have a story, and they have feelings attached to that story. What if by you asking them “how are you doing today, really?” is a glimmer of hope. Let’s put away our tech and connect to our loved ones. Shoot that shot!

Research Studies referenced in this article:


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