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Already At Rest, Now Honored At Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall
By Michael Doyle, McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON - Flora Brooks on Friday touched the engraved name of her late husband, the wounded soldier who won her devotion.
For 42 years, the couple from California's San Joaquin Valley shared a life no marital vow could anticipate. He was grievously brain-damaged and legless, a residue of Vietnam War combat. She rarely left his side, tending him daily in their Stockton-area home until he died last year.
Now, Johnny Owen Brooks' name is shining like new on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, and Flora is feeling like justice is done.
"Really, I feel like Johnny represents all those thousands who suffered over there," Flora said Friday morning. "In a sense, his life ended there. He couldn't start a family. He couldn't hug his wife. And yet, to me, he was my husband."
She smiled. It was another beautiful day: Spring, with heavenly blue skies above. Around Flora and her sister-in-law, Donna Vaughn, flowed a stream of chattering tourists.
On Sunday, a formal ceremony led by retired Army Lt. Gen. Mick Kicklighter will mark the addition of Johnny Owen Brooks' name and nine others to the Wall. Six of the men died during the 1960s, but it took officials a long time to affirm their deaths were war-related. Four of the men, like Brooks, died long after their service ended, forcing family members to prove a link to the war.
David Lawrence Deckard, for one, died of respiratory failure six years ago in Louisville, Ky. The real cause, though, was the rocket that hit his armored personnel carrier in March 1969, sending shrapnel into his chest and paralyzing him from the chest down. As with Brooks, and the others, family members had to convince the Defense Department that Deckard's name belonged on the Wall.
"The process is not an easy one," said Lee Allen, communications director for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. "Sometimes, it's the culmination of years of effort."
Technically speaking, pneumonia was considered Brooks' official cause of death when he passed away at age 62 in late February 2011. In the bigger picture, a mortar shell of uncertain provenance ripped him in a Nov. 14, 1969, explosion while he was serving with Company B, 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment of the famed 1st Infantry Division.
"It took me 40 years to learn all that," Flora said.
Owens' initial injuries sent him to Japan, where doctors amputated his right leg. He arrived in the United States, mentally intact. He was fine for 10 days, doing well enough at San Francisco's Letterman Army Hospital that Flora could leave to run an errand. She and Johnny had only been married three weeks before he received his draft notice; and, however complicated, they could picture their peacetime future together. Then, amid routine skin-graft surgery, Owens went into cardiac arrest. Oxygen stopped flowing to his brain.
"When I came back to the hospital, he was in a coma," Flora said.
At first, Owens could make sounds; unintelligible, perhaps, to others, but Flora felt they were communicating. Their eyes connected. She could tell when he was content, or anxious. Following a second tracheotomy in 1981, he became altogether speechless.
Up until his final two days, Brooks had been living in the couple's Morada, Calif., home. He slept in a bed in their living room. She had her own bed, next to his. She washed him daily and managed his bowels. She quilted and she talked to him. She made sure the television never, ever showed a war movie.
"He was the joy of my life," Flora said, "and we made his life as rich as we could."
About a month after Owens passed away, Flora contacted the office of Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., and set in motion the application to have her late husband's name added to the Wall. A doctor's letter turned the tide, effectively tying the proximate cause of Owens' death to his long-ago war injuries.
Only 343 new names have been added onto the Wall since the memorial was dedicated in 1982. With the latest additions, there are 58,282 names representing those who were killed or who remain classified as missing in action. Right now, the new additions stand out because they are so bright.
In time, their hue becomes uniform, the march of one ghost after another.
"It's going to be hard to walk away from this," Flora said, and then she turned to find, once more, the name of her beloved.
Johnny Owen Brooks
Feb. 22, 1949 - Feb. 24, 2011
A True American Hero has passed unto Eternal Life. Johnny Owen Brooks left for Heaven February 24, 2011, two days after his sixty second birthday. Born February 22, 1949, in Brawley, California, Johnny is the son of Ralph and Ruth Brooks, of Stockton. He was the "little brother" to Donna Jeanette Brooks Vaughn of Stockton. He was Uncle Johnny to Kimberly Stewart of Stockton, and Great Uncle Johnny to Nicolaus Furnas of Modesto, Trevor Stewart of Stockton and Emma Lavagnino of Stockton. Johnny was the husband and sweetheart to his wife of forty two years, Flora Emma of Stockton.
Johnny was the friend to all who knew him and inspiration to everyone. Johnny had a wonderful childhood filled with happy memories. Whether teasing his mom, Ruth, who he adored, or fishing with his dad, Ralph, who he admired, or spending time with his best bud, Sis, Donna, Johnny was always happy go lucky and positive.
Family was number one to Johnny. His growing up years were filled with wonderful times of going to church as a family and long car trips to visit Ruth's parents, Jess and Belle Decker and her nine brothers and sisters in Missouri and Texas. Johnny was very close to his grandma and grandpa, Dalia and Lewis Brooks and his many, many cousins.
Johnny was a hard working young man and by age fourteen was working in gas stations after school and evenings. He loved cars and especially his Pride and Joy, his 56 Chevy! Johnny went to Franklin High School, where he and Flora met, graduating together, class of 67. Johnny and Flora married on John's twentieth birthday, February 22, 1969 and began their life together.
Three weeks later, Johnny was drafted into the U.S. Army and was soon sent to Vietnam, becoming part of the Big Red One Infantry Division. Johnny was seriously wounded on November 14, 1969, and because of those wounds, he was a double amputee, with brain damage. Johnny's life was drastically changed. He went from being the strong, active, fun loving guy with tons of friends, to a man whose life was physically limited, yet an inspiration to everyone who heard of his sacrifice and bravery.
Johnny lived a life of faith and trust in God, having a personal relationship with his Savior Jesus, who he had met has a young boy in Sunday school. A faith that grew stronger, wide and deep as the Lord carried him through each and every need. God worked miracle after miracle, giving us an extra forty-one years to love Johnny, and be inspired by his courage and example.
Johnny's life exemplified everything our military stands for and was a supporter of many veteran organizations. Johnny is a lifetime member of both the Disabled American Veterans, Al Jordon Chapter of Stockton, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Luneta Post 52 of Stockton, and a supporter of Quilts of Honor of Valley Springs.
Johnny is a hero to his family and his many friends! His dad, Ralph, who preceded him in death, and his mom, Ruth, are so very proud of their son! Flora is so thankful to have been given the privilege of being Johnny's wife, the love of her life! Johnny will be greatly missed by his sister, Donna and niece, Kimberly and her family. Johnny was dearly loved by his mother-in-law, Hazel Morgan, who preceded him in death. And all the many friends and people who were inspired by Johnny will never forget this amazing man!
One dear friend who heard of Johnny's passing, summed up what we all feel: My heart aches. The tears flow. A true hero is gone from our midst and our hearts will forever hold a special spot reserved just for Johnny. We are all better people for having had him in our lives and the world is a better place for having him in it.
A Visitation was held on Wednesday, March 2, 2011 from 4:00-8:00 p.m. at Frisbie-Warren & Carroll Mortuary 809 N. California St. Stockton, CA 95202. Funeral Services were held on Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 1:00 p.m. also at Frisbie-Warren & Carroll Mortuary. Donations may be made to VFW. Luneta Post 52, Stockton, CA.