Jim Kenyon: Once a Marine ...

  • Elmer Brown, 90, of Thetford Center, in his Marine Corps dress blues at the recent U.S. Marine Corps Birthday Ball at the Hanover Inn. (Photograph courtesy of Walter Cottrell)

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Strolling through the dairy aisle of an Upper Valley supermarket this summer, Walt Cottrell noticed an elderly man was having difficulty keeping a cooler door open as he fetched cups of yogurt.

A bum shoulder sometimes makes it tough for 90-year-old Elmer Brown to perform simple tasks.

While giving Brown a hand, Cottrell took note of the stranger’s baseball cap with a Marine insignia. Cottrell once served in the Marines, as well — in Vietnam.

Brown’s service to his country dates back to World War II. At 18, just after graduating from high school in Lyndon, Vt., Brown was like a lot of young men at the time. He didn’t hesitate putting his life in harm’s way. “You saw your buddies not coming home,” he said. “It made you all the madder.”

The Army had drafted Brown, but the Marine Corps was always his first choice. It probably had something to do with its reputation for being the most physically demanding branch of the military.

Brown was only 5-foot-6, but played football in high school. At boot camp in Parris Island, S.C., he took up boxing.

Brown was about to ship out when the Japanese surrendered in August 1945. “We were told that we were getting ready to invade Japan,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t be here today if we had.”

Brown and his wife, Bertha, still live in the red brick house they bought 50 years ago in Thetford Center. They paid $18,000 for the house and nine acres, which became home for their mom-and-pop nursery and landscaping business that bears his name. (His son Kevin took the reins a couple of years ago.)

Now I’ll get back to Brown’s and Cottrell’s chance meeting at Hannaford in Bradford, Vt.

Having established that both of them had Marine backgrounds, Brown brought up the U.S. Marine Corps Birthday Ball held each November at the Hanover Inn. Cottrell, who lives in West Newbury, Vt., wasn’t familiar with the event, which has been around for a decade or so. Along with an opportunity for current and former Marines to get together, it’s a fundraiser for the national nonprofit Semper Fi Fund.

Created in 2004, the fund provides financial assistance to wounded combat veterans and their families from post-9/11. This year’s ball in Hanover, which drew a full house of about 180 people, raised more than $60,000. (Other balls are held across the country each November to commemorate the founding of the Marines more than 240 years ago.)

Brown remarked that many former Marines — I’ve learned the hard way that they don’t like to be called ex-Marines — come to the ball decked out in their dress blues. “I thought they looked pretty sharp,” he said. But they weren’t mandatory attire at the ball. Good thing. Brown didn’t even have dress blues — the formal Marine uniform with gold buttons, brass buckle, red striping and dark blue trousers.

At first, Brown had stayed away from the dinner. Along with not owning dress blues, he figured that no one would be interested in mingling with a PFC (private first class). But after giving it a try, he learned that rank no longer mattered.

“If you’re a Marine, you’re a Marine,” he said.

For the last couple of years, Brown had been honored as the oldest Marine in attendance. At Brown’s suggestion, Cottrell called Rusty Sachs, the ball’s driving force and a Marine helicopter pilot in Vietnam, for more details on the Nov. 12 event. Along with expressing interest in attending this year, Cottrell wondered if it could be arranged for Brown to be outfitted with dress blues.

“That’s a terrific idea,” Sachs said.

Sachs ordered the uniform and Cottrell found a seamstress to handle alterations. It also got Sachs to thinking: If Brown didn’t have dress blues, he probably hadn’t received any medals that were due him, either.

With thousands of Americans being discharged at the same time, the end of World War II was chaotic to say the least. Brown’s failure to receive his medals was likely a paperwork oversight.

Sachs, a retired attorney who lives in Norwich, did a little digging through military records, which are public information. He got a copy of Brown’s discharge paper, and had it framed for him. Sachs also discovered that Brown was owed a World War II Victory Medal and another for Good Conduct.

But he didn’t let Brown know what he was up to.

Last Sunday, the evening of the ball, Cottrell stopped by Brown’s house to offer him a ride. Later, as part of the evening’s festivities, Brown was presented with his medals — more than 70 years after he had earned them.

“I never knew I was entitled to any medals,” Brown said. “I’d only been in for a year when I was discharged.”

The medals remain pinned to the jacket of his dress blues, which hang in his living room closet waiting for next year’s Marine ball.

I asked Cottrell, who does a good job of coming off as a gruff Marine, why he went to so much trouble for a stranger.

“The ethos of the Marine Corps,” he said, “is to take care of each other.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.