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Life after war

The ringing of gunfire and looming echo of explosions still, at times, haunt Arvid Brown. Brown, a 96-year-old World War II veteran 70 years removed from the battlefield, was deployed in November 1944 to serve the United States in Italy. While th...

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The ringing of gunfire and looming echo of explosions still, at times, haunt Arvid Brown.

Brown, a 96-year-old World War II veteran 70 years removed from the battlefield, was deployed in November 1944 to serve the United States in Italy. While there, he built friendships with locals, helped protect his comrades from danger and, ultimately, witnessed the deaths of strangers and friends.

"One of our guys, he and I would sit a distance about across a hallway and talk at night, and one night I heard a 'boom' and he didn't talk anymore," Brown, of Mitchell, said Monday. "In the morning, when we got daylight, we found out why."

Brown's comrade had been brutally killed by opposing soldiers.

To this day, Brown's voice lingers on the details, and he trails off without finishing sentences when speaking of that night.

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And Brown said Americans must remember not only today, Veterans Day, but every other day that thousands of people across the country face the same type of recollections - some with wounds that cut even deeper.

"The people that have very little military background - or none at all - in their families, they don't realize what the military goes through," Brown said. "It stays with you forever, it changes your whole life."

But Brown's family has extensive military background. Brown's oldest son served in the National Guard for 12 years, another son was drafted and served a year in Vietnam and his daughter spent four years in the Navy.

Prior to the enlistments of his children, Brown himself was drafted in 1944 and spent a year in the military, serving several roles for the 849 Tank Destroyer Battalion. Tank destroyers were formed in response to the German use of mass formations of armored units early in the war. The tank destroyer concept envisioned the battalions acting as independent units that would respond at high speed to enemy tank attacks. The force was disbanded at the end of the war when more effective tanks were developed.

Brown spent much of his time riding on the back of the tanks, alert and watching to ensure the vehicle wasn't attacked from behind. Sometimes, he'd drive the tanks, and other times he was recruited as a mechanic of sorts, fixing vehicles and doing maintenance work.

And Brown showed prowess in his duties, which gained the respect of top-ranking officials.

Once, Brown successfully fixed a general's Jeep, and from then on was called upon for any and all major duties regarding military vehicles.

Brown's expertise and attitude also found him in good graces with top officers.

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"One officer told me when they've got a job to do, there's two men they know are going to do it right," Brown said. "The other guy was from South Dakota, too, so it says a lot about the South Dakota people, because I never thought we were doing anything special - just our jobs - but I guess we were doing something."

Beyond the battlefield

Brown's duties in Italy went further than the battles he fought and work he did.

While overseas, he said, he built friendships with locals, and soldiers often let women and children use their government-issued showers if they didn't have access to water. Brown spoke limited Italian, but was able to decipher some of the local language and used body language to interact.

"I got to know one of the women pretty well, she was kind of an outcast from the rest of them," Brown said. "It gave me something else to focus on and someone, outside of the military, to be friends with."

Since returning to the United States, Brown hasn't kept in contact with the friends he made in Italy, and while the photos have faded, the memories haven't, and he's carried those with him through a 40-plus year career with body shops and mechanics.

Eventually, though, the work became "too much" and Brown retired. He spends his time with his wife, Versal, kids and grandkids. And, today, he hopes Americans do the same, and take a moment to remember the value of saying 'Thank you' to a veteran.

"Veterans Day, I think we need to realize how important it is," Brown said. "I'd never want to go back there, but I got a lot out of it and I wouldn't trade that for anything."

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