Monday, May 20, 2024

For Memorial Day: In memory of the father I never knew, and his mysterious death


As Memorial Day approaches, I realize that it is 69 years since the day in May when my father died. A USMC Corporal, who served his country in several places, including Camp Lejeune, who died mysteriously at age 23. He left behind my grief struck grandmother, my devastated newlywed mother, a brother, a sister, and me, a 3-week-old baby. The pain and trauma was so deep that I grew up learning very little about my father, and what little came my way was mostly inaccurate. I was told he died from inhaling airplane exhaust. I was told he died from tonsillitis. I was told he died from a cat scratch.

I found a drawer full of memories when my mother, then my stepfather, passed away in 1988. The drawer had photo albums, receipts from a young couple’s married life, wedding cards, and many, many, cards expressing sadness and grief over William Johnston Braman’s untimely death. His death certificate, typed on paper so thin you can see through it, revealed his cause of death – Uremia. The dictionary definition is  “a raised level in the blood of urea and other nitrogenous waste compounds that are normally eliminated by the kidneys.” The origin of the word means “urine in the blood.” The National Institute of Health states that uremia “develops most commonly in chronic and end-stage renal disease.” Those words would become important to me.

But Uremia was not a final diagnosis. Below, as a contributing factor was written “pending chemical.” No matter how much I searched, I found no report of what those chemical tests revealed. I closed the box, confused, but I was a busy young mother, with 3 active children who would all have to deal with our own trauma in the years to come.

But when I began to see solicitations by lawyers, looking for persons harmed by contaminated water at Camp Lejeune. I submitted a request to the Veteran’s Administration. Yes, he had been at Camp Lejeune in the 50s. His death occurred at the Brooklyn VA hospital. His death certificate was incomplete. Something felt wrong.

I asked the City of New York for another copy of his death certificate and checked the box to included cause of death paperwork. What I got back was a clearer version of what I already had. No chemical testing reports.

The TV lawyers were not interested in helping me figure this out. Did my father die from contaminated water? Renal failure is listed as something caused by this contaminated water. Did he actually die from serving his country? How in the world could anyone ever compensate me and his last remaining sibling for his loss?

I called and called the Brooklyn VA Hospital. Calls were misdirected, voice mails never returned. As a government hospital, it could be possible that records from the 50s were still in some rusty file cabinets. But no one even called to say those records had been destroyed. Nothing.

I approached my Congressional Representative, sending copies of everything I had, service records, death certificate. No answer, no answer, no answer. Finally, in late 2023, I was told that a request had been made to the Brooklyn VA Hospital, and to allow 30 days for a reply. No answer came. Not from the Hospital, not from the Congressional Office.

Meanwhile, there is a timeline ticking down to make the government aware of those who were harmed by this contamination. Currently, staff at one of my state senator’s offices has stated they will try to get info from the VA, to find out if the records still exist. And if they don’t, what does that leave?

Should I go on without ever knowing, or should I start believing that the words on his death certificate are proof enough that his death had a “chemical” cause?

I was born in April 1955. My father died in May 1955. Thanks to his 14-year-old sister, who snatched me out of the baby carriage while my mother argued with nurses who refused to let a baby into the hospital, my father was able to hold me. He wept uncontrollably and died soon after. My eyes fill with tears as I write this, just as they filled with tears when my father’s last remaining sibling, his sister, told me this story, just a few months ago.

And now I am desperate to fill in the blanks. To pass on the story of a man who died young, but whose genes live on in me, my three children, and my seven grandchildren. A man who may have given his life for his country.


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