Veteran known to speak his mind

Head of state agency representing vets defends self, peers

September 19, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Tom Bratten, Maryland's new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, has a gripe about guys who fought in Vietnam and now use the war as an excuse for troubled lives. And he doesn't worry that some might view his remarks as insensitive.

"A lot of people who went to Vietnam were losers before Vietnam, were losers during Vietnam and will die losers," Bratten says.

The outspoken 56-year-old disabled Vietnam veteran has been director of the Maryland Veterans Commission since 1993. Gov. Parris N. Glendening named him last week to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, an agency created by the legislature this year at Glendening's request to consolidate state services for veterans.

At the commission, Bratten has earned a reputation as a battler on behalf of those who have served in the armed forces.

"He brings an absolute knowledge of veterans' benefits, an honesty, an integrity and everything we'd like to see in a secretary of veterans affairs," said Michael Dobmeier, national commander of the Disabled Veterans of America.

Bratten said he wants the veterans of Maryland to know they have a friend in charge of their department. But he learned from his counseling of people with post-traumatic stress syndrome -- once known as shell shock -- that a friend sometimes needs to hear a few blunt truths.

"Sometimes you have to say, `Hey, you have to take hold of your life and go forward on your own,' " he said in the drawling tones of his native Kentucky.

Bratten has paid dearly for the right to speak his mind. The price was an arm, a leg, a finger, half of a thumb and a chunk of his skull.

Tom Bratten didn't have to go into the Army. He was exempt as the sole surviving son of a father who was killed in combat. Bratten was not quite a year old when his father died on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

But in 1963, Bratten decided to join the National Guard -- mainly so he could play on the Louisville unit's basketball team.

It was five years later, feeling "fidgety" and wanting to do his patriotic duty, that Bratten volunteered for active duty. On Valentine's Day 1970, wearing a captain's bars, he was sent to Vietnam.

Bratten said he enjoyed his military career except for that "one bad day" in a minefield in the Central Highlands.

That was May 28, 1970, when a lieutenant colonel named H. Norman Schwarzkopf -- later the U.S. commander in the Persian Gulf war -- told Bratten to cut a tree limb to fashion a tourniquet for a wounded soldier.

Neither man knew the tree was booby-trapped.

"I must have gone 150 feet in the air. I felt like I was higher than the helicopters," Bratten said.

Wounded less severely by the blast, Schwarzkopf saved his life, Bratten said. Schwarzkopf would later write that Bratten was so badly injured that it seemed certain he would die.

Bratten awoke in a hospital in Chu Lai to the sound of two doctors talking about "that poor soldier who's going to die."

"I said, `Hell, no, I'm not dying,' " he recalled.

Bratten spent 3 1/2 years in a room called "The Snake Pit" at Walter Reed Army Hospital, learning from fellow amputees how to joke about it.

"That was the best care -- being with guys who had injuries like I did," he said.

Moaning, whining and feeling sorry for yourself were not permitted in The Pit. Schwarzkopf, immobilized after back surgery at Walter Reed in 1971, recalled in his book "It Doesn't Take a Hero" how Bratten enforced that rule.

"Whenever I became depressed and withdrawn, Bratten would shake me back to reality. He'd come over to my bed and say, `Goddammit, sir, if I can walk with just one leg, how come you can't walk with two?"

These days, Bratten usually gets around by using his leg to propel a nonmotorized wheelchair. He says it's good exercise.

Even if he were not a double amputee, Bratten would be a most unusual state official.

For one thing, Bratten takes long-distance commuting to an extreme -- rising early in the morning to drive about three hours from his farm in the westernmost reaches of Maryland to his office in Baltimore.

He's a hunter who says he "hates the National Rifle Association" for its promotion of firearms -- rather than calling 911 -- as a means of self-defense.

He's an ardent Democrat in Garrett County, the most Republican jurisdiction in the state.

And he'll tell you exactly what he thinks -- in blunt and profane terms. About the federal government. About bureaucrats who treat veterans shabbily.

"I can be the worst guy in the world," Bratten said.

After many operations and painful physical therapy, Bratten left Walter Reed and attended American University in Washington, where he earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree.

At the same time, he launched a career in state government, holding management roles in the Department of Transportation, the State Highway Administration and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene before being named director of the Veterans Commission by Gov. William Donald Schaefer in 1993.

Glendening, who met Bratten through Democratic Party activities about 25 years ago, calls him a "Renaissance man" because of his wide experience. The two still joke about the time that Bratten was facing a close race for president of the Maryland Young Democrats and swore in the future Frances Anne Glendening as a convention delegate so she could vote for him -- even though she was then a Republican.

Bratten said he doesn't like to be called a veteran's advocate, joking that the word reminds him of "avocado." But he promised to be an outspoken "messenger" for veterans, especially in their dealings with the federal government.

"I am not embarrassed to voice my opinion," he said.

Pub Date: 9/19/99

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