More than a dozen soldiers from Fort Hood drove through the night to honor the legacy of Lawrence Brooks. Other local units in the area vied for the privilege to provide the honor guard at the funeral of the previously oldest WWll veteran, but the 1st Calvary’s 91st Brigade Engineer Battalion claimed PFC Brooks as their own.
“When you Google or see the 91st Battalion mentioned in the news, it’s usually related to Mr. Brooks,” said Lt. Col. Patrick J. Sullivan, Battalion commander, 91st Brigade Engineer Battalion, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Calvary Division. “We’re here to remember him. We’re his unit and we wanted to take care of him; there’s such a bond between a trooper and his unit.”
Sullivan, one of 17 battalion members to drive to New Orleans, says they worked closely with the commanding general at Fort Polk and their Louisiana Casualty Assistance District and that they were grateful for a partnership that allowed the 91st to be in New Orleans.
He also added that it was what Brooks’ family wanted and that they did everything they could to get everyone there for the event. Many of the soldiers drove in their cars through the nine hours through the night and straight back to Texas after the service was completed. Fort Polk usually handles New Orleans’ military funerals, and other nearby units requested the mission.
“PFC Brooks was a member of our organization during a time of conflict,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Arroyo of the 91st. “People from across the nation were fighting for this spot, but we worked together to claim him as our own. He was our family. We felt it only right for us to give him this last showing of appreciation from our nation, this final tribute.”
When Brooks served in the 91st Engineer Battalion during World War ll, it was a predominantly black unit led by white officers. Sullivan spoke at the funeral service at the National World War ll about the segregated army Brooks experienced,
“From New Guinea to Australia Private First Class Brooks served his country with honor and distinction. What saddens me is that during Mr. Brooks’ military career, we were a country still divided. As a country, we fought for equality abroad, equality which we did not offer some of our very own citizens back home.
It’s truly humbling to know that Private First Class Brooks knew, lived, and felt this division at home long before he was drafted; yet, once he was discharged, he decided to lace his boots up once more and get back into the fight. This alone demonstrates the quality of his character and exemplifies the dedication he carried with him not just for his country but to the underlining belief that all men are created equal, and freedom is always worth fighting for.”
The 91st provided their honor guard during the service. The team, led by Sgt. 1st Class Aleksandr Boyarko, walked flank along the funeral caisson as Brooks flag-draped casket rolled through the streets of New Orleans in a traditional jazz funeral. Sullivan and Arroyo walked behind the coffin.
Staff Sgt. Kody McGann’s firing party provided a 21-gun salute at the internment as the 1st Calvary Division Bugler played Taps, and the 159th fighter squadron “Bayou Militia” flew overhead.
Late last year, when Maj. Marsellus Simmons, a spokesman with the 91st, learned that Brooks was in the VA hospital and had lost his medals in Hurricane Katrina, he alerted command. He then personally visited several stores to replace them, and when one of needed the medals wasn’t available, he took one from his own uniform. At the time, the unit feared the worst and overnighted the Presidential Unit Citation and Meritorious Unit Commendation ribbons and a letter of appreciation from the battalion.
But, Brooks, ever resilient, returned home one last time. He received the medals and letter only days after leaving the VA, in time to have them pinned on the replacement WW ll uniform he’d requested – he also lost his original “khakis” in the storm.
Brooks’ daughter and caregiver, Vanessa, says he was buried in his uniform.
Kristine Froeba is a freelance writer based in New Orleans. She was involved in helping locate and raise funds for Lawrence Brooks’ new uniform.