Thomas E. Bratten Jr., 61, one of Maryland's most highly decorated veterans, a longtime veterans' advocate and the former Maryland secretary of veterans affairs, died June 22 of complications from diabetes. A Montgomery County resident from 1970 to 1988, he lived in Garrett County from 1988 until his death at his home in Friendsville.
On May 28, 1970, Capt. Bratten, an Army artillery liaison officer in the Americal Division, was in a helicopter in Vietnam with his battalion commander, Col. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, when they received word that a U.S. infantry platoon was pinned down in the midst of a minefield and that there had been casualties. Schwarzkopf ordered the helicopter to land and aid the wounded. Capt. Bratten was cutting a sapling to use as a makeshift litter to evacuate a wounded soldier when a land mine blew up in his face.
Schwarzkopf, also wounded in the explosion, helped rush the severely wounded officer to the waiting helicopter for medical evacuation to Chu Lai. Capt. Bratten lost his left arm, left leg and parts of his right hand and suffered serious head injuries. For more than three years, he underwent surgeries and rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
During his recuperation, Capt. Bratten resolved to dedicate his life to helping veterans. "The good Lord gave me the will to survive," he was quoted as saying when he was named the Outstanding Disabled Veteran of the Year in 2002. "I don't want to ever see veterans do without when they have a justifiable claim for benefits. Veterans want good health care, a place to be buried and a good veterans' home if they need it. My goal is to serve."
In acknowledgment of that service, more than two dozen grizzled Vietnam veterans in faded fatigues on Harley-Davidson motorcycles accompanied Capt. Bratten to his final resting place June 27 in the Maryland Veterans Cemetery at Rocky Gap, near Cumberland. A black Harley hearse bore the flag-draped coffin.
Another Vietnam veteran he assisted during his long rehabilitation was his old commanding officer. In his 1992 autobiography, "It Doesn't Take a Hero," Schwarzkopf recalled checking into Walter Reed for spinal surgery in 1971 and being greeted by "a big, dark-haired jovial southerner." He hadn't seen Capt. Bratten since the day the young officer had nearly died six years earlier.
"Whenever I became depressed and withdrawn, [Bratten] would shake me back to reality," Schwarzkopf wrote of his convalescence at Walter Reed. "He'd come over to my bed and say, 'Sir, if I can walk with just one leg, how come you can't walk with two?"
Capt. Bratten, blessed with a bountiful sense of humor, could be funny or tough, whatever it took to keep fellow patients in the "Snake Pit," the area for veterans undergoing rehabilitation, from falling into despair. He also led cohorts, in wheelchairs and on crutches, on late-night sorties to D.C. bars and clubs; when hospital authorities discovered their stealth missions and objected, their retort was: "What're you going to do, ship us back to 'Nam?"
Thomas Bratten was born in Louisville less than a year before his father was killed at Omaha Beach on D-Day. He graduated from high school in 1961 and enlisted in the Army National Guard in 1963. He later attended Officer Candidate School. He went to Vietnam in February 1970 and was wounded three months later. Among his many decorations were the Silver Star, Bronze Star with V Device, Purple Heart and Air Medal.
He received a bachelor's degree in political science in 1975 and a master's degree in public administration in 1979, both from American University. He also was a certified counselor in post-traumatic stress disorder and a member of various veterans groups.
After working for several state agencies, he became the chief administrator of the Maryland Veterans Commission in 1992. His duties included administering the state's veterans benefits and claims assistance program. In 1999, Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) named him Maryland's first secretary of veterans affairs. He retired in 2003. Active in politics, he served as chairman of the Democratic Party in Montgomery County and, later, in Garrett County.
Capt. Bratten's marriages to Sherry Bratten, Linda Sue Poff Bratten and Susan Tracy Bratten ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of three years, Linda L. Bratten of Friendsville; a daughter from his second marriage, Dee Ann Bratten of Indianapolis; two daughters from his third marriage, Sharon L. Bratten of Germantown and Kristen T. Bratten of Silver Spring; two stepchildren from his second marriage, Jeffrey W. Tracy of Mount Airy and James R. Tracy of Edgewater; his stepfather, Raymond C. Mittel of Louisville; two half brothers and a half sister; eight grandchildren; and a great-grandson.