Former Veterans Affairs Secretary Jesse Brown, a Marine who rose from the fighting in Vietnam to lead the nation’s second-largest Cabinet agency, has died. He was 58.
Brown, who suffered from lower motor neuron syndrome, which attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, died Thursday in Washington, D.C.
“I am ill. I am very ill,” Brown said during a speech two years ago to the group he once headed, the Disabled American Veterans.
“I am not afraid, nor am I bitter,” he added. “The fact is, I am grateful. I have enjoyed tremendous opportunities in my life, and they have come to me because you were at my side, cheering me on.”
Thomas H. Corey, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, credited Brown with having improved the quality of veterans’ health care, expanding services for women and calling attention to the plight of homeless veterans during his 4 1/2 years as head of the VA in the Clinton administration.
The Detroit-born Brown grew up in Chicago and graduated with honors from Chicago City College.
In 1963, he enlisted in the Marines; two years later, he was seriously wounded while on patrol in Danang. That injury left his right arm partly paralyzed and became the motivating factor for his life’s work.
In 1967, Brown returned to Chicago to work for the Disabled American Veterans, a 1.4 million-member advocacy group for vets with service-connected disabilities. In 1973, he moved to DAV headquarters in Washington.
While attending classes at Roosevelt University in Chicago and Catholic University in Washington, Brown increased his responsibilities at the DAV, moving from supervisor of the national appeals office to deputy national service director and, in 1988, executive director.
He became a familiar figure on Capitol Hill, pushing Congress to support legislation ensuring that veterans receive health-care services and benefits programs.
Brown was appointed VA secretary by President Clinton in January 1993 and served until July 1997.
One of four blacks in the original Clinton Cabinet, Brown was an ideal choice for the president, who had never served in the military and was distrusted by many in the military because of his efforts to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War, his promises to cut the defense budget and his decision to lift the ban on gays in the armed forces.
At the VA, Brown liked to call himself the secretary “for” veterans affairs, and said he had won several battles with Congress because “we hold the high moral ground.”
Brown is survived by his wife, Sylvia; two children; a granddaughter; and a sister. Funeral services will be Wednesday at Washington National Cathedral, followed by burial at Arlington National Cemetery.