I drove into Red Oak, Oklahoma, the morning of the funeral, and turned off the main road into the cemetery. It was easy to find the few other Rangers who made the trip. We were the only ones wearing suits. Our teammate was buried in what looked like a blue plastic casket. There were no flowers, no funeral home. Funds were tight, so the service was held outdoors at the graveside. About eighty people showed up for the funeral, most in jeans and cowboy boots.
If Brooks had been shot during one of our deployments to Iraq, hundreds of people would have attended his funeral. Pictures would have been displayed of him in uniform, with his family, outdoors, and drinking with friends. Comrades would have spoken about the sacrifices he made, while soldiers, officers, police, firemen, and politicians paid their respects.
But Brooks was not shot in Iraq. He was shot in Pennsylvania – a casualty of an increasingly lethal police force in America.
We may never know for certain what happened in that room between Brooks and the police officers. Maybe the police testimony is an accurate account of six armed law enforcement officers unable to subdue a single unarmed man without gunfire. Perhaps his death may not be the greatest tragedy in his story.
Every day I see memorials and tributes to my colleagues who died in the line of duty, in accidents, or as casualties of our harsh lifestyle. But in our line of work we know that the death of the body is not the worst fate we can suffer, or even an uncommon one. After death, we know that the memory of our fallen, their honorable actions – their legacy – will live on. Their names are etched in stone on our memorials, engraved in metal on our wrists, and indelibly imprinted in our memories. While their bodies are no longer with us, their legacy remains. The police in Sewickley, Pennsylvania killed Brooks’ body. Unfortunately, the police did not stop at killing Brooks’ body – they maimed his legacy.
The story of the Brooks life was one of an accomplished, well-liked and respected Airborne Ranger who deployed five times to Iraq and Afghanistan in a special operations capacity. He graduated some of the army’s toughest courses, was awarded several medals, and was loved by many lifelong friends. This story was overshadowed, and standing in its place stood a one dimensional picture composed of five decontextualized text messages and statements from his girlfriend’s ex-husband.
The circumstances surrounding Brooks’ death arouse anger and infuriate the soul, but they are not what saddens the heart. What saddens the heart is that after the Sewickley Police killed Brooks, they attacked his character and defamed his legacy. He was painted as a violent threat that had to be exterminated. The normal obituary, kind words and pictures of a war hero were replaced in the press with a mug shot, an arrest, and carefully selected text messages. The same police department that caused his death was unimpeded in constructing the narrative that surrounded it.
The police and the media presented a guilty criminal to the public. Brooks was never given the privilege of a trial, a jury never considered his case, a judge never sentenced him. He was shot and killed behind a bedroom door. But his death wasn’t enough. His character had to be killed too.
While the death of Brooks was tragic and criminal, the murder of his reputation, his honor, his legacy, and his memory is unbearable. When policemen kill a brother, a friend, or a son it is tragic enough, but the deliberate character assassination that often follows turns tragedy into travesty.
-Nathan Lyons, 3rd Ranger Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment