by John Q. Lawton, Chief Boatswain’s Mate, Coast Guard Reserve
On April 24, 2004, I remember being a BM3 on the cutter Escanaba on patrol in the Caribbean when I heard about DC3 Bruckenthal being killed-in-action. I did not know him, but I remember being mindful that we were the same paygrade and that he left behind a wife and young daughter. It made me think about my own family.
While deployed to Kuwait with PSU 312 my boat crew was underway and I mentioned, “We were in the same area as Bruckenthal was when he was killed.” A younger member of the crew asked, “Who the heck is Bruckenthal?”
In the Northern Arabian Gulf, when my crewmember on the 25-foot port-security boat did not know the name and the story of DC3 Nathan Bruckenthal I became angry. How had the Service let this happen? Why, only six years after Bruckenthal’s death, did a junior enlisted member not know who he was?
It turns out the problem was not as widespread as I had feared and I had uncovered the one guy in the unit that did not remember Bruckenthal’s story from boot-camp training. However, I decided, with the help of my shipmates, we would ensure that no Coastie or anyone passing through Camp Patriot would forget the name Nathan Bruckenthal.
Camp Patriot occupied a large part of the Kuwait Naval Base. The base had once been captured by Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army before the first Gulf War and then liberated by U.S. Forces during the war. As a thanks for U.S. help, Kuwaiti military made space available as a forward operating base for U.S. Army, Navy and Coast Guard units deployed in 2003 for Operation Iraqi Freedom. It was in the Northern Arabian Gulf southeast of Camp Patriot where Bruckenthal and two navy sailors were killed when a dhow loaded with explosives they were boarding exploded. DC3 became the first Coast Guard member killed in action since the Vietnam War and posthumously received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals.
Our unit saw fit to construct some form of memorial at Camp Patriot for Bruckenthal and the other two KIAs. The Navy members we mentioned the idea to showed no interest and we proceeded with an exclusive Bruckenthal memorial. The base was surrounded with Texas Barriers, also known as “T” barriers or T walls. We referred to them as bricks. Bricks are about six feet high and 16 feet wide with a base that creates a bench on either side. Kind of like a capital letter “A” but with squared flares for feet. Some of the bricks have been painted by units that had been stationed at the base as a stamp that they had been there. Much care was taken in decorating the bricks and permission was needed from the U.S. Army unit that governed the base. Forms needed to be filled out and themes and drafts needed to be submitted.
We got to work, filed the paperwork, and set forth on our project. We designed the proposed brick on a laptop and a projector was borrowed from the Operational Specialists’ shop. The plan was to project the design on the brick at night and stencil the lines in with pencil, then go back and paint in what had been stenciled. With no Hobby Lobby or HomeGoods on base, we scrounged for supplies. Pencils, straight edges, electricity, brushes, primer, cleaner and, hardest of all, paint was appropriated. Some colors of paint were harder to find so creativity was needed for appropriation. Coast Guard orange for the Racing Stripe was smuggled from Saudi Arabia by hired, non-military laborer on the base that cleaned shower trailers.
Work began in February 2010. The brick was scrubbed and wire brushed and washed for preparation. A coat of off-white primer was applied and let dry and a second coat applied. The stenciling happened over several nights in between underway duty and watches. We worked and listened to music and drank coffee late into the night. To finish our labor of love and respect, we thought we had until the end of deployment in August 2010.
Once the brick began to take shape, it drew attention from the command and others. We were told that the project would need to be completed by April 23, as some master chiefs from Stateside were visiting for a six-year anniversary memorial service and that the navy corpsman who treated the wounded and dead that day in April 2004 would attend. We hurried up and finished in time. We were originally going to put the lat/long of the incident on the bottom but had to hurry up and we slapped Semper Paratuson there. With a big blank area in the middle, we thought up a dignified expression and then agonized over the punctuation. “…these brave acts will not soon be forgotten.” The paint was still wet when the memorial happened on April 24. Because we were on day patrols when it took place, we unable to attend. It was just as well; we did not need or want recognition. All attention was to be given to the selfless acts of a Coast Guard hero.
Unlike Nathan Bruckenthal, PSU 312 rotated home in August 2010 and left Camp Patriot. Over the years, the brick was signed and posed with for photographs. Images of it appeared in ReservistMagazine and it was touched up when it aged in the sun and sandstorms. It continued to do its job. No one could walk onto Camp Patriot on the Kuwait Naval Base without seeing the “T” wall that memorialized DC3 Bruckenthal.
Eventually the mission drew down and the base was given back to the Kuwait Navy as US forces left from the area. The disposition of the Bruckenthal wall, and other walls uncertain. With the help of Command Master Chief William Hollandsworth, the brick was saved and transported back to the United States via Military Sealift Command. Though it looks like some MKs chewed on the corners, it found a home at TRACEN Cape May were it now sits adjacent to the Bernie Weber Seamanship Building. Through the efforts of Cape May Command Master Chief David Pace, funds have been appropriated to do some restorative work and preservation of the brick.
It was our honor to create it and it is our pleasure to share the story of its creation and help facilitate its continued preservation.