Yk veteran sees Private Ryan
Mel Brown compares it to real life

Arthur Milnes
Northern News Services

NNSL (Sep 09/98) - A helmet with a hole in it, full of human brains. You pick it up, then wish for all time you hadn't.

A comrade lifting his head up above a slit-trench, curious to see what's on the other side. The same person falling back with a bullet through the same head.

Another soldier so terrified of going into action, he turned a machine gun on his own foot.

Diving for cover when a mortar shell is incoming. You make it. Your partner, inches behind you, doesn't. Until night falls, you dress his wounds until you can carry him away. Despite shrapnel above his eye, in his leg and in his chest -- blood all round -- he eventually survives. And, you never knew his name.

A war movie? Saving Private Ryan perhaps?

Far from it.

Instead, some of the memories a Yellowknife veteran, Mel Brown, is willing to share with you after you go see Saving Private Ryan together on a quiet Sunday night.

The movie, which came to the city last month, is said to mark among the first times Hollywood has dared come to terms with the stark brutality of war.

Brown, 80, who came to the North as a mining inspector in the 1960s, served in combat in both Italy and Holland during the Second World War. At age 25, he was considered old when he joined the Loyal Edmonton Regiment. "A lot of them (today's generation) think that was is something like a ball game or sport," Brown said in an interview after the movie. "But that movie didn't make it into a sport."

With the movie as a backdrop, Brown pulled no punches when asked to describe true life combat.

"For somebody who knows what the score is, that's shit scared," is how he describes one's terror in battle. "There was nothing I wanted to remember at all. Remembrance Day? I didn't want to remember."

A veteran of up to 20 battle encounters, Brown said he had few quibbles with the movie. Sure, in real life, he said, soldiers don't bunch together like they did in Private Ryan; prisoners weren't shot, no, not because we were nice guys, rather, gaining such a reputation could be dangerous and then the executioners would become the executed he says frankly; Allied planes sometimes killed their own soldiers, and the list could go on.

However, Brown recommends the movie.

"That's about as close as your going to get," he says.

Some scenes hit close to him as in when Tom Hanks and crew are waiting for German tanks to arrive. The noise from an unseen Panzer, shakes the theatre.

"The clanging sounds of those bastards coming up was enough to put the shit up your back," he says about the real experience. "You can hear them coming from miles away."

Pragmatism, Brown says, was a fact of life on the line.

"It seemed to me that I was getting a worse guy all the time," he says. "...When someone got killed the common statement was: 'Better him than me.' The first time I heard that, I didn't like it..."

As for Hanks' character, Capt. John Miller, whose nerves caused one hand to shake throughout the movie, Brown could relate.

In Holland in 1945, the Saskatchewan farmboy, was ordered to man a machine gun outside a farmhouse. His orders? Shoot anyone who came out.

Late that night, a person came through the door. His finger on the trigger, Brown hesitated. Another person came through the door and the pair moved into the moonlight while the young Canadian had them in his sights. One of them was holding something in their hands. It turned out to be a baby and Brown had nearly killed a whole family.

"My hand didn't stop shaking for two weeks," Brown says quietly. "I came so damn close to shooting a farmer, his wife and their kid. My hand still shakes -- whenever I tell that story."

While Saving Private Ryan may seem disturbing too some, it is, after all, only a movie. What it portrays, however, is a horror thousands of our countrymen have had to live with for 50 years.

Just ask Mel Brown.

It's all too real to him.