Sergeant in Marines, leader in classroom

USC School of JournalismMay 18, 2013 

Put an instrument in front of me, and I can play it,” Kyle Brown said. The 29-year-old has been playing the guitar for 26 years.

PHOTO BY KELSEY KEITH. — USC School of Journalism

  • About this series

    More veterans than ever before are returning from war and heading to college, in large part due to the benefits of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. In just three years, it has helped 860,000 veterans go to school.

    At the University of South Carolina, the number of student veterans doubled to 800 between 2009 and 2012. Senior journalism students at USC in recent months interviewed student veterans about their experiences.

As a member of the University of Carolina marching band for the 2011 football season, Kyle Brown has visited four stadiums in the SEC – Carolina, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Arkansas.

As a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, he has visited five continents – North America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia.

As a member of the band, Brown played the tuba, although it isn’t his only musical talent.

“I can play every instrument,” he says nonchalantly as he strums a Gibson Les Paul. “No, literally every instrument.” He even plays the bagpipe.

After graduating as a broadcast major in May, Brown is heading to Memphis to play drums for B.B. King’s grandson’s band. He isn’t letting it get to his head, though. “I don’t even know where we’re playing,” he says.

Brown’s talents don’t end with music.

He also was a first basemen on the All-Marine baseball team, which was one factor that let him travel to so many places.

He also is a gray belt in the Marine Corps martial arts program, an honors graduate of the non-commissioned officer school, and maybe his biggest accomplishment of all, a husband and father of two.

Brown points to his tattoos, visible under a short-sleeve Under Armour “Gamecocks believe in heroes” shirt. He shows one underneath his right forearm of his daughter’s name – Mariah – and one underneath his left forearm of his son’s name – Tyler.

“I try to be humble, especially about my kids, but my son is a baseball prodigy,” Brown says of his 9-year-old. “He’s better than I ever was.”

Mariah, just 5 years old, already is involved in dance classes and cheerleading.

Brown and his wife, Nicole, met during his first stint in college, Tri-County Technical College in Pendleton, before he enlisted in the military in 2001. They were married about two years later on Nov. 18, 2003.

“I just wasn’t mature enough for college the first time around,” he says.

So Kyle took a detour, enlisted as a Marine, and gained some renown by being a part of the unit that tore down the Saddam Hussein monument in Baghdad during the first Operation Iraqi Freedom.

He served his first mission in Kuwait but would go on to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom one and two and Operation Enduring Freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I used to have a shirt that said ‘Spring Break Baghdad 2003,’” he says.

Brown initially enlisted because he felt that he wasn’t in a good place and needed to make a change, but when he returned he found that he was suffering again, but this time from the trauma of war.

“Unlike a Purple Heart recipient, who’s wounded in battle, you don’t get a medal to say that you were mentally wounded,” Brown says. “There’s no physical scars, but you’re certainly suffering no different than anyone else.”

“I personally struggled with PTSD, and I still struggle with PTSD,” he said. Brown feels strongly that the stigma attached to PTSD needs to be talked about.

“The more it’s talked about, the less sensitive people will become about it.”

He says the biggest issue is being afraid to admit to having a problem and seeking help.

It took a few years of being home, but Brown eventually took advantage of the counseling the Veterans Affairs office offers. He no longer attends counseling but admits he probably should.

An adjustment period was necessary for the little things in life, too.

“The first time you get back from a deployment, the first month or week you drive is strange because there are stoplights,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many stop signs or stoplights I ran when I came back. Small things like that are just different.”

Being a part of many military convoys while deployed, Brown was not used to stopping.

Brown still doesn’t like fireworks.

“I could come within an inch of losing my life – I could walk out in front of a bus – and it would not bother me,” he says. “But a firework would.”

He also tries to avoid close quarters, especially with people he doesn’t know, and at restaurants he says he doesn’t like his back facing people.

As he sits in the back corner of the room, chair facing away from the walls around him, he says, “This is my ideal seat because I can see everything going on around me.”

Upon his return from deployment, the 29-year-old Seneca native was working on power lines until the recession hit. He was eventually laid off, struggled finding work and decided he would take advantage of the GI Bill and return to school.

Brown grew up in a Clemson family, and once he chose to go back to college, his family threw him a party. His mother brought out an orange, purple and white cake.

“Then I had to explain I was going to USC,” he says with a smirk on his face.

Brown chose USC because he thought he and his family needed a change. He wanted to strengthen his immediate family and thought the only way to do that would be to move away from the family he grew up with.

He admits that during his first few months in Columbia, he wasn’t on a mission to make any new friends. In fact, he was still a Clemson guy at heart.

Then he joined the Carolina marching band. “That totally turned the experience around for me.”

To this day he doesn’t know what possessed him to go to that informational meeting, but he saw the ad in the student newspaper and the next thing he knew he was eating free pizza and agreeing to play the tuba.

He’s no longer a Clemson fan, he says.

Richard Moore, a professor in USC’s School of Journalism, has taught Brown in more than one class.

Moore describes Brown as having an “intense focus” and even compares him to himself.

“Kyle reminds me a little of myself when I went back to graduate school,” he says. He went on to say that Brown’s fully developed life gives him a richer perspective on everything else.

“I would hire Kyle hands down over any undergraduate coming out of here just based solely on his life experience,” Moore said.

Brown, who had some experience in radio as a teenager, would prefer radio over television. At age 16, he was already on the air with WGOG-FM out of Walhalla, talking and playing music for the Greenville market.

Brown would occasionally substitute for regular hosts and also work late-night hours during the week. He admits it was too much for him at the time, but as a music buff he wouldn’t mind returning to it.

Moore calls Brown “extraordinary” compared to most other undergraduates because he sees things with such a different perspective. He describes Brown as having a much higher level of maturity than other students.

Brown spends roughly 40 hours a week putting on a daily TV news show for the School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

A broadcast classmate walks in the room to ask for advice on a project, and upon his answer she teases “can’t live with you, can’t shoot you.”

“Bullets can’t catch me. They’ve tried,” Brown laughs.

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