HMCS Pam Branum’s Rules:
Rule 1: Take care of your sailors
Rule 2: Accomplish the mission
Rule 3: See Rule One
Today we said goodbye to our fallen shipmate Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman Pamela Branum. The ceremony took place in our main auditorium at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth. Needless to say because of the kind of person that she was and the influence that she had in people’s lives was very well attended with sailors coming in from all over the country. Likewise it was filled with Naval tradition in fitting tribute to this child of east Tennessee who left home to serve her country and died in the line of duty. It was a memorial service a celebration of life, a promotion ceremony and retirement all rolled into one. And Senior Chief Branum deserved all of it. A woman of faith she embodied the reality of her faith in the care of people and her witness to God in thought, word and deed.
The service was interesting. I have planned, conducted or participated in more or these that I can count. On this one I was deep into the planning until Friday when after a wild and wearying month I finally began to crash. What finally did me in was forgetting to save the bulletin which I had been working on with Commander Judy for like two hours before I closed the stupid thing out. I had deleted the thing and both the document and I were done. It was last nail in the camel. Thank God for Commander Judy and Chaplain Franklin who took over when I hit tilt.
Anyway what was cool about this was seeing all those who loved Pam and the stories that they shared. Captain Bonnema our acting commander had served with Senior Chief as his Leading Chief Petty Officer at Naval Hospital Pensacola. His words, filled with emotion were touching and inspiring as he talked about how Senior Chief was what every Chief should be. The heartfelt genuineness of Captain Bonnema set the tone for the memorial. Others spoke; Master Chief McNulty talked about having Pam as an instructor at Field Medical Service School at Camp LeJeune. Pam’s best friend Lisa, spoke of Pam’s friendship and example in her life while also talking about Pam as a leader of Sailors. Another friend, also named Pamela, a retired Chief who has served with her in Kuwait and Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom shared some touching and humorous sea stories about Senior Chief. The two became known as the Ella’s. They were big “E” and little “e” Ella. Senior was the Capital “E” Ella. I guess little Ella hated the Bee Gees and while in Iraq some Marines or Sailors were playing the progenitors of the Disco era at a fairly loud decibel range. Little Ella complained and sent Senor Chief to quiet them down. Later, little “e” Ella was invited by senior into a tent before chow. Little Ella notice that there were too many people in the tent and about that time Big Ella had someone start the Bee Gees. One of the last things that Little Ella was given from Big Ella, which she got shortly after Pam died, was a CD of the Bee Gees. Somehow I think that the Deity Herself used Pam to get little Ella one last time. I guess in heaven that little Ella will get her back.
Chaplain Cynthia Kane from San Diego who will be doing Pam’s memorial in Tennessee tomorrow and her burial in Arlington National Cemetery in August delivered the homily. Cynthia traveled her at her own expense. Our last couple of memorial services for active duty Sailors at the Medical Center I have done. Each has been emotionally draining and since I knew Pam better than I knew the others I was relieved when I found out from Lisa that Pam wanted Cynthia to do this. Pam and Cynthia were deployed to the Medical Facility for the Guantanamo Bay Cuba prison back in 2005-2006. Pam was the Senior Enlisted Leader and Cynthia, being a Chaplain was naturally the Chaplain. They also became good friends and as Cynthia said, Pam made her a better officer and chaplain. Later, when Cynthia was about to lose her unborn baby, it was Pam that she turned to for advice, counsel and comfort. From personal experience I can say that there are certain Chiefs or Marine Corps Sergeant Majors that I would go to in a crisis of such proportions. Command Master Chief Gerry Pierce and Sergeant Major Kim Davis would be my “go to” guys. It is truly a remarkable Chief who cares for their chaplain in the chaplain’s time of need. As a chaplain I can say that this is remarkable. In our business it is often the case that we have no one to go to when we are not doing well. I’m fortunate in my current assignment, but this has not always been the case.
Pam was promoted the Senior Chief on the day that she passed away. She had been selected by the board which had not yet be released and because of the unusual situation the Navy decided to honor posthumously her with the promotion while the command awarded her the Meritorious Service Medal in the same manner. Both the promotion and the award were read today. An article about the promotion in the Virginia Pilot online can be found here: http://hamptonroads.com/2009/06/portsmouth-corpsman-died-day-her-promotion
The most touching moment for me was when Lisa read a letter from a Corpsman currently deployed in the Middle East. The Corpsman had a rough time early in his career. Senior Chief Branum helped not only to save his career but to teach him lessons that made him a better Petty Officer and Corpsman. The Hospital Corpsman Luis E. Fonseca Jr. had been in trouble and it was Pam that helped him out. In 2003 at the Battle of Al Nasaryah during Operation Iraqi Freedom this young man was a hero. He saved 5 other Marines wounded when their vehicle was hit. Under enemy fire the young Corpsman organized their recovery under fire and despite taking fire treated them and got them evacuated to safety. Hospital Corpsman Fonseca was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions. This is the Navy’s highest award apart from the Congressional Medal of Honor. Now Petty Officer Fonseca’s wife delivered a letter from him to Lisa during the viewing last night. He credited her with not only saving his career but also credited her with teaching him to be a better “Doc.” He gave his Navy Cross to Pam. For a understanding of what the young man did in Iraq please look at this article:
The ceremony was concluded by the reading of “I am the Flag” and passing the National Colors from person to person in an honor guard. In an unusual twist the honor guard was composed of Junior Enlisted Sailors, Petty Officers, Chief’s and even two Nurse Corps Officers. The flag was presented to Lisa. A similar flag will be presented to Pam’s parents. After this the benediction was said by yours truly, and I have to admit that I had a difficult time in spite of using the Book of Common Prayer. I have done a lot of these services and this was the most difficult time doing a benediction that I have ever had. As I ended the benediction I posted the “Side Boys’ which is a Naval Tradition done in conjunction with “piping over the side.” This is a rite where a sailor departs his or her ship or command for the final time. The Boatswain piped Senior Chief over the side and I am sure that her spirit made the trip down the aisle smiling and probably joking with her fellow Chiefs, Sailors and Officers who filled the auditorium. This completed the mournful tones of Taps played by a Naval Bugler ended the ceremony.
As the crowd of friends mingled with each other, shared memories, hugs, tears and laughs, a slideshow of Senior Chief Branum’s life played on the large screen. It was a fitting tribute to a wonderful person, shipmate, confidant and friend to so many people. I consider it an honor to have served with Senior Chief Branum even for the 5 and a half months before she deployed on USNS Comfort on which she passed from this life into the next. I will never forget her cheerful smile and professional manner; even as she helped her sailors conduct field days and work around the ICU. Her loss will be mourned by many even as with joy people whose lives that she touched share their stories and memories.
O God of grace and glory, we remember before you this day our sister Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman Pamela Branum. We thank you for giving her to us, her shipmates and friends, to know and to love as a companion on our earthly pilgrimage. In your boundless compassion, console us who mourn. Give us faith to see in death the gate of eternal life, so that in quiet confidence we may continue our course on earth, until, by your call, we are reunited with those who have gone before; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.