Upon meeting Clark Brown, with his pleasant smile and gentle nature, few would guess he was once one of the elite helicopter pilots of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, Airborne—also known as the Night Stalkers, the U.S. military aviation unit portrayed in the movie Black Hawk Down.
“The Night Stalkers are the only Special Operations Aviation Regiment in the world,” says Brown, who volunteered to become part of one of the Army’s most elite combat aviation regiments after six years in the Army. After making it through their rigorous training program, he served with the 160th for 16 years. With the Night Stalkers, Brown saw combat all over the planet. “With the 160th Regiment, we saw the world. With the exception of Antarctica, I have been on every continent on earth.” With tears in his eyes, he adds, “There were a lot of incidents through my career where I shouldn’t be here now, but I am.
Brown grew up in the Catskill Mountains, 100 miles north of New York City. “My great-grandmother was Delaware,” he says. “Growing up, we knew we were of Native descent but it was not something we saw every day. We didn’t have a reservation, and none of us were full-blood. We did have some traditions that were handed down.”
At 17, Brown says he knew his mother didn’t have the money to send him to college, so the military seemed like a good option. “I tricked my mom into signing the paperwork,” he recalls. Five days after he graduated from high school in 1980, a recruiter showed up at his house, took Brown to New York’s Grand Central Terminal and gave him a train ticket to an Army base in Alabama. “It was hot as hell,” says Brown. “While I was there, two people died of heat exhaustion.”
After basic training, Brown trained to become a 95 Bravo, a military police officer. After graduating at the top of his class, the Army informed him they were short of 11 Bravo infantry. Brown took the offer and went to Fort Benning, Georgia.
After infantry training, Brown got what he says was a “cushy” first assignment at the West Point Military Academy not far from his home in New York. But cushy doesn’t mean completely safe. “We were in a field-training exercise. I was an M-60 gunner in a Huey helicopter, which sits at a five-foot hover. I jumped out and had a bad landing. I did not realize it, but I had broken my back. The medic gave me some Tylenol.”
Feeling the effects of his back injury, Brown jokingly told his squad leader he was tired of being dropped off in the field by a helicopter and having to march back on foot. “I said, ‘Just one damn time, I would like to fly back on that bird instead of marching.’ He told me to go to flight school.”
So he did. His squad leader helped him to get a flight physical and aptitude test, and some of his commanding officers wrote letters of recommendation. A few months later, Brown received orders to attend Flight and Officer Candidate School at the Fort Rucker Center for Army Aviation back in Alabama.
“In those days they only had basic flight-simulators,” Brown recalls, “and my first solo flight scared the hell out of me.” After completing his training, he was assigned to the First Special Forces detachment in Korea. “There were border skirmishes that we would respond to. We recovered the bodies of North Korean infiltrators who were killed. Flying the border between North and South Korea, the North Koreans would take potshots at us.”
One night, Brown was on training maneuvers when his craft hit electrical lines that were not on any map. “I totaled the aircraft,” he says. “Fortunately, the only ones aboard were my copilot and crew chief. I sustained the most significant injuries—a broken neck and a broken back. The other two gentlemen had minor injuries.”
Not wanting to miss any time in the air, Brown got himself cleared for flight again in about 45 days.
After one year in Korea, Brown was selected to go back to Fort Rucker as a basic flight instructor. “I taught all the new blood,” he says. “They came up with new and ingenious ways to kill you every day.”
After three years as a basic flight instructor, Brown volunteered for the elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, Airborne—the Night Stalkers. “Our motto was, ‘Death waits in the dark. We own the night.’ We flew almost all of our missions at night, and many of the missions that got screwed up, like Black Hawk Down, were missions that we were forced to do during hours of daylight.”
Deployments with the Night Stalkers took Brown all over the world: “I cannot tell you how many skirmishes we had in Africa—we went to Liberia on
three different occasions, and in Desert Shield and Desert Storm we were all over the Middle East.”
By 1996, however, Brown’s back injuries were beginning to hobble him. Additionally, he had his ankle crushed in a separate incident in an undisclosed location involving foreign troops. Though Brown received closely monitored medical care, he knew his military career was nearing the end.
“One day the surgeon said to me, ‘You have had 22 years, but we can’t keep doing this for you. You are never going to have a decent quality of life’?” Brown says, adding that was the day his life deflated.
Brown recalls with great emotion his last few months in the Army. He was sitting in his doctor’s office on September 11, 2001 when his wife called and told him a plane had struck the World Trade Center. “We walked out into the lobby, he says. “On TV we watched the second plane hit the other tower.”
Brown was the flight operations officer at the Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia and had to clear the tarmac for all the planes that were being grounded. “That evening, when the reality hit, there was no doubt in my mind that our unit was going to war,” he says. “And I wasn’t going with them. The day of my retirement ceremony, the guys with orders marched from my ceremony, got onto transport planes and deployed to Afghanistan. It was a rough, rough transition for me.”
Though things have slowed considerably for Brown in the past 10 years, he still battles ghosts from his past and contends with his back, neck and ankle injuries. He also has post-traumatic stress disorder, and has 100 percent disability status.
After retiring, Brown went into business for himself and opened three retail stores in Virginia. He says he became a workaholic, and the stress began to wear on him. And so he got out. “I sold everything and got away,” he says. “I put our kids on the bus and took our kids off the bus. Our youngest son was 4, another was in elementary and my oldest was in high school.”
He is currently obsessed with Harley Trikes—and says his is like no other. “It is the only Crazy Horse trike in the world, with a large Indian head proudly sitting on top of the front fender. There has only been one built. The engine is a 107-cubic-inch Crazy Horse bottle-cap motor. It turns a lot of heads.”
With a long salt-and-pepper ponytail and gregarious smile, Brown also turns a lot of heads, and he is now a proud member of the Harley-Davidson family, a supporter of its Harley’s Heroes program and a strong advocate of Disabled American Veterans (DAV), which supports veterans disabled during their military careers [see sidebar]. “It’s amazing how many veterans are motorcycle enthusiasts,” he says. “There is also a very distinctive brotherhood within Harley riders,” says Brown, who is firsthand proof that the efforts of the DAV works and the support of Harley-Davidson is money well-given. He speaks well of the efforts of Harley’s Heroes and the DAV.
“I have referred a lot of troops to the DAV mobile office that comes to Harley-Davidson events. They assisted me and did an outstanding job. They oversee your case and they make sure things go smoothly. I had results in 45 days; I have heard horror stories of guys trying for years to get their benefits. DAV was great to me. They reached out to me and to a lot of other young troops to help get them the benefits they deserve. They treat you like a brother—for the most part the guys at the DAV are vets—it really is a case of veterans helping veterans.”
And despite his many scars from his time in the Army—both physical and psychological—Brown has no regrets. “I got to live a life among heroes,” he says. “The guys I got to serve with were unbelievable.”