For five generations the Brooks family of Mechanicsville has served our country in the armed forces. The youngest includes six brothers — Frazier, Leon, Gary, GeRald, Avus and Eric. They are all military veterans following in the footsteps of their father Oscar and their forebears who came before him.
From the Virginia Army National Guard to the Air National Guard to the Air Force to the Army to the National Guard, the Brooks brothers have answered the call to service. Some served in combat in places like Vietnam, Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
All retired now, the five brothers who remain in Mechanicsville (Eric lives in Florida) recently shared stories around a table at First Union Baptist Church.
Not all of them left the service undamaged – Gary faces lifelong physical challenges because of his exposure to Agent Orange. Leon’s career did not advance after he joined a movement to remove Confederate flags from his squadron’s planes — but when asked if they would do it again, as a group they answered with a resounding “oh yes!”
The oldest brother, Frazier, was the first African American recruiter for the Virginia Army National Guard in 1971. “I recruited hundreds for military duty not only from Hanover but throughout the Richmond metropolitan area,” he said. Frazier served in the military his entire career.
Leon served in the Air Force and Air National Guard from 1971 to 1997. With the Richmond Free Press, he played a role in calling to then-Governor Wilder’s attention the presence of the rebel flag on his squadron’s planes based at Richmond International Airport. Wilder issued an executive order requiring the flags be removed, but the blowback resulted in a great personal sacrifice for Leon and his family. After being fired, he was reinstated by Gov. Wilder. However even after reinstatement, Leon’s career was stalled for decades.
“For 21 years, they did not promote me,” he said.
“My brother is my hero,” Avus Brooks explained. “What he did was amazing.”
Avus was also a hero, serving in the Army for 30 years. He was the first sergeant to lead his unit into the Desert Storm campaign against Iraq in 1991. He also served in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
During Desert Storm, Avus recalled, the commanding officer went to another unit. Other officers had a higher rank, but with his reputation for integrity, he was promoted to E7 Acting First Sergeant and became the first sergeant to lead a unit onto the field.
He also experienced a fellow soldier’s death for the first time. She was a 19-year-old woman who had just gotten baptized, which he said was difficult in a Muslim country. “She said, ‘everything’s going to be alright.’ And then she died. It was a painful thing. I still think about it.”
Gary served for 26 years in the Army and National Guard. During his career he served as a medic, supply sergeant and ammunition officer, earning a Meritorious Service Medal. His military service took a lasting toll on his body. Exposed to Agent Orange in Thailand, he contracted Parkinson's and has 100% disability from the military.
Gary also had an interesting story, though some of it was secret for a long time. While in the Army, he was recruited into the Army Security Agency. He had top-secret cryptological security clearance and one of his duties was to intercept Morse Code messages.
“For six years he couldn’t talk about it even with us,” Frazier joked. But he was important enough, GeRald said, that “all of the generals knew him.” When Gary retired in 1998, it was as a Sergeant First Class.
GeRald served in the Army and was the first African American cook at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
The brothers entered the military in different ways. Some were drafted. Frazier was recruited as the first Black recruiter in the State, and in turn he recruited GeRald.
“He told me how nice I was going to be to get to boot camp,” GeRald recalled. “Oh, it was going to be nice. I got down there and I didn’t stop running for two days. First time I got a chance to call him, I said ‘if I ever get my hands on you…’”
But GeRald became accustomed to Army life and things turned out well because he was assigned to a duty at which he excelled.
“They had never had a black cook and my mother had taught me how to cook when I was young,” he explained. “I cooked a lot of things the old-fashioned way and the guys loved it. Nobody ever went hungry.”
Eric, the youngest brother, entered the Air Force in 1984. He is the only Brooks brother who doesn’t still live near his family’s ancestral home near First Union Baptist Church on Pole Green Road.
The Brooks family is deeply embedded in that community called Pine Hill. Andrew Brooks was enslaved when he first lived on the property in 1814, and generations of Brooks have remained close to home. The Brooks family has worshipped at First Union since 1883, and today’s Brooks brothers have been singing gospel as The Soul Seekers at the churches and all around for nearly 60 years.
They are a tight-knit family. So close that Eric almost didn’t follow through on his plans to enlist in the Air Force because of worries about his mother.
“My father had cancer and that was the center of my life,” he recalled. “When Dad died, I told Mama, ‘I can’t leave you by yourself.’ And she told me, ‘your father held on to life so he could see you sign your papers and join. You are going to join.’”
“My dad was a big believer in me getting a skill,” Eric added, echoing comments made by other brothers. “There weren’t a lot of opportunities for him when he was coming up, and he wanted us all to have a trade.”
Eric was trained as a welder for Air Force planes. After being stationed in the Air Force Base at Myrtle Beach for four years, he was transferred to a base in South Korea. The base was only 30 miles from the demilitarized zone boundary separating South Korea from hostile North Korea.
“We were told that if North Korean troops ever crossed the demilitarized zone, to get every plane up in the air and head for the hills,” to the nearest Air Force base 50 miles away, Eric said with a laugh.
He was later deployed to Desert Storm and expected to join several brothers in Saudi Arabia. “The guy ahead of me had a family so I volunteered to go,” he recalled. “It was a scary time.” Thankfully, the war ended before he had to go into action.
After eight years in the Air Force, Eric opted not to re-enlist. He took a job as a machinist at the Tampa Tribune, where he worked for the next 21 years. Now he is self-employed, having fulfilled his father’s advice to learn a trade and make his way in the world. His mother died in 2005, having seen her sons succeed in their chosen fields.
“The service changed me as a young man,” Eric explained. “After watching my father suffer, it brought me back to focus. It was an honor. I loved carrying that tradition on for my family.”
The family tradition of military service, which included the wives of Avus and GeRald, continued into the next generation. Frazier had a son in the U.S. Marines and Avus had two sons in the Army. There are also cousins who serve in the military.
They might be hard-pressed to match the 100-plus years of service the Brooks brothers have given to their country.
“I like to think we’ve done our duty,” Frazier said.
Indeed, they have.
Watch their full interview here: