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Matthew Brown Matthew Brown, Superintendent of Cambridge American Cemetery. Photo courtesy American Battle Monuments Commission

The Most Important Mission: Commemoration

Matthew Brown, the Superintendent of the Cambridge American Cemetery, tells us about his life, from serving in the US Army to serving the memory of American veterans

Published on April 29, 2020

Thank you for your time Matthew. Our traditional first question, where in the States are you from?

I grew up in a small rural town near Houston, in Southeast Texas. I had a very typical American (Texan) childhood, which included going to the local public school, playing American football, joining the Boy Scouts of America, and going to church with my family on Sundays. For Americans, my family traveled quite a bit, and this made me aware from an early age that there was much more to the world than our little town. In my high school years, I followed an opportunity to live overseas as a foreign exchange student in Brittany, France; and that experience, in turn, cemented my personality as an internationalist.

How did you first become interested in working with the US Army?

Like many of the service members in our armed forces, I joined for the wrong reasons, but I stayed for the right reasons. During my senior year of high school, a military recruiter addressed my class and revealed that the military would fund virtually all expenses to university for anyone who signed up to serve for a term of four years. On closer examination, I learned that the US Army had even more to offer. The Army would allow me to serve as a linguist, which included language training at the military’s top language school, and it would grant me a higher entry rank, which meant a higher paycheck, for having earned the top rank of Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America. Along with the money for university, this deal was too good to pass up, and I signed a contract to join the US Army starting immediately after my high school graduation. At 18 years old, my motivation was entirely self-centered, and from the beginning I only intended to serve those four years and then move on with a civilian education and career.

But life often takes an unexpected path. Opportunities present themselves, and motivations change. In the end, I served in the US Army for 24 years.

How did your career with the Army develop?

The US Army, and all branches of the US military, rewards motivation and hard work. I managed to stand out from the crowd in my Russian language course at the Defense Language Institute, and military commanders took notice. The Army offered me a seat in the Class of 1998 at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and suddenly I found myself at a life-altering decision point. Should I stick with my original plan? Or should I go a step deeper into Army service to see what else is there? At 20 years old, I rationalized the choice to stay by relying on my self-centered motivation to earn a university degree. What sense would it make to leave the Army to pursue a degree when the Army was offering me the opportunity to attend a prestigious institution, earn a degree, and stay in service? I chose the path towards West Point.

Indeed, the United States Military Academy does grant Bachelor of Science degrees to graduates – my original motivation for attending – but the academic education is only a portion of the development that takes place. “Development” may not even be a strong enough word to describe the Academy experience, and perhaps “transformation” may better capture the effect of the four-year program. At 24 years old, I stepped out of the Academy an entirely different person than I had been when I stepped in four years earlier. Through the West Point experience, I had internalized a whole new value system that left me more devoted to service to my country, and training had prepared me to lead the sons and daughters of the American people. This time I stayed because of sense of duty to the country.

As a junior officer, I served in US Army Aviation as a helicopter pilot, staff officer, and commander. As time passed, as well as combat deployments, the Army noticed my aptitude for languages, and offered me the opportunity to take up a new career as an “internationalist.” I followed this path for the final decade of my career and became a Foreign Area Officer.

There’s a saying in the US military that goes something like this: “If you have to ask if it’s the right time to retire, then it isn’t the right time. When the time is right, you’ll know!” In my experience, that saying is 100% accurate. As I arrived to my final military posting, I had no idea that I was stepping into the office from which I would process my retirement paperwork. However, the time was right, the conditions were right, my family was in the right place, and I honorably retired from the US Army, leaving behind some of the best colleagues, classmates, and patriots that I have ever known.

What was life like working with the Army overseas?

Some assignments are harder than others.

As an Aviation Officer, I was typically assigned to large military bases with a lot of Americans and – significantly – a lot of support services, such as medical, dental, American schools (even overseas), mail, finance, human resources, ID Cards, etc... There are offices you can go in person to get some kind of service taken care of. Aviation assignments overseas were also characterized by tight unit and friendship bonds. In fact, some of the “harder” overseas Aviation assignment were some of the most rewarding because of the after-hour activities. On military posts inside the US there isn’t much expectation for after-hours activities because you’re an American living in America. Most senior Non-Commissioned Officers and Officers live in civilian homes in the civilian residential neighborhoods, and they don’t even know where their work colleagues live. Overseas, on the other hand, the units become more cohesive, typically living close to one another and purposefully creating activities to do away from the office. In one assignment, I had a neighbor who would, at the end of the day, pull his BBQ out to the front yard and simply light a massive bonfire for his small sliver of steak (or whatever). In no time, neighbors would start pouring out of the surrounding houses, slap their steak (or whatever) onto his BBQ, and we would all hang out for 30-45 minutes, eat some dinner, have a beer, and then retire back to our respective houses. This was completely uncoordinated – it just happened, and quite frequently!! (My daughter was quite young at the time, and we owned a “bouncy castle” that I would just inflate near where the adults would gather, with the understanding that kids would eventually show up... and they did!) The effect was amazing, and friendships were very tight. I have never experienced anything like this outside of military life.

As a Foreign Area Officer, on the other hand, overseas assignments did not come with the deep support offered by military installations. At best, assignments put us near US Embassies in foreign capitals (which did not have the military support offices I could use), and at worst, assignments left us isolated within foreign communities. My family and I always worked hard to keep up relations with the host nation neighbors, and we did our best to learn some of the local language. Nevertheless, making connections was hard in these conditions. Fortunately, my family is quite resilient in these situations, and it rarely bothered us too much. My favorite example of this was in the Republic of Korea (South Korea) when we lived in a stairwell building on the 2nd floor. Our landlord’s children (in their 20s) lived upstairs from us. Our Hangul was extremely basic, and their English was likewise extremely basic. We mostly communicated using hand and arm signals, smiles, handshakes, and kind gestures. On occasion we would find small gifts from them at our front door, and we reciprocated with gifts of our own. The typical exchange would involve a bottle of discounted American (or Scottish) whisky, a hard to find item like zippo lighter fluid, or even (during harvest season) a packet of freshly ground red peppers (a Korean staple). One night my wife made them a pot of spaghetti Bolognese, which was generous of us, yes, but also a very easy and common thing to find in an American kitchen. From their reaction, you would have thought we had just given them a winning lottery ticket!!! Embassy communities are quite unlike military communities in that the culture is a bit different. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where those cultural differences lie, because this is a very nuanced point, but in general the embassy communities tend to be a bit more diplomatic while off duty, which is quite understandable considering the nature of their work.

Cambridge American Cemetery Cambridge American Cemetery. Photo courtesy American Battle Monuments Commission

How did you transition to working with the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC)?

Luck and timing! I was in the absolute right place, at the absolute right time, I was available, and I had the exact right skillset ABMC was looking for.

The ABMC Superintendent Corps consists of only 40 Americans who are stationed around the world in 16 different countries. New hires to this field must demonstrate competencies in several different categories that are normally not co-mingled. For example, we look for experienced managers who have contracting knowledge and speak French. ABMC is so small that we work very hard to find an experienced person who already has the required attributes, instead of trying to train people to grow into the job. ABMC Superintendents must be comfortable living and working in isolated overseas assignments, have the aptitude to direct horticultural operations, have the management skills to organize several different programs of activities, and (the big one) can pass the US Foreign Service language test for French, Italian, or Spanish. In addition to these attributes, new hires must be available to transition in the exact moment that ABMC is hiring.

For me, all of these elements came together at the exact right time. As I began the process to retire from the Army, I started applying for international affairs postings in other US government agencies, and I received several competing offers. However, none grabbed my attention or made me as excited as the offer to join ABMC.

ABMC is a civilian government agency that is entirely independent of any other US Government department. However, most of the Americans in the Commission are, like me, former military service members. Interestingly, although we are not a military organization, we tend to behave like the military. Our language is steeped with the linguistic shorthand of our former careers, which can lead to some interesting misunderstandings if we are not careful. I hear myself using Army jargon occasionally, but I hear my supervisor using US Navy terminology quite frequently.

Being a government agency, and being staffed by mostly former military members, my transition to ABMC felt strangely frictionless. It was almost as though I had simply moved on to another assignment. My move was from Washington DC to Paris, but even this was no exciting event for my family who had lived in far more foreign lands. And England... I felt more like a foreigner when I was stationed in Hawaii than here!

What has it meant to you to be working with the ABMC, protecting and honoring the memory of US Soldiers?

Of the missions I’ve taken on in my career, none have been as important as the ABMC mission to commemorate the service, achievements, and sacrifice of our American military service members and civilian volunteers who fought to win our freedom over tyranny. The mission is both patriotic and personal to me. I’ve spent my entire adult life in the service to my country, defending the principles of freedom that we hold dear, and I cherish the opportunity to look after the memorials and graves of likeminded patriotic service members. On the personal side, my grandfather, like so many others in his generation, served in uniform and led our brave soldiers into combat against our nation’s enemies. He survived his battle, only to return home and struggle with his Guadalcanal experience for the rest of his life. It has been the greatest honor of my life to look after the memory of the young soldiers who didn’t return home as well as to honor the history and legacy of those who did return home.

You may look at me as the Superintendent of Cambridge American Cemetery and identify me (personally) with the American military history in the UK during WWII, but that is simply the character of this site. My mandate – ABMC’s mandate – includes honoring our American veterans in all wars where we have fought overseas. I started my work in a World War I American Cemetery near Paris, and in the future, I will likely move on to other commemorative assignments.

You joined Cambridge American Cemetery as Superintendent in 2018 - what was moving to the UK like, and starting up at Cambridge?

As I mentioned previously, moving to England was a great joy for me and my family. Of all the overseas assignments we have had, this one has been the easiest by far. Cambridgeshire is a charming community, and we don’t have the friction of a language barrier (and we don’t have a new foreign language to learn this time). While it is true that when I arrived, I spoke only American, I have quickly incorporated much of the English lexicon (though not the accent) into my vocabulary. My daughter has taken up the British curriculum, and she will likely complete sixth form in Cambridge, which will connect her forever to this region.

Regarding the work, the team here is fantastic, the grounds and memorial are amazing, and the story here comprises the origin story of my military branch: Army Aviation. Although most people associate the history of the 8th and 9th Air Forces uniquely with the development of an independent US Air Force, it is equally correct to show a direct trajectory from our aviation experience in the UK in WWII to the development of an aviation force to serve the land force. This has made the work quite personal for me, although I don’t focus on the aviation aspect alone.

What is the role of the Superintendent, and what kind of tasks do you undertake?

The Superintendent is a general manager in every sense of the meaning. I’m the only American here, although I should have an Assistant Superintendent, and the Americans on these sites carry the extra burden of accountability that is not placed on more junior employees. Virtually nothing happens here that doesn’t require some input on my part. The fact that I am isolated from my headquarters means that I enjoy tremendous confidence from my executive leadership, but it also means that I’m almost alone to resolve problems. There is one other American Cemetery in the UK, a World War I site in Woking called Brookwood American Cemetery. My colleague at Brookwood and I collaborate frequently on all sorts of affairs. Our operational headquarters is in Paris, and our strategic headquarters is in Arlington, Virginia. The Americans in ABMC fall under the administrative supervision of the US Embassy in London, so we have some oversight, but not much support.

So, what do I do? Everything! My portfolio includes: Human Resources, Security, Safety, Facilities Management (buildings and mechanical systems), Horticulture, Landscaping, Training, Project Management, Contracting, Visitor Services, Information Technology, Financial Management, Equipment Management, Logistics, Public Affairs (including writing stories for publication in The American!), and Public Relations. As the senior ABMC representative (of the two of us) in the UK, I also attend periodic meetings at the Embassy.

Fortunately, I’m not alone in these tasks. The staff of 10 Locally Employees Staff (LES) here work together to accomplish all of our obligations, and they are a very talented group of professionals who have worked here for years.

What are some of the projects and educational resources you develop as part of the ABMC?

In the years after WWII, the Superintendent here had a far different experience than I do today. He (a gentleman named Jim Schaffer) greeted grieving family members and guilt-ridden veterans. Jim didn’t have to tell these people what happened in WWII, because they had all lived through it in their own way. Instead, Jim focused on taking care of those important visitors who came through the gates. 75 years later, I’m living in the same government quarters, taking the same walk to work, and overseeing the same horticultural features that Jim cared for; but my job today looks nothing like Jim’s. Today, when visitors arrive, I have to go to great lengths to tell the story of the American experience in UK in WWII, and I have to explicitly explain why it was so important that we win the war against Nazi ideology. What was once common knowledge has faded into obscure trivia. This is a long lead in to explain that my biggest project in modern times is to communicate the importance of these service members’ and civilian volunteers’ stories to the audience. My goal is to spark an interest in the topic to, hopefully, raise an awareness and to get the visitors to care about this history.

In concrete terms, the projects involve the development of the Visitor Center, which is due to be refurbished and updated in 2024. The Visitor Center is the single best tool I have to attract visitors and to ignite that spark of interest. To support the Visitor Center, the staff and I research the history of the individuals here so that we have a deeper understanding of the stories available during tours. We develop thematic tours to deliver a particular message that will, again, spark an interest in the visitors.

Ambassador Johnson and Tony Foulds visit Cambridge American Cemetery A recent visitor to the Cambridge Ameican Cemetery was Tony Foulds, who memorably paid tribute to the crew of the 'Mi Amigo' during Memorial Day 2019, alongside US Ambassador Woody Johnson. Photo courtesy US Embassy London.

What kind of opportunities are available for those interested in history, honoring their ancestors or in general supporting the work of the ABMC?

We accept volunteers, and this year we have taken on three (although we are currently in lockdown due to the COVID-19 response). I will admit that it is difficult to take on volunteers due to the nature of work in the US Government. Even though we are a completely unclassified government agency, we have regulations that prevent anyone from using a US government computer. All of our files are digital, so volunteers face an immediate obstacle of access to the very files they would need to conduct research.

One of the most helpful things people can do in helping preserve the history of our WWII generation is to share stories of their relatives from that period. If they are willing, they should publish letters, photos, and stories on commemoration pages.

Commemoration is an expression of remembrance and honor. For someone new to the idea, I recommend attending a Remembrance Day ceremony, and American Memorial Day ceremony, or an American Veterans Day ceremony.

On a personal note, what do you love most about living in the UK and miss most about the US?

I love English footpaths! I’ve been hiking all over the west side of Cambridge, and I’ve got so much more to explore. I also love the little quaint pubs found in most villages!!

I miss the American convenience of being able to drive and park anywhere! Americans are fortunate for many reasons, and one of them is to have the space for luxurious car parks. I also miss American breakfasts, which I count as a category in its own right, but I have long ago learned how to cook the things I like the most. One of the biggest benefits to living in Cambridge is having the USAF bases at Alconbury, Mildenhall, and Lakenheath (with their Commissaries) right down the road.

What does the US/UK Special Relationship mean to you?

Of all the countries on Earth, there are a small group of liberal democratic states that make up the “West.” In recent centuries, we have built the institutions and international organizations to share and shape each other’s ideas about what it means to be free and to be democratic. The US enjoys long-standing warm relationships with many like-minded Western nations, but probably none so warm as the US/UK Special Relationship. I feel that this is so because American foundations, even though they were born out of conflict, were so heavily influenced by English thinking.

Due to the nature of the work I perform at Cambridge American Cemetery, I can’t help but focus on the seamless relationship the US and UK shared during WWII, when the UK gave consent for American military forces (as well as other Allied forces, of course) to come over and fight side-by-side to defeat tyranny. There was probably no greater expression of our shared values than the singular purpose that fought for in that great undertaking.

What is next on the horizon for you and the ABMC?

I plan on staying with ABMC for the long-term, and where that might take me is anyone’s guess. I am a French speaker, so I am eligible to serve in any of our ABMC sites in France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Netherlands (English), UK (English), and this includes our operational headquarters in Paris and strategic headquarters in Virginia.

Ideally, I hope to take on some meaningful assignments that might bring me to Normandy American Cemetery, to one of our headquarters, or even on a “detail” assignment to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC.

Interestingly, I have a vision that I will be involved with our 100th anniversary commemoration of World War II, which is coming up in just 25 short years.

Finally, what's the best thing about being Matthew Brown?

The best thing about me? Definitely my wife, Melissa. Everything that I’ve written here about me applies equally to her, but she has additionally been the principal parent to our wonderful daughter, Emma. I may run Cambridge American Cemetery, but Melissa runs me! She fulfills a variety of necessary, but often overlooked, roles in all of my assignments, including this one. She was a military spouse before we took up this career, and now she has carried on with that great tradition of behind-the-scenes support in everything I do!

Currently, Melissa is busy helping the community by sewing masks to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Her sewing hobby has come in quite handy during this crisis.

The ABMC Website has further details on the Cambridge American Cemetery, including ways to share your stories, to get involved, and to learn more about the history of World War Two and those soldiers who are honored at not just Cambridge, but all ABMC cemeteries.

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