More than 58,000 stories to tell: Gwen Brainard shares her story of husband Terry Miller’s death in Vietnam

In his honor ... Gwen Brainard of Waukon holds the display case housing her late first husband Terry Miller’s military service medals he earned during the Vietnam War, where he paid the ultimate price of losing his life. Pictured next to Brainard is a portrait that she painted of herself and Terry. Photo by Lissa Blake.

Terry Miller ... Submitted photo.

by Lissa Blake

Over the past 50 years, the world has repeatedly heard about the more than 58,000 Allied soldiers who died in Vietnam.

But on this Memorial Day, and every day, Waukon’s Gwen Brainard wants to remind everyone that each of those soldiers has a story.

“I want people to know what war is really like, and that I really feel my husband died in vain,” said Brainard of the death of her husband, Terry Miller.

Next year will mark 50 years since Terry Miller died in Vietnam. A young newlywed, almost finished with college and with a baby on the way, Miller was drafted because he wasn’t able to secure a student teaching assignment in the summer of 1968, which voided his education exemption.

Although he and the former Gwen Cheatum were both from Ottumwa and were both art students at Northeast State Teacher’s College in Kirkwood, MO, they hadn’t met each other until the spring of 1967, Gwen’s senior year of college. Terry was a year behind her in school.

“I remember we were in St. Louis in a restaurant and someone said, ‘You two should meet. You’re both from Ottumwa,’” recalled Gwen. “We started talking and talked all night long. It was definitely love at first sight. He was a really funny guy.”

Gwen enrolled in graduate studies and the couple worked at a pizza place. “I made the pizzas and he delivered them. We had a big apartment and his brother, Greg, lived with us,” she remembered.

In the fall of 1967, the couple married. The next summer, Terry was unable to get a student teaching job required for graduation, so he took an internship with John Deere.

“He had a good future. He would probably have been in the art department at Moline,” she said.

Gwen remembers that summer being a roller coaster of emotions, first with the news she was expecting a child and next with the news her husband had been drafted.

“He was married and had a baby on the way and they drafted him,” she said.

Gwen remembers Terry had been asked to attend Officer’s Training School, but declined.

“He was very intelligent, but he really didn’t believe in what they were doing in Vietnam and he didn’t think he could lead men in a battle he didn’t believe in,” she said.

Gwen said although Terry may have had options regarding where he would be deployed, he opted for Vietnam because at the time soldiers were given an automatic month of leave for signing up. “He was able to come home a few days before my son was born and stay with me for about a month,” said Gwen, adding that is when the only picture she has of the three of them together was taken.

Christian was born February 20, 1969, and just three short months later, on May 29, Terry was killed in action. “The report said he was on night patrol, but I talked with someone later who said he had stayed behind with a few others and they were in a foxhole and someone got through the perimeter and came and killed them,” she said. “I’m still Facebook friends with the man who found Terry.”

Gwen was teaching art back in Ottumwa when Terry’s father and an officer came to her door. “Terry had left instructions to go to his parents first … I had Chris in my arms and as soon as I saw them, I knew… I almost fell down and Vern, my father-in-law, grabbed Chris,” she said.

Gwen said there have been times in her life when, rather than crying, she gets immediately angry upon hearing bad news. “Man, did I tell that man (the officer) off in spades. I went into a tirade … that poor guy,” she said.

Gwen said she learned just a couple of years ago that Vern also had been very against the war and had tried talking Terry into going to Canada after he was drafted. “I never knew that. I just thought because he was a World War II veteran, he would be for it. I found out two years ago that his dad and I were on the same side. He felt the way I did,” she said.

Prior to Terry’s death, his brother, Greg, who was serving in the Navy, had been stationed in the Philippines and had gone by boat into Vietnam. “They shouldn’t have had two brothers in Vietnam at the same time,” she said, adding Greg put in a request and served as the escort for his brother’s body home.

Gwen said although the first few months after Terry’s death were a blur, she did go back to teaching at a Catholic School in the fall. “The first day of school, I told the kids my story. It was hard fighting back the tears,” she said.

But she said the Catholic Junior High was a good place for her to be at the time. “I was Lutheran, but the nuns were the best coworkers I’ve ever had,” she said.

As time went on, Gwen met her second husband, Larry Joiner, through friends. The couple had one son, Jeff, who lives in Orange City, and later divorced. In 1985, she took a job as the social service director at the Waukon Good Samaritan Home.

“I had gone back to school at Luther to get my elementary certification when I saw the ad for that job,” she said. “I always planned to go back to teaching, but I found I loved working with older people… they’re just so appreciative of everything you do for them. I stayed there for 20 years and retired in 2005.”

Gwen married James “Barney” Brainard in 1989, and he died in 2001. “I’ve been widowed twice and divorced once,” she said.

Gwen said it was after her retirement in 2005 that she started thinking more seriously about sharing Terry’s story. “I had always wanted to write about Terry, but I didn’t want it to interfere with my marriages,” she said.

Shortly after she retired, she took a writing class with Robert Wolf of Decorah. “I wanted to take off running,” said Gwen.

Then in 2014, Gwen said she was re-inspired when author James Wright contacted her about a book he was writing, called “Enduring Vietnam.”

“In June of 1969, Terry’s picture was in ‘LIFE’ magazine. During a two-week period when Terry was killed, there were huge casualties in Vietnam. They put all of their pictures in to kind of throw it in everyone’s face. People were apathetic… going about their lives as if they didn’t even realize a war was going on,” she said.

After Wright contacted her, Gwen spent many hours in interviews over the phone. The book came out in April of last year and is a tribute to many who died.

“I really feel that Terry died in vain. I want people to know what war is really like… to get the faces of the people who died out there and to tell people how horrible it is. This is just one little story,” she said.

Gwen is a lifetime member of the Gold Star Wives of America, a private nonprofit organization formed before the end of World War II to provide support for the spouses and children of those who lost their lives while serving in the Armed Forces of the United States. While Gwen appreciates the support, she said she has become “deaf against war.”

“My son grew up not knowing his father. It affects you the rest of your life. This year marks 49 years since he died,” she said.

“Because I had Chris, I had to continue living. He was an absolute blessing,” she said of her oldest son, who today lives in Cresco. “I was never against the men in Vietnam, I was against the war. Today, I’m trying to create awareness.”

Terry Miller, a private first class at the time of his death, was promoted posthumously to corporal. While alive, he earned a number of medals, including the National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Ribbon, Expert Badge with Machine Gun Bar, Sharpshooter Badge with Top Automatic Rifle Bar and a Marksman Badge with Rifle Bar. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal and the Combat Infantry Badge.

Today, Gwen teaches an art group in her home and enjoys traveling. She plans to continue working on a book about Terry’s service and is currently planning a trip to Vietnam with a friend.

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