EAST ST. LOUIS, Illinois (April 9, 2021) – What do a pastor, band director, a retired Marine, and the senior enlisted advisor to a Marine general all have in common? They are all family from East St. Louis, Illinois.
Rewind 33 years to the summer of 1988. Carlos Brown and Cortez Brown, recent high school graduates from East St. Louis Lincoln High School, are driving down Interstate 70. They are heading west, out of St. Louis, in a 1979 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. Cortez has his bare feet hanging out of the window, which may sound picturesque, but in less than a month the pair would be thousands of miles away with shaved heads, wondering what they got themselves into.
They weren’t just going on any old road trip. They were travelling to Colorado to meet their recruiter, U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Mark Brown, Carlos’s brother and Cortez’s uncle, to enlist into the Marines.
What led to the pair choosing this path in life? Both Browns were raised by single mothers in East St. Louis. Although Carlos is Cortez’s uncle, they were only a year apart in age. They led mostly normal lives, playing sports and participating in other extracurricular activities. Mark Brown had been in the Marine Corps for several years by the time the pair were graduating high school and he visited his family as often as he could.
It was on these trips back to his hometown that he had some influence on Carlos and Cortez choosing to pursue the path to earn the title of Marine.
“[Mark] always had something in his pocket for us,” said Carlos Brown. “He always had good advice for us. He always kept his cars clean, he always had his shirts and his pants creased, shoes shined and those type of things that take time. It makes you think ‘this guy can’t be lazy’ and I don’t want to be that either. So, whenever he would come around, we would be trying to be clean too. It instilled those type of things and as my brother, I don’t know if he ever heard me say this, but I wanted to be like that. I wanted to. And Cortez and I talked about that.”
Cortez Brown had similar thoughts on what inspired him to pursue the title of Marine.
“My Uncle Mark’s lifestyle ‘spoke’ to me,” said U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Cortez Brown, sergeant major of Marine Corps Recruiting Command. “I saw what he was able to do because of the Marine Corps. In particular, I was impressed with his travels; the Marine Corps enabled him to travel to Hawaii and numerous other places. He earned a living through the Marine Corps that allowed him to provide for his family. By looking at his life and what the Marine Corps did for him, I was inspired to pursue the same path.”
After arriving in Aurora, Colorado, Carlos and Cortez spent a couple weeks with Mark getting ready for recruit training and they left early on the buddy program.
“They were scheduled to go to [recruit training] on a special day, but the recruiting command came to me and said ‘Staff Sgt. Brown, I need some help,’” said Mark Brown, who is now living in Swansea, Illinois. “Cortez and Carlos, helped them out. They shipped early when they weren’t supposed to.”
Cortez and Carlos went through recruit training together and it was there where they learned to lean on each other for support.
“I honestly think that if I didn’t have Cortez there with me, I probably would’ve cried a hell of a whole lot, but we were there for one another,” said Carlos. “We created an even more special bond that others would actually come to us for strength.”
Cortez stated they were able to utilize their personal traits in recruit training.
“Because we shared the same last name, Brown, I fondly remember the drill instructors referring to us as ‘Big Brown’ (me) and ‘Little Brown’ (Carlos) because of our size and height,” said Cortez. “They said that Carlos was the ‘brains’ and I was the ‘muscles.’ It all worked to our advantage because our strengths and weaknesses helped balance out our training experiences.”
In December of 1988 they graduated recruit training together. According to Carlos, when they visited East St. Louis after graduation the first person they visited was Ruby Brown, Carlos’ mother and Cortez’s grandmother. All who knew her out of respect called her mother. Both of them consider the women in their lives positive influences.
“My mother and both of my grandmothers, Ruby Brown and Narva Sayles are significant influences in my life,” said Cortez. “I always jokingly say that my mother, Victoria Brown, was the first drill instructor that I had. She taught me how to be self-disciplined, financially responsible, and dependable at an early age.”
Victoria had developed Polio at a young age and wasn’t expected to have children. Through it all she had four children.
“My sister Vicky has done a tremendous job with her children,” said Carlos. “From the inability to use one arm, with a limp, you would not know that Sgt. Maj. Brown’s mother, throughout the struggle, looked at struggle and said the hell with it. She will outwalk anybody, even to this day.”
Travelling home to visit family after recruit training wouldn’t be the last trip for any of them. At one point all of them had moved away, even Cortez’s younger brother Jason Brown, who serves as the Fine Arts Department Chair and Band Director for East St. Louis High School.
Although Jason chose a different path than his uncles and brother, it is one that is no less noble. He has spent 25 years in education and is currently a doctoral candidate at Lindenwood University. He stressed the importance of community and giving back.
“Too often, people come from the community of East St. Louis and they forget,” said Jason Brown. “They forget about part of their responsibility of coming and giving back and supporting that foundation to continue to build and get stronger. We get our education, our good jobs, and we go away and forget about the people here who still need a lot of support and guidance. For me, coming up, there was somebody that I could think of who could help me get there. ‘Okay how do you do financial aid, my momma didn’t go to school, I know this person he has a degree or whatever so that was it.’ There are not many people like that today but I think I see it slowly coming back.”
Jason Brown isn’t the only Brown who has a passion for giving back. According to Jason, his grandmother Ruby’s house was a hub for the community in their childhood years. Victoria Brown’s house was where all the childhood children would gather for candy, popsicles, and barbecue.
When asked about his sister, Mark Brown stated that she is a pillar of strength that he still draws from to this day.
Carlos is the pastor of the Word of Life Ministries International Church and the business representative for the International Longshoreman’s Association. Mark moved back to East St. Louis a year and a half ago after retiring from the United States Postal Service. That was his second retirement, the Marines being his first.
Cortez has served 34 years in the Marine Corps so far, and was recently selected to be the command senior enlisted leader for Combined Maritime Forces, Bahrain, a 33-nation naval partnership promoting security, stability and prosperity across more than 3.2 million square miles of international waters. While he doesn’t plan on moving back to St. Louis, he said he looks forward to more frequent visits in the future.
“Although I do not plan to reside in East St. Louis after retirement, my schedule will allow me to visit more frequently,” said Cortez Brown. “I will always have an affinity for my hometown because it helped shape who I am today. Plus, the majority of my beloved family members still reside in that area, so I definitely plan to make numerous trips back home.”
Sgt. Maj. Brown offered some words of advice to young people who don’t know what they want to do with their lives.
“I would tell all youth, especially those in East St. Louis that ‘the world is your oyster,’” said Cortez Brown. “There are so many options and opportunities for you to pursue, whether it’s college, military service, entrepreneurship, or a skilled trade. The key is to connect with someone who can help point you in the right direction, just as my Uncle Mark did for me. What’s not acceptable is complacency and apathy. When you make one step, there is someone out there who is willing to help you take the next step. Quite naturally, I believe that the Marine Corps is a viable option for someone who has the personal drive and mental fortitude to pursue an enriching career while being of service to our country.”
If you, or someone you know would like to explore career options in the Marine Corps, contact your local Marine Recruiter or visit www.Marines.com/STLMarines.