Romie L. "Les" Brownlee

romie brownlee
Les Brownlee, former Army Undersecretary and combat veteran, dies at 82

Romie L. "Les" Brownlee, who commanded one of the first combat units in Vietnam and later served concurrently as both Acting Secretary of the Army and Under Secretary of the Army for nineteen months, becoming the longest-serving Acting Secretary of the Army in history, died of natural causes on May 19 at his home in Annandale, Virginia. He was 82.

"Les Brownlee has always been guided by what he thought was in the best interest of our Nation's security and in the best interest of the men and women of our Armed Forces," the late Senator John Warner of Virginia stated in support of Mr. Brownlee's nomination as Undersecretary of the Army. "My military career pales in the face of Les Brownlee’s and those of the men and women who have really gotten into the thick of it, have been tested, and proved not only to survive, but continue their leadership."

Les Brownlee was born on July 11, 1939, in the small west Texas town of Pampa. His father, Clyde, was an explosives expert who shot oil wells with nitroglycerin torpedoes, and his mother, Gladys, was a homemaker. Their home was full of love, encouragement and grounded by a deep faith in Jesus Christ. By the fifth grade, the family had moved to Odessa, another west Texas oil town. Mr. Brownlee graduated from Odessa High School in 1957 and earned a scholarship to the University Wyoming. There, he met his future wife, Nancy, and, upon graduation in 1962, was commissioned in the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant. After his first assignment with the 101st Airborne Division, Mr. Brownlee volunteered for the Army's rigorous Ranger School and graduated as its Distinguished Honor Graduate in March 1965. He then joined the 173rd Airborne Brigade - arriving as the first U.S. Army ground combat unit to be committed to Vietnam.

In the fall of 1965, Mr. Brownlee took command of an infantry company with a primary area of operations in South Vietnam near the Dong Nai River, referred to as War Zone D. On March 13, 1966, during a firefight, then-Captain Brownlee, while successfully saving several soldiers who were cut off from their unit and exposed to heavy enemy fire, was wounded when he was struck by an enemy grenade. Mr. Brownlee was awarded the Silver Star, the nation's third highest award for valor, for his heroism, and a Purple Heart for his wounds received during the firefight.

Mr. Brownlee retired from the Army in 1984 at the rank of Colonel after commanding a mechanized infantry battalion in Europe from 1975-77, graduating from the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA, and serving as the Executive officer for Undersecretary of the Army James Ambrose.

In 1984, Mr. Brownlee joined the office of the late Sen. John Warner as his National Security Advisor. From 1987 to 1996, he served as a Professional Staff Member on the Senate Committee on Armed Services and later served as the Committee's Staff Director.

In 2001, President George W. Bush nominated Mr. Brownlee to serve as the Undersecretary of the Army, and Mr. Brownlee became the Acting Secretary of Army in 2003 when the nation was fighting wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He loved being with soldiers and understood them as well as anyone. The following was reported in Government Executive Magazine, April 15, 2004, about his service at the Pentagon.

On Christmas Eve 2001, Undersecretary of the Army Les Brownlee took an Air Force C-130 transport plane to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where about 200 soldiers were battling al Qaeda and the terrorist organization's Taliban sponsors. It was a dangerous flight. To reduce their chances of drawing enemy fire, the pilots landed at night, with their lights extinguished. Brownlee spent the evening and following day meeting with soldiers, listening to their experiences and offering encouragement and praise for their service. He had been in office less than two months when he made the Christmas visit, but it established a pattern. With little fanfare and no press attention, Brownlee has spent every holiday since then in the field with soldiers.

In addition to his outstanding career achievements, Mr. Brownlee loved his family, and always made them a priority. He cherished his children and was a loving and devoted grandfather. He was a great storyteller, and his laugh was infectious.

After many decades of loyal service to his country, Mr. Brownlee devoted himself to being a dependable and loyal friend to those around him. He enjoyed traveling and was an avid reader. His weekends were typically spent cheering on the Dallas Cowboys and the Alabama Crimson Tide. He was always up for a late-night movie or a documentary on the History Channel. He enjoyed spending many summer days on the lake with his family. To his granddaughters, he was "Pop-Pop" and he was present for every school play, musical, and ballet recital, often with red, white, and blue flower bouquets in-hand. His legacy will live on in the lives of everyone he impacted.

Les Brownlee was survived by his daughter, Tracy Brownlee Carney (Clay), of Falls Church, VA, son, John L. Brownlee (Lee Ann) of Great Falls, VA, a sister, Kay L. Peek (Buster) of San Angelo, TX, 3 granddaughters, Kyla M. Carney, Thompson A. Brownlee and Cate H. Brownlee, his former wife, Nancy L. Hoyler (Robert) of Fairfax Station, VA, his nephew Joel A. Fink, Jr. (Laura) of Midland, TX, nieces Sally Sloane Peek of San Angelo, TX, and Sarah Entzminger (Jason) of San Angelo, TX, and a host of other family and friends who loved him dearly.

A Celebration of Life service will take place on Saturday, June 4 at 11 am at Annandale United Methodist Church. A funeral service and burial will be held at Arlington National Cemetery at a future date. Tributes in lieu of flowers may be sent to Blue Star Families at

There will be a luncheon reception at Patton Hall, 214 Jackson Ave, Fort Myer, VA 22211, immediately following his funeral.

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Memories Timeline


  1. Les was a very special friend. I have many memories of our times together. I hold him in my heart and send my prayers to his dear family. He was so very proud of all of you. Earlene Smith. Odessa, Texas

  2. I was Capt. Brownlee’s radio-telephone operator in War Zone D and elsewhere and he was the straightest arrow and finest commander I could ever have envisioned when I enlisted in the Army. I still get a kick out of the time he was asked to officially greet Playboy Magazine Playmate of the Year Jo Collins in January 1966 on the helipad when we had returned from 10 days in the jungle and he said that duty has to go to one of my men, and turned to me and I kissed Miss Collins as cameras clicked away — an episode we reenacted at our B Company 20th reunion in Washington, D.C., in 1985.

  3. Les came to FT Benning in 1966, where we met. He commanded B/2-503 IN 3 commanders after me. Later in 1970 we were students together at CGSC. Always smiling which sometimes camouflaged his brilliance as a soldier. May God welcome him into the Hall of Heroes. LTC Roy Lombardo

  4. Secretary Les Brownlee was a man’s man, a soldier’s soldier, and an exemplary civil servant as a congressional staffer and later as a presidential appointee at the Department of Defense. He was a very hard worker, as well, and understood the entire defense enterprise and industry. All of us who knew him, dismiss the “ Acting” part of his title. He was the real deal led the Army from the front while we were at war in two countries. He lived and breathed that job every minute of every day and took all the heat and threw all the punches that are part of that impossible job. He has my eternal admiration and respect, especially for his work in Iraq Reconstruction. He was also a sharp dresser and always commanded the room- necessary attributes in the Swamp. Rest In Peace, Good Sir. We will meet again on God’s high ground. Army Strong, Dean G.Popps Former Army Acquisition Executive (AAE) Former Assistant Secretary of the Army for ALT (Acting) Former Director of Iraq Reconstruction

  5. My father, Robert Orr had many great memories of his dear friend Les. My condolences to the whole family. May the wonderful memories, achievements & legacy of Mr Brownlee provide some peace- Julie Orr Robison

  6. May the Distinguished Honor Graduate of Ranger 6-65 Rest in Well-deserved Peace. He was a true hero and role model. COL (R) Charles C. Viall, Ranger 6-65 and SES (R) Maureen O. Viall.

  7. Les Brownlee was a friend of mine—we met at CGSC in 1969 and our friendship lasted a life time. He also was a great soldier and leader as well as a loving husband and father who cared greatly about those with whom he worked and went to great pains to take care of them. His c contributions to the U.S. Army are too many to list and greatly under appreciated because he never sought credit but those of us who knew him knew well what he had done and will never forget him. The Army is better off by far because of all the things he did—May we never forget him and may he RIP–God Bless my friend!

  8. I served under Col. Brownlee 45 years ago. He was, and remains, the most impressive leader I have ever known. My deepest condolences to his wonderful family. God bless you Colonel Brownlee. Sir.

  9. Just learned about this huge loss. Les was my college football buddy and the only person I ever met who cheered for Wyoming. Even though I’m a few months late, my thoughts go out to his family. I’ll be rooting for them Cowboys now!

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