Thomas E. Bratten Jr., a decorated, disabled Vietnam War veteran who went on to become the first secretary of the state Department of Veterans Affairs, died Wednesday of complications from diabetes at his western Maryland farm. The Friendsville resident was 61.
Mr. Bratten, a Kentucky native who lost an arm and leg and suffered other injuries in a landmine explosion, spent years working on behalf of fellow veterans before Gov. Parris N. Glendening tapped him for the new Cabinet-level position in 1999.
He was the perfect choice for the post, said longtime friend Terry O'Connell of Chevy Chase. Mr. Bratten served as secretary until the end of Mr. Glendening's administration in January 2003.
"He was highly motivated. He was highly intelligent. He was ... a wheeler-dealer," said Mr. O'Connell, who met Mr. Bratten when the two were recovering from their combat wounds at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington in the early 1970s. "He had firsthand knowledge of the complete panoply of veterans' problems."
Born in Louisville, Ky., Mr. Bratten lost his father to another war - World War II - when he was an infant. Thomas E. Bratten Sr. died on Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion.
The younger Bratten decided to join the National Guard in the early 1960s, later attending Officer Candidate School.
He volunteered for service in Vietnam and entered the war as an Army captain in February 1970. Three months later, he was disabled by a landmine while trying to rescue wounded soldiers in the Central Highlands. His commander, then-Lt. Col. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, pulled him to safety, he told The Sun in a 1999 interview.
He spent the next 3 1/2 years recovering and undergoing rehabilitation at Walter Reed. It was during his time there that he and Mr. O'Connell, who lost part of an arm in Vietnam, became fast friends in an area called "the Snake Pit."
At the hospital, Mr. Bratten, a big man with a booming voice, was a jokester, Mr. O'Connell said.
"He was impossibly bigger than life," Mr. O'Connell said. "He was much more badly injured and much more full of life than the rest of us."
For his service, Mr. Bratten was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
Mr. Bratten went on to earn a bachelor's degree in political science and a master's degree in public administration from American University in Washington, his family said.
Over the next few decades, Mr. Bratten worked with veterans service organizations, sat on various boards and commissions working on behalf of veterans and the handicapped, served on the state's military monuments commission and held various state jobs.
At the time he was named to the secretary's post by Mr. Glendening, he was directing the Maryland Veterans Commission, one of three agencies merged to create the new department.
In an interview, Mr. Bratten, who had lobbied the state legislature seeking approval for the new agency, said his goal was to create "one-stop shopping" for Maryland veterans.
Comptroller William Donald Schaefer called him a "great American."
"He was a hero, a man who had a leg shot off and an arm shot off and never complained," said Mr. Schaefer, who, as governor, honored Mr. Bratten as Disabled Marylander of the Year in 1990. "He was always upbeat, all the time."
In 2002, Mr. Bratten was named Outstanding Disabled Veteran of the Year by the Disabled American Veterans.
He also was a certified post-traumatic stress counselor.
Mr. Bratten was involved in politics, serving as chairman of the Democratic parties in Montgomery County and later in Garrett County.
"This man's amazing. I don't know how he did it all," said his wife of three years, the former Linda Metz.
Mr. Bratten advocated for disabled children and took a personal interest in making sure their needs were met, Mrs. Bratten said.
He was also an avid hunter of ducks and deer, and refused to allow his injuries to stop him from enjoying life, his wife and Mr. O'Connell said.
"He was about maximizing today, this minute," Mr. O'Connell said.
Services will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow at Adams Family Funeral Home, 404 Decatur St. in Cumberland.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Bratten is survived by two daughters, Sharon L. Amaya of Germantown and Kristen T. Bratten of Silver Spring; two stepsons, Jeffery W. Tracy of Mount Airy and James Tracy of Edgewater; his stepfather, Raymond Mittel of Louisville, Ky.; two stepbrothers, Richard Mittel of Jefferson, Ind., and R. Joseph Mittel Sr. of Louisville, Ky.; a stepsister, Linda D. Mittel Flatau of Sherman, Conn.; eight grandchildren; and one step-great-grandson.
Three previous marriages ended in divorce. He had lost touch with a third daughter, Deanna, his wife said.