Candyce and Dustin Brown last spoke to their son Hunter by phone on Sunday, Jan. 8, discussing the class schedule for his upcoming sophomore year at the Air Force Academy in Colorado.
Hunter was in good spirits. He was taking it easy in his dorm with his roommate as he continued to recover from foot surgery he'd undergone two months earlier, aimed at fixing a torn ligament suffered during football practice at the service academy. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary or unusual.
But the following day as he was heading to class, Hunter experienced a medical emergency and died. He was 21 years old.
"What happened was a total shock," his mother, Candyce, told Military.com. "He was doing well with his recovery."
Dustin and Candyce said Hunter's death is a tragedy, especially because graduating from a service academy and playing college football had been a dream for him since he was a kid. Shortly after arriving in Colorado Springs, the cadet decided he wanted to become a pilot and fly cargo planes for the Air Force.
His dad, Dustin, was a radioman in the Navy. Growing up in Louisiana, Hunter saw that there were generations of his family who decided to join the military and he wanted to honor that tradition.
"He wanted to kind of carry on that legacy, and he wanted to play football," Dustin said. "He found the opportunity to do both at the Air Force Academy."
Hunter attended the Air Force Academy Preparatory School, graduating in May 2021. Shortly after, he joined the Air Force Academy's football team, where he played offensive lineman. He was part of the team's 2021 and 2022 winning seasons.
"He was a pure joy to coach and have as a teammate," Troy Calhoun, head football coach at the Air Force Academy, said in a Jan. 10 news release. "He was tough, a great worker, and no one unselfishly pulled harder for others than Hunter. His mom and dad, Candyce and Dustin, raised a wonderful son who made each of us a better person."
Hunter's parents told Military.com that preliminary reports of their son's cause of death pointed to a pulmonary embolism, or a blocked artery in his lungs. Officials said there was a blood clot in his uninjured leg that was likely to blame. The final autopsy is pending toxicology reports.
The young cadet’s sudden death was unexpected and tragic. In a starkly divided America, it also became a political talking point among critics and skeptics of the vaccines that saved the U.S. from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hunter’s death stoked conspiracies online claiming the vaccines cause sudden deaths, including from U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican.
"What the hell is going on?" Greene tweeted Jan. 11 alongside a news article about Hunter's death. "How many more healthy young people are going to drop dead?"
Less than 20 minutes later, Greene sent another tweet calling for "an immediate investigation into why people are dying suddenly from strokes and cardiac arrest all across the world. Especially while people are continued to be forced to take #COVID19 vaccines through mandates."
Hunter's cause of death had not been publicly shared by the school or in news reports at that time.
His parents have their personal concerns about what could have contributed to his medical emergency, but they told Military.com that they didn't appreciate members of the public speculating on the cause of Hunter's death when they didn't know the official cause and didn't have the context of his recent foot surgery.
"He had a surgery two months before, but we don't want to feed into any conspiracies," Candyce said. "We also still have our personal questions about why, but it wasn't put out there that he had surgery. No one knew that."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. The agency has acknowledged that "in rare cases, people have experienced serious health events after COVID-19 vaccination" but also explained that "an adverse event can be caused by the vaccine or can be caused by a coincidental event not related to the vaccine."
Hunter was vaccinated against COVID-19.
In the weeks following his death, Candyce said she has heard numerous stories from fellow cadets about how he helped them through tough times or helped coach them on the field.
"He was just a great kid, but to know that multiple people have come to us and said that he helped them through hard times, for me that's one thing that kind of stands out … that I'm very proud of," Candyce said.
Hunter's parents want people to know that their son was also protective of his younger sister, was a diligent student who was fluent in French, and was a loyal teammate to his fellow Air Force Academy cadets.
"To know Hunter was to love Hunter," his father said. "He didn't meet a stranger, he was friendly to everybody. He could be serious and he could joke, and he knew the difference and when to do both."
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.