Clifford A. Branson – Chief Warrant Officer 4, United States Army

Gloria Lee gently rubs her fingers across the white stars of the folded American flag and shares how her Army helicopter pilot son’s death from a massive coronary may have saved her own life.

Clifford “Cliff” Branson, 44, was buried September 11, 2006, at Arlington National Cemetery after he collapsed and died July 22, 2006 in Dallas, Georgia, while playing soccer with his colleagues. As a result of her middle child’s death, Lee had her own heart checked and learned she had 80 percent blockage. She received three stents and was put on a blood thinner and cholesterol-lowering medication.

“His death prompted me” to undergo a stress test, the Village of Belvedere resident said. Now her other two sons, Mark, 47, and Evan, 33, as well as additional family members, Cliff’s friends, and even her own friends, are getting their hearts checked, too.

Lee had assumed she was in good shape. She never felt any pains and she made every effort to work out, eat right and stay active. Even though heart disease had affected some of her ancestors, Lee thought her healthy lifestyle was enough.

“You don’t have to have any symptoms,” she said, “yet problems can be there.”

Lee’s mission is to share her son’s story with hopes it inspires more people to take their health seriously.

“A medical checkup is all it takes,” she said. “And we have excellent doctors here.”

The Villager now wonders that if she had gone for a stress test sooner, before Cliff died, it could have made a difference.

“I know that God doesn’t make any mistakes, so it must have been his time to go,” she said. “It was too sudden for us; you don’t expect to outlive your children.”

Cliff was in the Army for 21 years, serving in Desert Storm as a helicopter pilot. He survived being shot down twice in Iraq, and he was planning to retire in October.

“Almost half of his life was for the service,” Lee said. “It was something he loved and did well. He was a true soldier who said, ‘I don’t want to kill anybody if I don’t have to, but it’s to keep them fighting over there and not coming here where my family is.’”

On the morning he died, Cliff had played one and a half hours of soccer with new men coming into his unit for training. The older men were playing against the younger ones. Others in Cliff’s unit told Lee that her son was elated during the game.

“He was so happy. He ran up and down the hot field for an hour and a half like a high school soccer player,” she said. “When he collapsed, he never responded. It was too much for his heart.”

Lee was stunned when she received the devastating phone call from her daughter-in-law, Debbie.

“I never experienced pain until the day he died,” she said. “I had a broken heart. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t swallow and I couldn’t talk for about three days. The only thing I could liken it to is that my heart broke.”

Funeral services were held in Georgia, and as soon as Lee returned home to The Villages, she knew she had to get a stress test. She knew it was what Cliff wanted her to do.

“I was getting really shortwinded and out of breath and felt pressure,” she said of the stress test on a treadmill. “I felt out of shape.”

Lee was told she needed to see a cardiologist immediately. She remembers hearing: “You have blockage and it can be very dangerous.”

“All I want is for you to mend me so that I can go to Arlington,” she told the cardiologist. “I didn’t think I could make it there after I learned I had heart problems, and after what happened to my son. I wasn’t afraid. I have a lot of faith, and I knew God was using this for good.”

“I promise you, we’ll take care of you, and you will be fine to go to Arlington,” Lee was told.

Lee learned her son had had a stress test not long ago, and it was OK.

“Maybe it was OK at that point, but it wasn’t after being physical for one and a half hours in the heat,” Lee said.

After studying family medical history on both sides of Cliff’s family, Lee realized heart disease was not only on her side of the family, but her former husband’s as well.

Cliff’s paternal grandfather and paternal great-grandfather both died from heart disease on their 61st birthday, while Cliff’s father outlived them and is still alive.

“When we started looking at the family, the history, and paying attention and talking, we put it all together. And the doctors said Cliff was a ticking time bomb,” she said. “Yet they said he had to be a good specimen of health other than his heart, or he wouldn’t have lasted as long.”

Cliff’s passion was flying, Lee said, adding that her son had flown eight and a half hours the day before he died, on loan to Georgia, flying over marijuana fields to help eradicate drugs.

“He found the largest marijuana patch ever and got a big award for 37,000 plants,” Lee recalled of one of her son’s many honors.

She remembers that her son made an effort to help younger pilots and was a devoted father.

“He never looked upon himself as a hero, even though he was shot down twice in Iraq,” said Hugh Lee, Cliff’s stepfather, who served in World War II. “I think he was a hero.”

The Villagers say they know how Cliff would have responded.

“He would say he was not a hero,” she said. “(He’d say) ‘I’m in the Army and I get paid for protecting you and our country, and I love to fly.’”

“I am very proud of him,” Hugh said of his stepson. “He was an inspiration to the young people because they looked up to him.”

The Lees now have Cliff’s dog, Shelby, that they are caring for in their home. The dog became jealous when Cliff and his wife recently had a baby, their fourth child.

“We took her and now she is in dog heaven,” Gloria said, adding that Shelby has bonded with her husband and together they walk around their neighborhood.

She said after her son died, she and Hugh were blessed with more than 150 sympathy cards, most from their Villages neighbors, and the cards have helped them cope.

Gloria Lee says she feels called by God to continue to encourage others to get their health checked.

“I hope they immediately go to their doctors and say, ‘OK. Let’s check out my heart,’” she said.

And she hopes that simple act saves a few more lives, like it has done for her.

DATE OF BIRTH: 04/06/1962
DATE OF DEATH: 07/22/2006

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