"I studied thermodynamics and electrical engineering and all those lovely things that led into driving a nuclear submarine," Brownfield said.
But his horizons expanded quickly when he volunteered for going to Baghdad. There he wandered into a souvenir shop that also sold paintings by local artists, CBS News correspondent Richard Schlesinger reports.
It took a while, but the American sailor gained the trust of the Iraqi artists.
"And that's when the interesting paintings started coming out," he said.
They were paintings by men like Mohammed al Hamadany.
He says Iraqi artists used to paint beautiful things. Now, says al Hamadany through a translator, "I am living between two colors: black and red."
Brownfield thinks black and red are visual metaphors - black for oil and greed, red for violence and hatred.
"This man didn't know what to think about his society now," he said. "They had democracy but there was chaos and those things were tearing at him."
A lot of the paintings deal with children. Works like "The Real Children" and "Burnt Toy."
"It's heart wrenching, just heart wrenching," he said. "That toy belonged to a child who either lost his home or was killed. That's what's so difficult about it."
Brownfield decided he had to bring these paintings to the United States.
"It became obvious to me that there was no other way for these people to have a voice," he said. "They had amazing things to say."
When he left the Navy, he shipped the paintings to the United States. His apartment became a warehouse.
He found a gallery in New York willing to exhibit the paintings and sell them for the artists. He'll send the profits back to Baghdad.
"I guess you could call me a cultural entrepreneur," Brownfield said.
It's a chance very few artists get, especially from a world of war, half a world away.
To learn more about the art, exhibit and artists, you can visit Christopher Brownfield's Web site by clicking here.