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Losing Tom

Siblings talk about their brother’s death in Vietnam

Tom Bradley’s basic training graduation at Fort Campbell 1968. Contributed photo

Tom Bradley’s basic training graduation at Fort Campbell 1968. Contributed photo

Tom Bradley wasn’t a high school all-star or president of his class. He played baseball with his younger brother in the yard, did a lot of hunting, and went to school – even liked Industrial Arts and P.E. a little. He was a handsome, home-grown Southern Minnesota boy who was nice enough to let his little sister ride along on his Sunday paper route once in a while. That is something Deb Bradley Ahmann remembers about Tom. He was a thoughtful big brother.

“I always knew I had a protector,” recalled Deb, a full 10 years younger than Tom and seven years younger than her middle brother Dick. She was the treasured “pest” of the family. Once, when she was invited to ride shotgun in Tom’s truck while he delivered newspapers to farms around Minneota, Deb stuck her head out the window to make the tail and fringes on her stocking cap, a Christmas gift from Tom, blow in the wind. Tom gently told her to be careful or she would lose her cap in the snow.

The whole Bradley bunch, including Grandma, who made unexpected appearances in family photos. Contributed photo

The whole Bradley bunch, including Grandma, who made unexpected appearances in family photos. Contributed photo

“I shut the window quickly!” remembered Deb. She could always count on both of her brothers to look out for her.

Deb was 11 when Tom left for Vietnam in September 1968.

“I remember the drive to the airport in Sioux Falls was pretty quiet, but the drive home with just mom (Bernice) and dad (Jim) and me in the car was even quieter.”

It was an empty feeling, and there were no words to describe it. Dick was 18, a Minneota High School graduate, and a U.S. Army candidate when Tom entered the Vietnam War. Tom was his older brother, and Dick looked up to him.

“Dad went to school in Amiret, and mom went to school in Milroy,” remembered Dick.

“They farmed when they first got married. Later, we moved to Minneota.” Jim enjoyed his work at M.G.T., the Skelly station that served Minneota, Ghent and Taunton. Bernice did odd jobs around town but especially enjoyed being around students and staff at St. Edward’s School, and later, she liked to socialize with her coworkers at Schott Corporation. The Bradleys “served their church through volunteer work; they enjoyed bowling and golfing with friends; hey entertained family with food (mom was a great cook!) and card-playing fun, and they loved their children,” said Deb, and she revealed that her dad’s idea of a family vacation was driving to the Black Hills, taking a photo in front of a landmark, and driving back home.

Thomas James Bradley, 1965, high school graduation.

Thomas James Bradley, 1965, high school graduation.

Tom became a heavy vehicle driver in the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division with the U.S. Army, which was stationed near Hau Nghia Province, a short trip north and west of Saigon and butted up against the Cambodian border. Hau Nghia (pronounced how ne-yah’) was only one of the 44 provinces in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Sgt. Bradley’s in-country service began Sept. 21, 1968, during the third and final phase of the Tet Offensive.

After Tom had been in South Vietnam for a while, his father Jim approached Charlie Hettling, a Marine Corps Vietnam Veteran who had returned to his hometown of Minneota. He wanted to know “how bad” it was “over there.” Charlie downplayed the seriousness of the situation, hoping to quell Jim’s worries about his eldest son.

On June 19, 1969, Tom was killed in action. Charlie still cannot talk about what happened to Tom without tears. “It was only two weeks” after he had said things weren’t that bad. “I shouldn’t have done that.” But, Jim Bradley had at least two weeks respite from the gut-wrenching anxiety that might have continued to plague him as he envisioned the enemies his son was facing—thanks to Charlie. It was the right thing to do.

A few days after Tom was killed, a dark car pulled up in the driveway of the Bradley home. “Dad

Tom, Deb, and Dick, in their yard. Contributed photo

Tom, Deb, and Dick, in their yard. Contributed photo

must have been on vacation (from the Skelly station) because he was home and working on building a new step leading into the back door of our house. I remember that dad had just left to go to UBC (United Building Center) to get some supplies, and I was playing in the backyard with a few neighborhood friends,” recalls Deb. She heard a loud noise in her mother’s voice and made her way into the house. A military man had exited the dark car and was heading toward the front door, and Deb was instructed to send her friends home. She did so and quickly returned to the house.

“Tell Jim to come home,” said Bernice into the phone. Deb was invited into her mother’s arms and stayed there until Jim rushed through the back door and stopped abruptly to face a soldier in full dress. “The next thing I remember, said Deb, “is dad slumped in a chair and saying, ‘That damn war’ over and over again.”

Dick had entered basic training for the Army, following in his big brother’s footsteps, and was stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash. On the day the dark car found the Bradleys in Minnesota, he was ordered by his drill sergeant to call home. When he did, his mother answered, and she was crying. “I pretty much knew what had happened.”

“The following days are a blur of people coming to our house, Dick coming home from basic training, Tom’s body arriving at the funeral home, an emotionally exhausting funeral, and then a lot of quiet,” recalls Deb. More quiet.

Life without Tom had to go on for the Bradleys; they masked their sadness with smiles, but they couldn’t hide the truth from their youngest. Deb would do whatever silly thing she could to try to cajole them into feeling happy. She would ride her bicycle to St. Edward’s Catholic Cemetery to water Tom’s flowers or clean his stone. She wrote stories about him and attended any event where his name might be mentioned. It was when she became a parent that losing Tom came into full view for her, and she could appreciate the depth of pain and loneliness her parents had endured. She named her son after him.

Once a teacher at St. Edward’s in Minneota and at the public school in Marshall, Deb and her husband Jim now live in Arizona. Dick Bradley has stayed closer to home. He married and made a home for his family in St. James. Dick and his wife Pat have enjoyed watching their own son David pitch for St. James Legion Post 33, and some will say they have been subjected to grueling baseball quizzes while sitting next to Dick on the bleachers.

Thomas Bradley was awarded a Purple Heart for his sacrifice. Dick often thinks about his big brother, the war hero, and wonders if he would have gotten married. If he had children, how many? Who would they have looked like? What kind of job would his brother have had? Who would Tom have become? “There are two dates I will always remember: His birthday (Nov. 28, 1947) and the day he died.” He adds, “For all the people who are doing things to help remember all…who died in Vietnam, I want to say thank you.” He says to Royal and Charlie Hettling, veteran brothers who continue to battle finances to keep the Vietnam Memorial and History Center in Minneota open, “Keep up the good work.”

“It is unimaginable to me to think of not having our beautiful children (our daughter Ellie and our son Thomas James) in my life,” said little sister Deb. “And so, today, I continue to write tributes about Tom, I continue to pester my friends and family into donating to causes that honor Tom, and I continue to thank God for having had such a gentle and beautiful soul in my life.

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