Losing a brother to war - Tom Bradley
The Bradley family, including Grandma, who made an unexpected appearance in the mirror.

Losing a brother to war

An interview with Deb Bradley Ahmann

By Dana Miller

I grew up in the same home town as the Bradleys. I knew who Deb Bradley was, and that her brother, Tom Bradley had been lost in the Vietnam War, but she was older, and probably a whole lot wiser, so I watched her from afar, on the high school speech team, taking home first place trophies, then learning about how she had approached an American Legion commander about participating in the Memorial Day ceremony to talk about what it was like to lose her brother – and being denied that opportunity. Deb Bradley Ahmann had a story to tell. I decided I could sit back and observe, or step up and do something. I chose the latter – to do something.

How old were you when your brother Thomas left for Vietnam? What do you remember about this time?

Tom left for Vietnam in September of 1968; I was eleven years old. I remember the drive to the airport in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was pretty quiet, but the drive home with just Mom, Dad, and me in the car was even quieter. I think we each felt rather empty and didn’t really know what to say or do.

Are there special moments or details you remember about Thomas from your youth?

One very vivid memory I have is of Tom having a job of delivering Sunday newspapers to farms around Minneota. He was obviously old enough to drive, but I don’t remember what age I was. Tom had just given me one of those stocking hats with a long tail for Christmas, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. He let me come with him one Sunday morning, and I was proudly wearing my hat. I remember rolling the car window down and sticking my head out so my hat would blow in the breeze until Tom gently reminded me that I better be careful or I would lose it to the snow. I shut the window quickly.

Losing a brother to war - Tom Bradley.
A family vacation in Minnesota with Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe.

What were some of Thomas’s favorite things? School subjects? Sports? Food?

It makes me sad to realize that I don’t know any of Tom’s favorites, but I do see from his report cards that other than Industrial Arts and PE, school didn’t seem to be a top priority.

Can you give some background about your parents?

Our parents were basically behind-the-scenes type of people. Dad enjoyed his work – and the people he met at and through his work at MGT. Mom enjoyed being around the staff and students at St. Edward’s, and then later enjoyed her co-workers at Schott. They did not travel the world – Dad’s idea of a vacation was to drive us to the Black Hills, take a picture of us by a landmark, and then drive us back home.

But they served their church through volunteer work. They enjoyed bowling and golfing with friends, and they entertained family with food – Mom was a great cook – and card-playing fun. And they loved their children.

Who are your siblings, and what are their ages in comparison to Thomas?

Tom was born in 1947, Dick in 1950, and I was born in 1957. The priest suggested at my baptism that my parents name me Harriet (so we could be Tom, Dick, and Harry), but my mom vetoed that idea.

Losing a brother to war - Tom Bradley.
Tom, Deb, and Dick in the yard in rural Lyon County, Minnesota.

Do you remember any details of the moment or time period that you learned Thomas had died in the line of duty?

Tom was killed on June 19, 1969, but we didn’t learn of his death until days later. Dad must have been on vacation, because he was home and working on building a new step leading to the back door of our house. I remember that Dad had just left to go to UBC to get some supplies, and I was playing in the back yard with a few neighborhood friends.
A dark car pulled up in front of our house, and I immediately heard my mom make a loud noise from in the house. When I went inside to see what she had said, I saw a soldier leaving that car and walking toward our front door. Mom said I had to tell my friends to go home, so I went back outside. When I came back in, Mom was on the phone and saying, “Tell Jim to come home.” She hung up, and that’s when I noticed she was crying. She held me until my dad came rushing in the back door. Dad stopped still when he saw the soldier. The next thing I remember is Dad slumped in a chair and saying, “That damn war,” over and over again. 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.

How did having Thomas as a sibling impact your life?

Because I was so much younger than the boys, I knew I always had a protector. I think Tom thought I was much less of a pest than Dick did, but my brothers were always there to help me when I needed it.

Losing a brother to war- Tom Bradley.
Dad spoiled Deb and his Rambler – they were the apples of his eye.

How did losing Thomas impact your life?

My reaction to losing Tom has changed throughout my life, especially once I became a parent. When we first lost him, I knew my parents were sad, but they seemed to smile when I would say or do something silly or funny, so I would do whatever I could to bring that smile to their faces. I also knew from an early age that I wanted to do whatever I could to honor Tom’s memory, so I would ride my bike to the cemetery to water flowers or clean his stone. I would write stories about him, I would attend each and every event that mentioned him, and I would some day name my child after him. Later, as a parent, I began to appreciate the depth of the pain and loneliness my parents endured. It is unimaginable to me to think of not having our beautiful children (our daughter Ellie and our son Thomas James) in my life. 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.


blurbJuliaMelvinDana Miller is a writer and marketing consultant currently working with the Vietnam Memorial and History Center in Southwestern Minnesota. She also was the managing editor for “Ten: Five Five,” a book about Royal Hettling’s experiences as a dog handler in Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam, available on Amazon.