By Jeff Keeling
Kirby Bradford – son, brother, schoolmate and soldier – has long lived in the memories of his family and friends. Now, the face of the young Marine from Sulphur Springs, who was killed in Vietnam 48 years ago, is part of a permanent multi-media exhibit sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
“I think it’s very important,” Bradford’s sister, Karen Snyder, said of the project, which can be accessed at vvmf.org/wall-of-faces. “Not because my brother was a hero or anything like that, but look at what they faced. Every day they went on patrol or went into battle knowing, ‘this may be my last chance to gulp air.’”
Last summer, Snyder learned that State Sen. Rusty Crowe’s office was seeking photos to match the 580 names (nearly half of Tennesseans killed in action in Vietnam) for whom the Memorial Fund had no pictures. Her brother was one of them. Snyder sent a photo to Crowe’s office, along with a lengthy, eloquent letter about Kirby, his family, their community and the impact his death had on everyone. Read the full letter here:Kirby Bradford Letter.
Snyder’s letter describes not just one boy’s life and its tragic early end. It paints a picture of a family in rural Fall Branch, of the community and of the terrible blow that struck in late January, 1967 when two Marine sergeants arrived at the Bradford home to inform the family that he had been killed Jan. 26.
“Words did not have to be spoken, as the sergeants’ countenances told all,” wrote Snyder, who was a high school senior when her only brother was killed less than two months’ shy of his 20th birthday.
The small community rallied around the family. Snyder was two years younger than Kirby, and Hiram and Annie Bradford had three younger daughters – Dinah, Nava Jo and Carlene, who was about nine when Kirby was killed. Remembering it all last week, Snyder said classmates of hers have continued to talk about it even to this day.
One of her classmates tried to enlist after hearing of Kirby’s death. Others were old enough to receive draft notices during the spring. “So what do you think knowing what had happened to this older kid they knew did to their minds?” she said.
While Snyder and her brother were close, she admitted that as a high school senior, she was wrapped up in her own interests and didn’t grasp the magnitude of Kirby’s pending Marine service.
“I know my parents were worried sick. I would write occasionally, but I don’t think I nearly realized the danger. I was just naïve.”
The loss of their only son hit his parents in different ways. Annie Bradford erupted in grief, not eating for a week. Hiram, a World War II veteran who had served in Europe, commissioned the building of a cabinet that displayed mementoes of his son’s life. Snyder said her father never recovered. He died of a massive heart attack three years after Kirby’s death, aged 52.
“He just went through a kind of withdrawal. His outlook on life diminished.”
Of her mother, who lived until 1993, Snyder said, “I think her initial reactions helped her. I don’t think you ever really adjust. You go in and out of stages of grief, and I think she learned how to do that.”
Snyder said her sisters Nava Jo and Carlene have said they don’t remember a lot about the time. For her part, she said she, “tried to probably sublimate as much as I could.”
And yet, she said, the years go by and various life experiences come, such as having children of one’s own, and it hits home again – they would have had an uncle.
“It’s hard to say what the words are,” Snyder said. “You proceed. You go on and do the best you can. And that happens to a lot of families.”
Sen. Crowe, who specifically mentioned the power of Snyder’s letter, was recently recognized for collecting the most photos – 23 – of any state senator in an effort organized by Sen. Mark Green. Crowe said he was very pleased that Green, who served as a physician in Vietnam, undertook the effort. People from Congressman Phil Roe’s office also helped with the effort, as did local military historian Alan Jackson.
“It was especially moving to read Kirby’s letter because we were born in the same year, almost at the same time (Crowe is less than two weeks younger), were over there in Southeast Asia at the same time,” Crowe said. “I was lucky not to have to be in the position he was. My job was taking code and breaking codes to try to figure out when they were going to try to ambush people like Kirby. It really hit home.”
Additional photographs may be submitted to www.vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces. Copies of the photos can be mailed to: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Attn: Call for Photos, 2600 Virginia Avenue, NW, Suite 104, Washington, DC 20037.