He was 19 and they called him "Youngun." The tank commander said: "Get your butt out there." So he went out to search for the enemy. When he came back a few hours later, he discovered the bodies. A shell had exploded while his buddies were fixing lunch. They were dead.
Today Youngun is two months shy of his 80th birthday. He was a Catholic boy from Kansas City in a tank company of the Texas National Guard. His buddies were Baptists. The village was in Italy. The war was World War II.
It's only recently that Rev. Harold Bradley, SJ, has allowed the tears to well up in his eyes. He is at that stage when people go back to the past to create a narrative of their life: What is the significance of one person's story?
This kind of life review and reevaluation is a critical process in late adulthood. It shapes a person's legacy. It identifies themes that hold together different, sometimes conflicting chapters in the past. It explains how someone got from there to here.
For Bradley, wartime experience was "essential in the formation of my personality," he says. Twenty years ago, he wasn't thinking about such things. He was busy climbing to the top of the Jesuit ladder of success. He'd been a missionary in Honduras. He was a professor at Georgetown University.
Now is he going back to the war. With today's news reports from Mosul and Fallujah, his war comes back to him. He agonizes for the young men and women in combat. He knows what awaits them in the decades ahead. As a veteran of war -- and of longevity -- he can pass on some advice:
"Be patient. That's all I can say. Be patient with yourself. Be patient with the system," he explains. The system, even with the military's new emphasis on mental health, cannot erase the indelible marks of loss on the psyche. "Have patience," he repeats.
It takes many years to build a coherent life after the trauma of combat. When Bradley came home, he entered a limbo of rage, denial and self-destruction. "I went out every night, got drunk and went home," he says. After several years, "I knew I couldn't do that anymore. That's when I thought about becoming a Jesuit. . . . I knew if I didn't get into a controlled environment, I would never get control of my life."
Most guys he knew came back and settled into the controlled environment of marriage. Bradley found structure in the church. He had gone to Jesuit schools and studied Greek and Latin. He had carried his religious identity to war. He remembers Hatchet, one of his buddies in the tank. He was a few years older, a poor kid from Texas. One day, Hatchet quipped to him: "What does religion have to do with sex?" They started talking about religion. They became friends.
Until the shell exploded and Hatchet was dead. He and the others had been waiting for Bradley to return before having lunch. Hatchet wasn't 25 years old. He never had a chance to break from his past of poverty and grow old.
Bradley's voice breaks. "There's no question I've got that sitting on my shoulder," he says.
In a theme that has dominated his life in the church, a veteran's rage at loss has become a priest's passion to help others break out of poverty and illness, to give them the opportunity to flourish and grow old -- the opportunity that Hatchet and so many others didn't have.
Bradley's talent is lobbying. At Georgetown he started a program to bring poor boys and girls from Latin America to trade school in the United States, returning them with skills to pave their way into middle-class lives in their own countries.
After official retirement at 65, he went through a period of looking for work and getting rebuffed. Nobody wanted an old Washington hand.
Then he met the dean of nursing at Marquette University, who saw potential in his passion and experience. Today he works on an AIDS project in Africa, led by Marquette professor Karen Ivantic-Doucette. The program has brought 12 nurses from Kenya to the United States for intensive training in AIDS prevention and treatment.
The nurses returned home and are training their peers. Through this program, more than 3,000 nurses have been trained to work in AIDS clinics. The project is expanding to other countries. Without Bradley's fundraising expertise, "We would never be where we are," says Ivantic-Doucette.
Making a difference to others is Bradley's legacy. In a way, it's Hatchet's legacy, too. And that makes a difference to Bradley.
Many men and women spend decades avoiding the traumas experienced in youth. But the urge to come to terms with the past finally asserts itself. By confronting and grieving over old losses, people are able to see how they have transformed trauma into a productive life.
As the war news continues -- bombings in Baghdad, officials assassinated -- Bradley weeps for those in combat. But in looking back, he looks forward and his message to those who will come home is one of hope.
"The bottom line is, I've had a great life," he says.
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