ANTIGO — As Veterans Day approaches, Steve Bradley is preparing to once again take pen in hand, extolling people to put away their differences, if only for a few hours, in favor of patriotism.
For decades, Bradley, a member of St. John the Evangelist Parish, has penned short missives to the local newspaper in advance of patriotic holidays and anniversaries, urging people to show proper respect to the nation.
“I remember the first time I marched in Antigo’s Memorial Day parade,” said Bradley, recalling an event from the 1970s. “People were not putting their hand over their hearts when the flag passed. I wondered ‘Who’s been telling them to do that?’ and wrote a letter to the editor. That’s how it started.”
Figuring a rate of three or four a year, several hundred letters — all unfailingly polite and to-the-point — have followed.
“People come up to me and say they like them because of their brevity,” Bradley said. “And it is still a good reminder.”
The letters are just a tiny example of a life of service ingrained deep into Bradley’s psyche.
An Antigo native, Bradley is part of a large family, all high-achievers, who moved through the St. John School system, Antigo High School, and various forms of higher education.
Their Catholic faith was ingrained at a very young age by their father, John, and mother, Betty.
“When we were young, we said the rosary every day, and it was down on your knees. There was no argument about it,” Bradley said. “It really taught me the importance of tradition and of values.
“In those days, everything was in black and white,” he continued. “You didn’t question authority. You just did it.”
Bradley also never questioned the need for service, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, a World War I veteran, and his father, who was among the World War II Iwo Jima flag-raisers and who subsequently collected hundreds of thousands of dollars for the war effort through war bond tours.
Bradley graduated in 1967, among the nation’s most tumultuous eras in the wake of assassinations and protests over the Vietnam War. It would have been easy to be a cynic.
“It was my turn to serve my country,” Bradley said. “My grandfather and my father did their obligation to the country and then went on with their lives.”
After a summer of work and play at a local golf course, he entered Marine Corps basic training.
“My dad didn’t want me to be a Marine, he said go into the Navy because you always had a cot and a hot meal,” Bradley recalled. “But I just wanted to be a Marine. About a year after we had that conversation, I was sleeping in the rain on a hill in Vietnam.”
Three-and-a-half months into his tour, Bradley, a private first class, was at his commander’s side when the officer was killed in a firefight. The young Marine radioed for air cover and ordered his unit to fall back before being struck by a Viet Cong bullet.
“It felt like a two-by-eight board hit me in the chest,” he said.
That brought a trip back home for a long convalescence, a Purple Heart, among other commendations, and eventual discharge as a sergeant after four years of service.
Bradley did not rest on his heroism. Indeed, like his quiet father he was reticent to discuss his wartime service. He joined the family funeral home business, raised a family, and embarked on a career of local service and philanthropy that continues today.
He also gradually became involved in a long list of local veterans organizations, including the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Marine Corps, League 40 et 8, Military Order of the Purple Heart, and others.
“I like going to the meetings and talking to the guys,” Bradley said, “and I like the service that they do, the donations to the Honor Flights, the nursing scholarships and their role in the community.”
That involvement led to the parades and honor guards and a recognition of the need to educate the public on patriotism, service and respect.
“People aren’t necessarily taught about ritual and what is proper,” he said, adding that ceremonies, such as those commemorating Veterans Day on Nov. 11, are an important part of the nation’s fabric. “It lets the younger generation know where their freedom has come from and that maybe they have an obligation to serve the country.”
Bradley was instrumental in creating a veterans memorial on the grounds of the Langlade County Courthouse, joining a Vietnam Memorial already on the site. Those grounds are now filled every Memorial Day for a commemoration that includes speakers, music, tributes and the laying of wreaths.
Amid the strife so often in the news, Bradley said he sees promising signs. Once among the younger veterans in the local service organizations, he is now the more seasoned, with soldiers back from more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan joining and putting their mark on venerable organizations.
And on every Veterans Day, Memorial Day and other occasions where the flag passes, people of all ages proudly salute and place their hand over their heart, a simple gesture learned through letters penned from a quiet hero.