In Pocatello, Idaho, where Frank Bradish grew up, no one seems surprised that the shy 20-year-old given to camouflage fatigues became a war hero. He had long shown an interest in soldiering and as a teenager had often bivouacked alone in the hills behind his family’s ranch house, dining on C rations from the Army-Navy store. As for self-sacrifice, Bradish learned about that from his mother, Rae, 46, an ecologist for the Idaho Fish and Game Department, who single-handedly raised six children after her husband, Joseph, suffered serious brain damage in an industrial accident in 1982. (He now resides in a Pocatello nursing home.) “All of my kids learned that when someone’s in trouble, they should help, “says Rae. “That’s the way people in this part of the country are. If your car breaks down on the highway, somebody from Idaho will always stop to help.”
Private Bradish’s military prowess and his compassion were tested on the night of Feb. 27 when his M3Al cavalry fighting vehicle, by then in Iraqi territory, was hit by enemy tank and machine-gun fire. One crewman died instantly in the 30-minute-long attack. Although seriously wounded in both thighs and having lost a testicle and the tip of his right index finger, Bradish courageously set about rescuing his surviving buddies. Under continuous fire, he and the tank’s driver fought off the Iraqis until help arrived.
Bradish spent one month recuperating in Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Wash., before going home to Pocatello. A wicker basket in the family kitchen contains hundreds of letters from around the country, many simply addressed to “War Hero’s Mom, Pocatello, Idaho.” Says Rae: “It’s nice to know so many people care.” Last March Bradish received the Purple Heart, and he has been nominated for a Silver Star. “I never looked at what I did as bravery or valor or anything, ” says Bradish. “I looked at it as part of the job, something I had to do. “Here, he recounts his compelling drama for PEOPLE.
Joining the Army was my patriotic chore. I owe my country something. I signed up in 1989 and was stationed in Germany until last Dec. 15, when I was deployed to the gulf as part of a scout platoon. I was assigned to a Bradley fighting vehicle. It’s a personnel carrier with a turret. There’s five people per vehicle. Two, the commander and the gunner, are in the turret; one guy is in the driver’s seat; and two of us are dismounts. Basically we’re the dudes who get out of the vehicle and secure the area. If there’s a trench to clear or something like that we do it. I volunteered for the job. I just like getting a close-up view of stuff.
For the first two months in the gulf, we were out in the Saudi desert, sitting there, bored. I cleaned my rifle, read books and had some classes on things they thought we would need, like first aid. We listened to ’60s music and joked a lot. I got along with everybody, so I had all these nicknames—Bert, Bingo. Brain Man—but the only one that stuck is Bob. They always called me that. I don’t know why. Maybe because Bob’s easier to spell than Frank.
Finally, in February, we got the order to move out. There are six vehicles in an armored battalion scout platoon, traveling about a mile and a half apart. We saw the bad guys a lot that day. In fact we took prisoners. They were just kids, like 11-and 12-year-olds. Among the 30 of them, they had three or four rifles and 20 rounds of ammunition. It was kind of depressing. I felt like saying, “You guys shouldn’t be out here. It’s time to go back to grade school.” They were all just too happy to surrender. They were starving.
It was about 8:30 on the night of the 27th, and it was almost pitch black. I was in the back of the vehicle when the Iraqi tank came up. We shot at it and hit it. Then it shot at us. We heard “Boom!” That was a blast from the Iraqi main gun hitting our tank and exploding. I felt our vehicle rock back really hard and then the Halon went off, which is a fire-extinguishing device. I thought, “I gotta get out of here.” So I went back and I opened up the door…and I got shot.
There was probably another tank coming up behind us, because we got hit from the rear, from either a .50-caliber machine gun or a 12.7, which is Soviet equipment.
Me and the other dismount were getting ready to go out. The same rounds that hit me hit him. A body won’t stop a .50-caliber round at all. It went all the way through the vehicle’s ramp, which is six inches thick with layered steel. It just blew right through that like nothing and then hit us. It hit my rifle and blew a hole through the firing mechanism: then it went in the turret and hit the ready box, where the ammunition is stored, and set some rounds off. The bullets started blowing up…popping off like firecrackers.
I fell the bullets hit me. It felt like someone was tugging on me. It didn’t hurt on initial impact. I fell out and I started cussin’. I was angry. I was extremely pissed. That’s probably what helped me get through, being pissed off.
I did a damage assessment on myself—that’s where you check your wounds and stuff. I said. “Well, my bones ain’t broken, so I can still move around.” Just the insides of my legs were screwed up. I felt down there and said: “Damn!” It was all numb down there and like Jell-O where the bullets went through. It was mushy and stuff. It was a weird feeling.
So I got up and pulled the other dismount out. I was like Superman because of the adrenaline. Both his legs got blown off and one of his arms. His limbs would have stayed behind if it wasn’t for his chemical suit. It didn’t blow the clothing off, it just blew up his flesh and legs. I pulled him out with one hand and dragged him about 12 feet away from the vehicle and set him aside. He was laying there and just looking around. He didn’t have any pain the whole time, probably because there was a lot of adrenaline going through him. He was bleeding pretty bad, but there wasn’t anywhere to tie a tourniquet on.
I got the M60 machine gun out and the radio to contact the platoon leader. If the vehicle was going to blow up. I wanted to have those things out so we could have some kind of defense and say, “Hey. hello. We still got some survivors over here.”
I went on top of the tank and checked on the turret crew. I saw that the Bradley commander was dead. It was pretty obvious when that much of him was gone. We got hit in the turret, and he was basically blown to pieces.
The gunner wasn’t in the turret. I thought, “Damn, where is he?” We stored our flares in a box on the top of the vehicle near the turret. It was dark and so I got the whole box of ’em out and threw ’em down on the ground. Then I climbed down. I was looking around, and I heard moaning. It came from about 50 feet away. It was the gunner. He had gotten blown out of the turret and had a chest wound. And so I dragged him back toward the tank to where the other dismount was lying, to tighten the perimeter.
The bullets from the Iraqis started coming really heavy on that side of the vehicle so I couldn’t check on the driver. I wasn’t about to go back in the vehicle with all those bullets exploding. The Iraqis kept on firing. There were some bad guys running around on the ground trying to shoot us. It was small-arms fire. These guys had jumped off the top of their tank because the T-72 only carries three people inside.
So I set up our defense and called the platoon leader on the radio. I said, “Hey, we’re hit. We’re down here and we’re hit.” I couldn’t get through to the platoon leader because my radio didn’t have as dominant a wave as other radios. I thought. “I got to let ’em know we’re hit!” and I thought of the flares. I thought, “What’s emergency?” and I remembered, “White star clusters.” There’s like a sardine top on them that I could barely open when I had my hands intact, but now I got my finger shot off arid a couple of others mangled and I’m gonna have to do something else, so I held it with my teeth and pulled it off. The five other Bradleys in our platoon didn’t know our vehicle was hit, and there was so much traffic on the radio I couldn’t tell them. So I sent up the star cluster, and the lieutenant saw it, ’cause I heard him say, “Clear net! Clear net!” I sent across our distress signal, and he said, “We’ll be there in about five minutes.”
About two minutes later our tank driver comes walking around from the other side of the vehicle, and he’s all confused and he’s saying, “What happened? What happened? What do I do?” He was kind of shell-shocked, but he didn’t have any physical injury. He was kind of wigging out. If he would have got shot, he probably would have been okay; he wouldn’t have been so screwed up psychologically. He never stuttered before, and he was all confused. I don’t blame him. If I hadn’t gotten shot…that kind of snaps you right out of shell shock.
I told the driver to begin what we call probing fire. It’s a way of finding out where the enemy is. I said to him, “To start with, you can go to the left flank and fire a shot every three or five minutes. Fire five or six rounds. When you see a muzzle flash, shoot a 40-mm grenade at ’em and blow ’em up. If you see a whole bunch of muzzle flashes, I’ll get over there with the M60 and we’ll fire ’em up.” I was firing six-round bursts toward the right flank where the T-72 was, and the driver was firing toward the left flank.
The platoon leader arrived in about 20 minutes. A lot of bullets had hit the Bradley by then. The medics came about five minutes later, and they started pulling me from the machine gun. I said, “No, we got these two dudes here that are hurt worse than I am. Get them on the vehicle and get them out of here.”
They loaded us up and moved us out. They said they were going to tow our Bradley back, and I hope they did ’cause I had a lot of stuff in there—all my uniforms, stuff I got in Germany and tapes of ’60s music and country music.
They sent us to Battalion Aid, and that’s where it started hurting. The adrenaline wore off when they shot me up with morphine. It hurt real bad. I went to Germany and got stitched up, then at Madigan they did skin grafts.
There’s still assorted shrapnel in my body. I didn’t even know I had shrapnel in my back until I had an itch and I reached back there to scratch it and my finger went in the hole to the first joint.
The driver went back with the platoon, which was still in Iraq when I was shipped out. I haven’t heard from him. I also lost touch with the gunner. I don’t know where he went. We were good friends, but I hadn’t known him as long as the dismount whose legs and arm got blown off. I went through basic training with him. I knew him about a year and a half. He was a black dude from California. He liked ’60s music.
He didn’t want to die out there in the sand. I remember that he was lying on his back, but he just wanted to be rolled over on his face. I don’t know why, but I rolled him over like he wanted. Maybe when I picked him up his legs got twisted around and he felt that. Anyway, he just wanted to lay face down in the sand for a while. When the medics came, they kept rolling him over and looking at him, and he’d ask me to roll him over again.
I was talking to him a bit and saying, “We’re gonna get out of here. The platoon leader’s on his way over.” He knew he was dying; I knew he was dying. He asked me at one point, he said: “Am I gonna make it out? Tell me the truth.” I said, “No, you’re not going to make it outta here.” He says, “Don’t let me die here.” I said, “I’ll do my best.” He said, “Okay, I knew you’d tell me the truth. I know I’m dying.” I said, “Yeah.” So I rolled him over on his face, just trying to fulfill his last request. That’s all it was. He died from loss of blood back at Battalion Aid. He died where he had some friends.
Mostly what I remember is the image of him before I pulled him out of the tank. He was laying on his belly with both femurs sticking straight up in the air, then the inside of the vehicle covered with blood. That’s the one image that has stuck with me.
When I get out of the Army in 1992, I’m thinking of going to college and maybe teaching school, probably kindergarten. I like kids. They’re fun to play with. Mr. Ross Perot [the Texas billionaire] offered to put me through any school I want. At first I didn’t know who he was. I said, “Perot? Name sounds familiar. Ain’t there a reporter by that name?” Then someone brought me a book about him, and it went click! He talked to me on the phone. I’ve got the Army college fund for now. If I need help, I’ll call him. It’s enough to go to school where I want to go, in my hometown, at Idaho State University. So I’ll go there and get a bachelor’s degree and go to some graduate school and get a master’s.
I’m gonna be walking funny for a while, and now I have a story to tell. I didn’t know about this hero stuff until I got to Germany and I was talking to my mom on the telephone. She said, “You’re a big hero here.” I said, “No way, I only did my job. That’s part of my job.” In the line of duty it says you gotta perform this way and you gotta do that. It doesn’t mean that after you get shot that your duty’s over. You just get slowed down, to me that’s what it means. If I was like the other guy who got his legs shot off. I probably would have stopped. I don’t know what I would have done if that had happened. But my duty ain’t over until I’m discharged from the Army. I ain’t proud of any of it. There’s nothing to be proud of. It was just a job I did.