Penn Rhodeen is the author of Peacerunner, an account of a former Connecticut congressman's participation in the Good Friday Accords that ended decades of violence in Ireland. A shorter version of this essay appeared in Smithsonian Magazine in September 2017.
The headline said “Bravery Wins Bronze Star” but it was the picture that grabbed my attention shortly after I entered the University of Wisconsin Law School, never to let go. It was in the local news section of the Capital Times, Madison’s afternoon paper, on September 29, 1967. It recounted--and memorably showed--the presentation at the American Legion post in nearby Sun Prairie of the medal for combat valor to the family of Thomas Broome, an 18-year-old killed in Vietnam the previous June.
The photographer was David Sandell. His masterly composition, with its mix of expressions complex and pure, thrust this eternal ceremony of heroism and loss full force into the turbulence of that time and place. Conflict over the war was already intense at UW and demonstrations over plans for Dow Chemical, manufacturer of napalm, to recruit on campus would soon ratchet it higher, convulsing university, city and state. But this captured moment, this gathering of family and community, seemed far beyond all of the roiling hawk-and-dove arguments.
The man receiving the medal, is Stanley Broome, Tom’s father. He maintained the boilers for Wisconsin Porcelain. He loved his job so much that he was buried in his bib overalls and engineer's cap. Someone slipped a can of Schlitz in there too. The officer gently placing the medal in his hand is Lt. Ron Weindel, soon to return to Vietnam and win his own Bronze Star; he died in his fifties from lung cancer that doctors at the VA told him was probably caused by Agent Orange, the forest defoliant used extensively during the war.
The man in the Legion cap is Post 333 Commander Victor Ward. He took pride in his World War II service and his post responsibilities, but for him this event was personal: the Broome family lived just a few houses away from the Wards. He knew Tom from birth.
Standing behind Ward is Tom's brother John, just turned 17 on September 21 and leaving for the Army in 10 days. He promised his mother that he wouldn’t go to Vietnam—a choice available to a surviving son—but later went because he thought it would somehow connect him to the brother and best friend he missed so much.
The girl in the pretty dress is Fannie Broome, 13 in May. Her gaze is direct and she looks ready to say exactly how she feels. Her life was never easy: long before losing her brother, she got polio and had to be in an iron lung; neither of her marriages worked out and she died of cancer at 52. But she was spirited, always ready to laugh (it was Fannie who slipped the Schlitz in with her dad) and her friends were many.
Sun Prairie mayor Clarence Severson, looking distressed, stands behind Fannie. Tom was the first one from town killed in the war. Streets were named after him and the other two killed over there.
In her unalloyed grief, Tom’s mother Alice is like a figure in a Renaissance painting. Her eyes seem focused on nothing visible to us.
Only John Broome remains today. He lives Poynette, Wisconsin and retired on New Year’s Day, 2012, after a long career in power plant operations. He struggles to fully comprehend his youthful decisions to join the Army and go to Vietnam, and confesses that it took him 30 years to understand how hard those decisions were on his parents. When he came home before leaving for Vietnam, Alice knew right away that he had broken his promise. But all she said was, “You’re going over there, aren’t you?” The night before he shipped out, she wanted to get a drink with him, even though she never drank. They walked over to the tavern on Main Street; she asked him what to order but barely touched the screwdriver he suggested. In Vietnam he was a senior crane operator on major construction projects all over the country and won his own Bronze Star for meritorious service in a combat zone.
“It’s important to remember,” John says, “that we weren’t the only family that went through this. We were just one of many, in Vietnam and in the wars before and after.” True, of course, but because David Sandell made a work of art from their Bronze Star moment, those who gathered on that late September day 50 years ago will always stand for those who were lost and for everyone they left behind.