Veterans Writing Prize Winner - 'A Prayer for Brian Bradley'

Robert Speirs accepts his Veterans Writing Prize for "A Prayer for Brian Bradley" at the 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood.

The winner of the 2017 SDHC Veterans Writing Prize wrote his essay through tears, still shaken by a 30-year old trauma.

Robert Speirs received the second annual award for his heartfelt essay, "A Prayer for Brian Bradley" at the 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood. It was presented by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler during a series of Veterans programs at the 2017 Festival. The Veterans Writing Prize was open to South Dakotans who are Veterans of or current service members in any branch of the United States military. 

Read Speirs' essay below, then read more about Speirs and the emotions he felt while writing it, as well as his reaction to winning.

A Prayer for Brian Bradley

By Robert Speirs
Army Corp of Engineers
South Dakota National Guard, 1981-1991

This has taken me over thirty years to write, a generation.

I can't let another year's worth of accidental shooting reports go by without telling you, sharing with you, what I owe my friend Brian Bradley...

I was sharing proud papa photos with fellow hunters in the small rural teacher's lounge where I start each of my mornings. An uninitiated woman, who wrongfully perceived herself clever, glanced over our seated shoulders at my picture; a small boy, a sharptail grouse, an Airedale pup, and a shotgun trainer.

"That's sick...Columbine.... What were you thinking putting a gun in the hands...?"

She assumed too much and knew too little and yet her presumption that I had casually posed a child with a weapon sickened me and tainted my immense pride in my young son's achievement.

A False Assumption

That false assumption of negligence was an insult to my family traditions and my military training.

The men in my family were tribal hunters in the truest, most sacred sense. Our holiday gatherings were an ancestral sharing of values and traditions.

We were hunters: fathers and sons, grandfathers and uncles, with great-grandfather holding court over the South Dakota pheasant fields of my youth. I was trained and raised in the proper and safe handling of firearms and all weapons of the hunt. Moreover, I intended to raise my sons and daughter to be more diligent and dramatically safer than I.

I grew up in a home of easily accessible weapons, shotguns, rifles, the occasional pistol. Open the closet door. Reach through dad's clothes to the dark corner at the rear to drag forth the oiled metal and worn stocks.

My first toys mimicked the evening news and its coverage of a Vietnam I couldn't understand. Each evening at the dinner table we prayed then listened, washed in the ritualistic counting of that day's actions: wounded, missing, killed.

After supper and at play, my young male friends and I could often be heard shouting.
"I shot you!"

They shot us, we shot them, anytime we could gather together enough toy guns to form two sides, we'd mimic a small neighborhood war.

A young boy plays

A young boy plays "soldier" in the wilderness. Robert Speirs remembers playing "war" with his friends as a child.

Becoming an Expert

I lived to shoot. I dreamed the hunt. I was a natural. Some are born with a curveball. I was born with the hunter's eye, a soldier's aim.

After high school, I joined the service, became an engineering officer and trained with weapons. The voices of range officers rang louder to my ears than the shots, and as time passed, their words became my own.

"Put your weapon on safe. Lock your bolt to the rear. Keep your barrel pointed down range..."

Eventually, I too became a range officer. I didn't want mere competence, I wanted mastery. I became an expert.

"Lock your bolts to the rear. Keep your weapons in a safe and upright position."

I wanted expertise beyond bullet placement. I became a safety fanatic.

'I'll be There'

Eventually I married and transitioned away from the military, found a calling as a teacher of debate and literature. Which is how I came to be in the teachers' lounge, sharing the hunting picture, and the sickness in my stomach which woke me in the middle of this night to share my thoughts of Brian...

Sturgis Brown High School at the end of the 70s was filled with ranch-kid hunters and big-boned wrestlers from broken families. It is where Brian and I met. We wrestled and played football together, shared a study hall.

I couldn't count myself as one of Brian's best friends, but I admired him. His twin sisters were shy, modest, and beautiful. I had a plan that he might one day introduce me.

He was a teenage Santa; you were never more than a moment away from a red-cheeked belly laugh. I quickly forgot my ulterior motives and we spent most of our time swapping hunting stories, lies, and laughing. We raced our old beaters cars through Fort Meade with the windows down, drying the sweat after fall football practice. Brad, Leon, Lance, and I would jump into one or the others 60's era cars with pool ball shifters. Talk revolved around the costs of getting our snow tires out of hock, which girls were most desirable, and wondering aloud if there was life after senior year. We certainly made no plans. His smile was never half-way, never held back; life and spirit filled each jest and jab.

I should have been there that morning, the morning he died.

He'd asked me the day before, in some class, Mrs. White's choir? I can't recall. I can't even recall now if it was spring or fall turkey.

"Come hunting. Meet us at the National Cemetery exit by 4:30."

"Good idea. I'll be there."

Turkeys wander through a field while being hunted. Turkey hunting was popular for Bob Speirs and his Sturgis High School friends.

Turkeys wander through a field while being hunted. Turkey hunting was a popular activity for Bob Speirs and his Sturgis High School friends.

'I Knew it was Brian'

I never made it. They wouldn't have been surprised or even waited. Two boys went ahead into the shadowed woods without me, and Brian never made it out.

My mom woke me that next morning. She came into my room after first knocking as if she needed my permission to be in her own house. She never did that. She asked me if I might know the boy who had been shot. He'd been mistaken for a bird, his shiny dark hair reflecting the light along a ridgeline in that same fashion that the feathers of a turkey seem to glow in the spring. She could tell how much I knew as my face dropped.

I knew.

It was one of those strange moments in life when everyone else sees it as a multiple-choice question but I knew instantly, without question.

I knew it was Brian.

The wrestling team gathered for his visitation at the Jolly funeral home. That's not a misprint, just the name of the family that owned the home. I remember it was the Jolly because the Kinkade funeral home was on the west side of the street and the Jolly sat on the east. The setting evening sun poured in through those wide wooden doors.

Sixteen- and seventeen-year-old, near-men tried to face the not yet believable tragedy. Tighter than a football huddle, yet each lost in his own thoughts, one by one we broke away to make the long journey from the back of the home to Brian's open casket.

I was shocked by death's casual consumption of my friend. His strong, half-smiling face was crafted and serene. A new dark suit covered his husky shoulders.

How strange and sick those in attendance would have thought me if I had done as I wished and gathered Brian up in my arms and carried him out over my shoulder. Out into the light as I had lifted him so many times in a fireman's carry during one of Coach Droan's practices. He was still so fresh to the light, so nearly the friend that I had known.

I broke down in my weakness realizing that having the strength to carry a boy wasn't strength enough to bring him back. Contagious sobs wracked my body and drove us all back out into the sun where Brian's newly arrived sisters held and comforted us because we all share in that same weakness.

Robert Speirs accepts his Veterans Writing Prize at the 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood.

Robert Speirs accepts his Veterans Writing Prize for "A Prayer for Brian Bradley" at the 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood.

Brian's Memory Saves a Life

That year's Conservation Digest listed Brian among its hunting injuries and fatalities. I can't remember if he was highlighted among the pages of wounded or simply left to be discovered by curious readers. It's only years later, now in the middle of the night, that I see him highlighted throughout the pages of my life.

Three years later but only a mile from the sight of Brian's last hunt, I was chasing turkeys with David Brown, a college roommate and years later, groomsman at my wedding. We had split up after pushing a group of fall gobblers over a ridge.

I raced ahead with my rifle to a small knob to wait for the birds to come out from below. David followed behind them with his shotgun. Not safe, but we trusted each other totally. I flicked my safety off as the first bird broke from the trees. The stock swung to my shoulder and my eye found the scope as the second bird raced through my small shooting lane. I'd have to be quick if I were going to take one. Each consecutive bird was found and followed in my sight with my finger hovering over my machined trigger.

I was on edge as I waited for David's shot. I wanted his short-range weapon to have first crack. I swung back to the timber framed shooting window to what I was certain would be my last opportunity, my trigger finger half-pulled in anticipation. My stomach flipped in my throat. My sight picture had filled with the red and black plaid of David's tattered hunting jacket.

He'd been half a breath away. Only an adhesive yellow microdot with the tiny print think safety saved him. I put it on the scope lens of my rifle after the funeral. It didn't take up much room, but it took up the most important spot. It was the first thing I saw every time I took a shot. Brian's memory saved David's life.

'Never Point a Weapon'

As an outfitter, I find that newer hunting clients are either relieved or annoyed when I insist on carrying their weapons in the field. I only had to turn around once as a guide and stare into the barrel of a loaded rifle to adopt this practice. I remember Brian.

My wife and family thought me overly protective when I gathered the squirt guns and water pistols they brought as gifts and hid or threw them away.

"Don't buy my son guns for toys."

"But he wanted it so badly, I couldn't resist. I remember when you were little...."

For Lane's first birthday, as he learned to walk, I bought a gun safe, something no one in my family had ever owned. For his second, I bought him a retriever pup, an Airedale from hunting parents out of Elgin, North Dakota. We named him after the town.

For his third birthday, I sent away to Cabela's and bought him a beautifully proportioned, side-by-side, shotgun trainer. It shot only caps, but it had a working safety and shells, a sling and ammo belt, tools of the trade for a hunter. He was beyond joy when he opened the package and solemn as a minister when we placed it in the gun safe. It was only to be taken out for lessons on the hunt.

"This is the safety.... Never point a weapon.... The chamber is ALWAYS loaded...."

'Safety On, Dad'

Last fall he was almost four. There were grouse in our oat field and the pup was ready to retrieve. Both young hunters were eager for their first trial. We opened the safe and repeated the lessons until the three-year-old could teach the range officer.

"Safety on, pointed down range...."

I missed with the first shot of the season as the sharptails came up from behind our bunkhouse.

Boy at side, pup at heel, thousands of hours in the field, on the range, in the woods, guiding other hunters for a living, hunting skills passed on from my great grandfathers. It was all on exhibit under the watchful eye of a three-year-old with a plastic shotgun that cost more than the bolt-action Stevens 20-gauge I used.

I knocked down the last berry-laden straggler with my second shot, a young bird of the season.

I turned to my son and saw his cap gun at shoulder trained on the departing birds, his pup aquiver at his side just as he released his second barrel and I was alive with the hunt and the success of the harvest. Lane struck me deeply, unknowingly, with his words; carved into his subconscious by hours of training,

"Safety on Dad... Get him Elgin."

This perfect moment in my life, shared with other hunters in words and pictures, I owe to the memory of Brian Bradley.

Not for the bird or the hunt, but the message. God bless him. His memory rides with me still.

Robert Speirs: About and Q&A

Robert Speirs is entering his 30th season as a teacher and 25th as an outfitter and hunting guide in the Northern Black Hills. He was first published in the SD Conservation Digest in 1995 and has had articles in more than 20 publications since. He entered the South Dakota National Guard through ROTC and the School of Mines, was commissioned in the early eighties as an engineering officer and served in the 842nd and the 214th in the Black Hills stationed at different times at Belle Fourche, Spearfish, and Hot Springs.

His 30th wedding anniversary to his lovely wife Leslie is this summer. The couple has three children in various stages of life, from a high school senior on up to a college graduate, who is happily married and employed in the Black Hills.

The South Dakota Humanities Council asked Speirs to answer a few questions about his winning essay:

Q: What was your reaction to winning the prize?
Speirs: "I felt relieved and guilty. I teach writing and have a column, but you never know how you are going to compare to other published authors. Guilty because I felt that one of the finalists had gone through and seen so much more than I and the country owes him."

Q: Talk about what made you decide to enter – and to choose the topic you did.
Speirs: "I love to compete. I coach debate and speech, and we are always trying to win the state championship, going for a three-peat this year. My topic chose me, several years before, but I had never found the correct outlet."

Q: Many say writing is a form of therapy. Did it help you to write about the friend you lost?
Speirs: "I was in tears writing about my friend even though it was decades later. I will never forget him or stop feeling his loss, but it did bring me a feeling of peace sharing how much he meant and how he has impacted my life."

Q: Did winning the Veterans Writing Prize inspire you to pursue any other writing projects you may not have previously been considering?
Speirs: "I have a collection of essays and columns I'm editing, focusing on a hunter's life in the Black Hills. We've just moved to a small ranch along the Red Water River and this summer, after the fences are tight and in between hoped-for haying, I plan to have the final draft ready for publication in 2018."

About the Veterans Writing Prize

Inspired by our established partnerships with veterans' reading and writing groups, the South Dakota Humanities Council launched the inaugural Veterans Writing Contest in 2016. Three finalists read their work at the South Dakota Festival of Books, where the winner was announced and awarded a $1,000 prize.

The appreciation of those sharing their stories convinced us to continue this contest in 2017. The contest was open to South Dakota residents who are Veterans of or current service members in any branch of the United States military. Three finalists were invited to the 2017 Festival, where Butler announced Speirs as the winner. 

Read More Veterans Stories

Interested in reading more about veterans programming at the South Dakota Festival of Books? Click below for blog posts featuring interviews with 2017 Festival authors Tim O'Brien, Robert Olen Butler and more.