By Ja’Rena Lunsford
6:19 a.m. Nearly three hours have passed since I woke up, panicking, second guessing everything I’ve ever been told by a source. Second guessing my judgment of character and second guessing myself as a journalist.
I’ve never thought of myself as gullible or naïve. I thought I could tell when something sounds too good to be true. I know when someone is trying to swindle me — at least I thought I did.
Now I’m not so sure.
One story changed that.
One story changed me.
When Troy G. Brodrick’s pastor called and told me of Brodrick’s accomplishments — a World War II hero who flew Air Force One for Dwight D. Eisenhower, earned three Purple Hearts and served with Gen. George S. Patton — I jotted the information on a scratch paper and politely said I’d get back to him. I was impressed by the story, but didn’t see how it would fit into my beat — the business of transportation.
Brodrick’s story sat forgotten for almost a month before I came across that piece of paper again. Still impressed, and now a little curious, I asked my assistant editor about the idea. We both agreed it was worth looking into.
I called the pastor back and told him I was interested in speaking to Brodrick. The 82-year-old wasn’t feeling well, he said, but wanted to do an interview. He’s wanted his story told in The Oklahoman for a long time, the pastor said.
We set up a time for the three of us to meet, April 24. I got the address to Brodrick’s Midwest City home.
“You can’t miss the house,” his pastor said. “It’s the one with the flags.”
He was right. The house’s exterior exuded the pride of a military vet, foreshadowing the stories the interior would reveal.
A tall, slender Brodrick greeted me with a hug, as he tried to balance himself. He excused his unsteadiness and said he wasn’t getting around very well that day.
My eyes immediately darted around the living room of wood-frame house. Limited strips of white were visible as pictures and plaques hung from wall to wall.
Brodrick immediately started the tour, pointing to each photo and revealing a story. There were photos of him presenting awards to soldiers, photos of him receiving awards. Photos of the aircraft he said he flew.
The tour revealed a history I had only read about and honors I had only heard about. I felt my palms get sweaty with nerves as I held a Purple Heart in my hand.
“What year did you get this,” I asked.
“1944, it’s on the back,” he said.
I flipped the heart over and traced my finger over the inscription of his name and the year. I didn’t feel worthy to be holding something so cherished. Unbeknownst to me, neither was Brodrick.
Photos Brodrick said were of his crew with him the night before D-Day, a photo of General Patton and other memories continued throughout the house.
Although we hadn’t formally sat down for the interview yet, I already felt like I knew his story.
And I was anxious for more.
Sitting in chairs side by side, Brodrick told me of his decision to join the military right out of high school. He told me of his appointment to colonel by General Patton. I was immediately impressed by his recall of dates. His memory was better than mine, I thought. His story told the tale of a young colonel. I asked him about his quick move up the ladder — colonel by 21.
General Patton was so impressed with him on the ground, Brodrick said, that he pinned the youngster immediately, thus creating Col. B.
Brodrick’s pastor sat quietly on the sofa, shaking his head in familiarity — this story and many others were not new to him. He’d heard them since October, when Brodrick first came to his church in Edmond.
Brodrick continued with his story, telling of the years he spent working for NASA in California, his friendships with astronaut Tom Stafford and Gen. Chuck Yeager and — the story I had been waiting for, the story that got my editors interested — his experience as a pilot on Air Force One.
The Air Force One story was brief, like his time as a pilot. He said he only spent about a year flying Eisenhower.
Time was up. The photographer was there. Brodrick went and put on his uniform, which was hanging on display in his hallway. I said my goodbyes and left him with my co-worker and my business card.
An hour later back at the office, photographer Jim Beckel inquired where the story will appear.
“You should see about getting that on Page 1,” he said. “That guy has such a good story. I don’t know how we’ve missed him. How did he stay below our radar?”
It was a question I had asked myself, too. Brodrick’s story was good and I felt greedy for keeping it for myself instead of saving it for a reporter who would cover Veteran’s Day or D-Day.
For the next week and half, I received phone calls from Brodrick. He inquired when the story would run, asked if I would bring him copies and thanked me for coming out. He ended every call the same way:
“You know, I’m 82 years old, and I’d do it again,” he’d say. “I love you.”
Brodrick called the day before the story appeared in the paper. By now I was used to the calls — some of which came on the weekends and or early in the morning. They were always the same. “How are you?” “Thank you for coming out.” “Keep me in your prayers.”
Brodrick told me he never married and considered the church his family. I chalked up the calls to loneliness and did my best to not sound bothered when I answered.
I told Brodrick to expect to see the story the next day. He thanked me again.
Like Brodrick’s memories, the story flowed easily. I made a few calls to him to verify some information, such as working for NASA in 1953 — my editor pointed out that NASA wasn’t created until 1958.
My notes were wrong, I assumed. I misheard the dates.
Brodrick corrected me; he worked at Edwards Air Force Base in 1953, he said.
The story was done.
I was surprised to have no calls from Brodrick awaiting me when I checked my messages the next day. He had called me for the past 10 days, but nothing on May 4, the day the story ran.
But I did get other calls. And e-mails.
“You’ve been swindled, my dear,” one e-mail read, with a 2004 interview with Brodrick attached. The interview had some of the same information, but some — such as his place of birth — was different.
“He’s at it again,” said another caller.
The questions and concerns rolled in.
But so did the Col. B fans.
A former FedEx employee e-mailed, excited to see “Col. B, from my old route.” The reader reminisced about listening to Brodrick’s stories when he would make a delivery.
Two Troy G. Brodricks were in front of me. One was a decorated war hero; the other was a fraud, muddying the name of the real war heroes. Both sides were convincing, but I knew there was only one truth.
Six weeks later, when I saw a white envelope in my mailbox I knew exactly what it was. It was Brodrick’s military records, the documents I had requested six weeks earlier. I wanted to open them and read that all the calls and e-mails alleging fraud were wrong; I wanted to see, there in black and white, that Brodrick’s story was the truth. I wanted him to be Col. B. But he wasn’t.
What he was, though, was a WWII vet who served this country. I just wish he thought his actual service was enough without the extra tales.