At first glance, Bill Brodie comes across as a tough customer. Brown hair, sprinkled with gray, is covered by a stiff-crowned ball cap, partially shielding skin weathered from years spent out in the sun. Taking a step, his right leg remains stiff — wooden memorabilia from the jungles of Vietnam.
On second glance, there is a gentleness detected. Soft eyes glimmer with orneriness, revealing compassion and wisdom found only from a man who has seen suffering and beauty in the world most can’t imagine.
It was 1966. During the heat of the Vietnam War, the Ashland, Kan., ranch kid had his heart set on joining the Marines fresh out of high school.
“I’d always wanted to be a Marine and wanted to see if I could make it through the training,” Brodie says. “Guess I must have watched too many John Wayne movies.”
When asked what the training was like, he just laughs and simply says, “Have you ever tried swimming in sand? It was tough. It was real tough.”
By the time Brodie’s platoon graduated boot camp, 85 percent of them had orders to ship out to Vietnam. By April 10, 1967, Brodie’s boots hit the ground on foreign soil. At the time, there was a huge push to get troops through training and into action.
Four months later, Brodie was hit after tripping a booby trap. And by Sept. 7, 1967, he took a bullet straight to the bone of his right leg, severing the arteries. When he was airlifted out the following day, gangrene had set in and his leg had to be amputated.
“I was in a tourniquet for 24 hours, but it beat bleeding out,” says the veteran, matter-of-factly. “My wounds compared to so many of the other men’s were not that catastrophic.”
Admitting losing his leg was more of a mental challenge than physical challenge, he’s found ways to see the silver lining.
“I’d been sorting a load of heifers for these two brothers one day, and my partner stopped by after I’d left. They said to him, ‘That was the toughest man we’ve ever seen. An 800-pound heifer kicked him as she ran by and it sounded like kicking a corner post. He never even broke a stride,’” recalls Brodie with a chuckle. “If there is a kicking steer or a biting dog, I just feed them that wood leg and let everyone think I’m tough.”
While a junior in high school, Brodie met the woman he describes as the biggest blessing in his life. The Christmas before he shipped out to Vietnam, he asked his high school sweetheart, Linda, to marry him. The couple made plans to wed as soon as he returned from the war.
“And she was still foolish enough to marry me when I got back,” he says.
After getting out of the hospital, the couple exchanged vows on July 27, 1968. They were married for 43.5 years until Linda passed away Jan. 2, 2012.
“She put up with a lot for me,” he says, pausing. “The war changed me a little. Changed me in ways I can’t describe.”
Once married, Brodie set out to earn a degree in business and administration from Fort Hays State University, while Linda finished up her degree in accounting.
The couple had their first child, Barrett, in 1970, before graduating together in 1971. They later had a daughter, Amy. With a degree in hand, Brodie took his family back to Ashland to the wheat and stocker/feeder cattle operation. Strapped for cash and armed with work experience he describes as, “being an American soldier and American cowboy — and there wasn’t a high demand for either of those,” Brodie took an opportunity working for Superior Livestock Auction in 1989 and celebrated his 25th anniversary with the company last month.
All American Beef Battalion
One day, while beating down the road to eastern Colorado to ship cattle, Brodie tuned into a mainstream media station on satellite radio. What he heard upset him.
“They were talking about all the bad things that were happening in war zones with today’s soldiers and never mentioned the good they were doing, like building schools or bringing clean water,” he says, reflecting on his days after returning home from Vietnam.
“We were treated so poorly by many of our own countrymen when we arrived home, and I felt like the media was showing similar behavior,” Brodie says. “And I just thought, ‘how can we, mainly being the beef industry, thank these soldiers for what they do for us every day?’”
And so his dream was born — a dream to feed a steak to every soldier serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Shortly after, Brodie shared his idea with his boss, Jim Odle, then general manager of Superior Livestock Auction.
“He told me, ‘We can do this,’” Brodie says, and two years later on April 26, 2008, the All American Beef Battalion (AABB) served its first troops in Olathe, Kan., at a Kansas National Guard unit. The majority of the two-year time period was getting past the “red tape,” Brodie says, to where they were approved to return service to the men and women who served them. Through a customer, who happened to be an active duty lieutenant colonel in the United States Army, Brodie was able to get the ball rolling.
To date, AABB has served a quarter of a million troops and their families. With destinations that include 16 states and multiple bases, it takes a strong group of volunteers to keep the project in motion.
“I’ve got a core group of around 50 volunteers that is just phenomenal. Most are in the livestock industry, but not all of them are,” he says. “They’re all good American people who love this country and appreciate what these men and women do for us.”
There are also crucial volunteers serving behind the scenes, such as Tim Kirby of Kirby Meat Company, Dodge City, Kan. Kirby picks beef up from area packing plants and ages it 35-40 days in his cooler. He then cuts the meat down to steaks, repackages it and freezes it for AABB, all on his own time.
Jon Fort, who Brodie refers to as “second in command”’ and Bill Harmon and Mike Arnold supply all the necessary equipment to do the cooking.
And the list goes on.
“The steaks we feed our troops are so tender, you can cut them with a plastic knife,” Brodie says. “It’s amazing.”
At each event, Brodie gives words of wisdom and encouragement to troops about mental and physical hardships they may be going through. Some of the returning troops are members of the Wounded Warrior Project.
“I want these kids who have these tremendous wounds to know the only thing that’s going to stop them is their brain. In reality, you have an inconvenience, not a disability,” he says. “Learn to deal with it, handle it and go on.
“I also tell them that the beef industry supports them and from then on, they’re to say no to chicken and fowl,” he chuckles.
Last year, AABB held 26 steak feeds across the country. The group is fully funded through donations from the generosity of the beef industry.
For those wanting to get involved, go to steaksfortroops.com.
“It’s been a tremendous gift and honor to be able to be involved in this,” he concludes. “But this is about our troops — about the men and women who have stepped up to serve our country and thanking them by doing what we can do to serve them back.”