The Permian Basin Honor Flight is an authorized hub of the Honor Flight Network. Their mission is to take veterans or Gold Star Families from West and West Central Texas to Washington D.C. to see the memorials built in their honor, at no cost to the veterans.
There are many stops throughout the three-day world wind trip. On the flight to D.C. the veterans get mail call. These letters, cards, and drawings are done by elementary school students from around West Texas. This mail call kicks off what can only be described as a shower of gratitude for the veterans.
Once the flight lands and the veterans enter the airport in Baltimore…they are shown more support. Volunteers from the Honor Flight network greet them on arrival. Strangers from all over the globe even stop what they’re doing to applaud these heroes, even shaking their hands and taking photos.
Then it’s to the busses where the veterans are shown around the D.C. area. Stop after stop the veterans are greeted, applauded, and hailed as the heroes they are. Children from across the U.S. on school trips or vacation run to the veterans to shake their hands and ask questions.
While this trip is healing…it can also be difficult for some veterans. On each flight, there is always a variety of medical professionals and either a chaplain or counselor available. However, this flight is also a lot of fun.
When the veterans get back home, most of their families say that they’ve changed for the better.
They’re more talkative, energetic, and all around happier.
The Permian Basin Honor Flights are usually in May. Veterans can apply online or give any of the volunteers a call. Anyone can also donate or become a sponsor.
Terry Rumpff from Abilene is a Vietnam veteran who has endured a lot, from childhood to his service overseas. However, he said through it all his faith kept him strong.
When you visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. you will more than likely meet Vietnam Veteran Bernard Hamilton.
“I am and always will be a United States Marine,” Hamilton said.
He spends his days serving as a host of sorts to his fellow veterans and visitors alike.
“I come out here and I greet the guys and I clean up debris and I help people find their loved one on the wall because I’m very familiar with it. I mean this is my hometown so when people come here and like to learn something about this particular about this memorial, I’m available to them,” Hamilton said.
But he’s not part of the park staff…
“So it’s just all volunteer?”
“Well sure I don’t get paid for nothing. I may get a gratuity or two now and then which is appreciated to be honest with you because I live in a shelter,” Hamilton said.
“Wait, I’m sorry you live in a shelter?”
“I live in a shelter. Walker Reid Hospital has a small unit cut out for homeless veterans and I’m one of those guys. ,” Hamilton said.
“Wow. But yet you’re still out here.”
“Absolutely. Look at my brothers around here. I feel great coming around them makes me feel like I’m worth something. There’s still something I can do. Contribute. Oorah,” Hamilton said.
According to those who have met Bernard, he contributes quite a lot…including advice.
Sharing one saying in particular that any day above ground is a good day.
“That’s for sure. Because if you can still see the target you got a shot so you better give it your best,” Hamilton said.
You never know who you’ll run into on these trips. Often we see other honor flight groups, tourist groups, or people taking a break from a conference. This trip was no different, however there was one special meeting that happened in a very special place.
“This is …this is unbelievable. Wow. God Bless America.
Unbelievable. Since 1983.”
Harry Hishon a veteran traveling with a group from Florida and Perry Williams who was with our group, the Permian Basin Honor Flight served together in Vietnam then they both eventually got moved and met up again in Thailand.
“And when I got back, he was my boss,” Hishon said. “He was a good NCOIC.”
But that was the last time they saw each other, until now. Almost 40 years later.
“I could tell him when he stepped up the stairs,” Hishon said.
Both Harry and Perry are Marines, so it was fitting that they would meet up again at the Marine Corps Memorial.
“We were all doing one thing. Right there. All the Marine Corp. Amazing,” Hishon said.
Both men stunned, yet grateful for this maybe not so coincidental meeting.
“We all thank the Lord above and I thank him now,” Hishon said.
Harry said he learned a lot from Perry….
“These are the guys that taught me how to be a marine and taught me how to manage a group of men so that’s the kind of guy he was…a leader not a follower just a leader,” Hishon said.
“Okay you can turn it off now,” Williams, a man of few words, joked.
So, I turned the camera off and let them pick up where they left off, nearly four decades ago.
Linda Fritz lives in Grape Creek. She lost her husband in the Vietnam War. She was on the Permian Basin Honor Flight as a Gold Star Spouse.
She shares her story in her own words:
“I’m a Gold Star Spouse of Gerald W. Fritz who was killed in 1975, the last of the Vietnam casualties they called it.
We went to school together and got married our senior year in high school and he joined the service the next year and that was in 1973. He got killed, he was in the Air Force, he was a K9 security police handler.
Single mom at 20, he was 3 months when Gerald got sent overseas to Thailand and he was almost 9 months old when he was killed.
I remember everything and you know …the ‘what ifs’ What if he had made it home? What would my life be today? But you know you can’t go by that all the time so you know I look at our son that’s, he’s gonna be 48 in July and think ‘God it doesn’t seem like it’s been 47 years since you were killed but it has been.’ But Michael, his son is doing great.
I guess the only advice is to take advantage of all the things the government has to offer if you do have unfortunate circumstances happen. There’s lots of resources out there. Use them, check into them, and take full advantage of it because I got a college education out of it as well as my son so we made the best of what we had,” Fritz said.
Linda got a degree in medical technology and worked at Shannon for more than 20 years.
Now to another Gold Star family that was on the flight.
Elias Torres III joined the Marines right out of high school after graduating from Veribest ISD. He was soon deployed and returned from his first tour, but shortly after getting back, he was sent overseas again.
He was the first Concho Valley and San Angelo service member killed in action during the Iraqi conflict.
His parents shared details about him and his service.
“It was during the time of the Red Zone in Fallujah. And he didn’t come home.”
“Picked up some Marines, headed back to camp. On the way back, he got ambushed. They got ambushed and then….I think that night there were 8, 10, of them died that night. So he was one of them, he was driving the Humvee. He was driving and we were told by his commanding officer that he never gave up. He put his right foot on the door, open the door, and he took several before they took him. When we heard that it was just like…he didn’t die in vain.”
“Oh it was a horrible, horrible, notification. Hard banging on the door. And we didn’t answer the first time and then our phone rang and it said ‘US Government.’ And my heart dropped, it really, really dropped. And I touched him and said ‘you need to get up because I have a heart feeling about ET. That was his nickname. And he said, ‘woman of God, as much as you believe, he’s probably just been injured.’ But then we opened the door to our Marine officers that gave us the sad, sad news about him and it was just….devastated.”
“Sometimes it’s very difficult to go on. Feeling greedy about what and why. But during the time of our sorrow, we have always turned back to the fallen towers and asked each other, ‘how many brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers, will not ever, ever know where their loved ones are?’ And we do know, we know that our hero is buried in San Angelo, the veterans memorial, and we honor him as much as we can.”
“It brings us more peace and closure and we know that some of the parents traveling with us know our hearts and we know their hearts. It’ brings us joy and peace to know that we are the land of the free because of the brave. and he took that step forward knowing that ‘it was okay, mom and dad,’ if he didn’t come back. One day, we will meet on the other side.”
This story can only be defined as bittersweet. It’s one that’s been decades in the making and reminds us all to cherish our loved ones and both their and our time on this earth.
Bruce Hakes, a Vietnam Veteran, lives in Veribest. He went on the Permian Basin Honor Flight after being talked into it by the volunteers who run the organization.
“Literally talked me into it,” Hakes said.
And that’s when they discovered something else about Bruce.
“They just said, ‘we want you to go, we want you to go.’ and I said, ‘maybe I ought to, I got a brother buried there.’ and they said, ‘my gosh, you’re a gold star family? why didn’t you tell us?” Hakes said.
Bruce’s brother, Clarence D. Hakes, or CD, died in 1971.
“Seven on board total, he was in there and they were coming in for a landing at the air field and they say the airplane just …..explosion and on fire on landing…hit the ground…all were dead. Burned but not beyond recognition as the Army put it ,” Hakes said.
Bruce got to go to a memorial service for his brother in their original home state of Minnesota but…
“Then it was on to Arlington everybody got to go but me and my sister. We was broke…couldn’t afford it so…” Hakes said.
However…now, more than 50 years later…after lots of searching and a few detours….
“Oh man. There it is. There it is. Holy Cow. I’m gonna take a picture of that rascal. I’ve been many, many years, waiting on this. ,” Hakes said.
Bruce finally got see his brother’s gravesite.
“Him and I were close buddies. I was his best man. It’s tough. It’s really tough. Missed him all these years and….”
All those years of emotions now spilling out–bringing closure and gratitude.
“31 years old. Too young to be gone. Should have been around for me. I really appreciate it buddy. I appreciate you guys being here,” Hakes said.
With the flight’s chaplain by his side, Bruce reflected on all the pieces of this one incomplete puzzle coming together for this moment.
“And they went out of their way to get us here. Us three. It’s fantastic. It’s unbelievable. I don’t know what to say any more….it if wasn’t for the honor flights around the country. My sister came here on an honor flight too out of South Dakota so she got to come. Thank goodness for the honor flights that are helping the veterans out ,” Hakes said.
Continuing to reflect, Bruce shared more about his family.
“I think it was really hard on my dad, by the time CD died that was his third son he lost. Two of them were accidents, this was basically an accident, they said there was no evidence of being shot down, but you can’t prove, they said a lightning strike but …we don’t know ,” Hakes said.
Come to find out, nearly every man in his immediate family served in the armed forces.
“My other brothers, my brother-in-law, one of my nephews all served in Vietnam. Served their time, two of us retired but the rest served their time out, but like I said, I’m the last of the brothers, there was 9 in the family, 7 boys, 2 girls, I’m the last of the boys, and my sister in South Dakota, she’s the last of the girls.”
Despite the obstacles and heartache – Bruce says he remains hopeful. Never taking life for granted. As much as misses his brother…he holds on…knowing they’ll meet again ,” Hakes said.
“I’ll be with you again one of these days buddy ,” Hakes said.