Gold Star Families: Fort Rucker hosts survivors for tour
February 13, 2014
FORT RUCKER, Ala. (February 13, 2014) -- Most of the time, flight students are the ones receiving simulator briefs, but on Feb. 8, 19 Families were honored when they received private Warrior Hall tours as part of a celebration to recognize Gold Star Families from the region -- a designation given to spouses, parents and other relatives of fallen service members.
All types of Families participated in the day, and many did not have any connection with Army Aviation or even the Army -- some Air Force and Marine Gold Star Families participated, but all of them jumped at the idea of finding a way to get closer to their fallen heroes, said Beth Gunter, survivor outreach services financial counselor.
"They (had) the opportunity to learn about simulator flight training, what our Soldiers have to go through to fly, and were able to go into the simulators and experience flight situations with pilot volunteers. We also (had) a luncheon for them at The Commons where they (received) Aviation lapel wings so they have a memento for the day," she said.
SOS, Flight School 21 and several other organizations on Fort Rucker helped to make the day possible -- an opportunity that many Family members were emotionally thankful for.
"I love that they have events like this for Families. I really feel like we are welcome and connected to the base," said Ann Yoakum, Gold Star Family member. "We have been really excited for this day to see what kind of training (my son) had to go through to be able to fly."
"To enjoy taking steps that he once took during a major transition in his life, to remember him is going to be amazing -- we can connect with him more now," said Jim Butler, Gold Star Family member. "We really appreciate everything Fort Rucker does to reach out to us, and make us and the other Families feel like we are still important."
Gunter said that through the simulators the survivors learned more about the love that some Soldiers have for Aviation and why, along with it being a fun activity they will probably never experience again.
"All of them have seen the helicopters flying overhead, even the ones who live in Florida and central Alabama. And even though many of their Soldiers were not Aviators, they can connect with the community a little better, and have a more in depth understanding of something that is very essential to our community," she said.
Participants will also have a different appreciation for the helicopters they see flying overhead and the pilots who have to keep them in the air, she added.
"I'm hoping they will leave here with the reassurance that they have not been forgotten -- that the Army Family cares and wants them to be a part of this Family," said the SOS counselor.
Top Fort Rucker leaders and their spouses spent the day expressing condolences and gratitude to those in attendance, and to thank them for their sacrifices.
"At any time any of us could be a Gold Star Family member and it comes down to treating others the way we would want to be treated," said Col. Stuart J. McRae, Fort Rucker garrison commander. "They are a part of our Family, and just because tragedy occurs to someone in your Family you don't suddenly stop associating with them."
Butler drove down from his home near Birmingham to attend.
"(My son) was living his dream. He loved to fly and he loved what he did. When they told us we could sit in the simulators, I said it would be great to see and sit where he had trained," said Butler, whose son, CW3 James Butler, was killed on his fourth deployment in 2007.
"He was flying C-12s during the deployment and I remember he was so excited because after the deployment he was going to be flying jets," he continued.
Jennifer Butler, James' mother, said that every time James would deploy Jim would grow out a rattail in his hair, and when James would come home he would cut it off for his father.
"When we had his final service, I cut it off for Jim and we put it in James' casket. In honor of him now, Jim wears it all year long, but much shorter," she said.
Other Family members remembered how "spunky" their Soldier was and recalled their go-get-`em attitudes.
"He was a do-everything-right-now kind of man. He always had to be busy doing something," said Yoakum, whose son, Keith, was killed while flying AH-64 Apaches. "I sat in an Apache once and all I kept thinking was, 'My kid flies this thing?' It was just hard to believe that he could fly something like that. It was really impressive."
Keith was 41 when he was killed, but his mother and sister know he died doing what he loved and what he believed in.
"When he called me and told me he was going back to the Apache and was turning down the opportunity to fly with the Golden Knights, I was so against it. I knew that I would probably never see him again," said his mother.
And although Yoakum did see her son one more time before he took up the Apache and deployed, he did pass away halfway through his tour.
"My little brother was an amazing pilot -- I would rather fly with him than let him drive any day," said his sister, Mary Brown. "When he was 7 or 8, there was an event where children could fly in an airplane for a penny a pound, and he saved his pennies for weeks to get his weight in them so he could fly. I believe it was the first time he flew, and he was hooked."
As the crowd emptied after their luncheon, several members patiently spoke with one another about their personal journeys of grief and exchanged numbers to help each other no matter how long it had been since their Soldier had passed, because, they said, that's the way Families support each other.