This month’s guest commentary is from Rob Richard, WECA Director of Government Affairs
I began thinking about this month’s column on September 9. Why such a specific date? It was really a culmination of three days that began on the 9th with a feeling of immense pride, followed by a celebration on the 10th, and then time for remembrance on the 11th.
My brother-in-law, Lt. Colonel Weston “BUBBA” Hoeper, officially retired as an F-16 fighter pilot from the Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing in Madison. Walking away from flying one of the most formidable fighter jets in the world came with a whole range of emotions for him, his family, and his friends. His September 9 “fini-flight” (final flight) at Truax Field was a celebration of his 21-year career. Immediately upon exiting the jet for the last time, Wes was greeted with a traditional hosing down of water, a few bottles of champagne, and cheerful applause. Surrounded by family, friends, and fellow Air National Guard colleagues, we couldn’t help but beam with pride.
We were reminded at his retirement ceremony that his journey all began with the stories and encouragement of a former Korean War F-100 pilot from his hometown in Greenwood. A visit from Louie Landini to Wes’ fourth-grade class solidified his desire to fly, and in 2003 Louie was there in Del Rio, Tex., to pin his own wings onto Wes to help mark the beginning of his aviation career. After 21 years of honorable service, multiple deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Resolute Support, Operation Freedom Sentinel, and Operation Spartan Shield, and 500 hours of air combat missions, in a very special moment in the ceremony Wes returned Louie’s well-traveled wings back to the former F-100 pilot with barely a dry eye in the building.
This was a quintessential moment. It was a generational moment. A Korean War veteran influencing a young boy to dream big and believe in something bigger than himself. I am confident that Wes’ journey will help influence another fourth-grader to do the same. More importantly, I thank God this kind of story plays out every day across this great country as the next generation is encouraged by some of our best and bravest to step up and defend America’s promise of liberty, freedom, and democracy.
September 10 was a celebration of an honorable military career. It was also a celebration of Wes’ wife, Krista, his three kids, and the large group of family and friends that made up the emotional, physical, and mental support system needed along his journey. The sacrifices made by our military spouses and their families are tremendous. I think Wes would agree that the day was as much about them as it was for him. It was a great party. However, it also reminded me that not all veterans receive this type of celebration, care, and love. Some are struggling. Over 6,000 veterans commit suicide every year. Four times as many troops and vets have died by suicide than the Global War on Terror since 2001. If any veteran reading this needs to talk, please call the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 and Press 1.
Like many others, Lt. Colonel Hoeper joined the military ranks shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. It is a day that will never be forgotten. It is my generation’s Pearl Harbor. Most people who experienced that day know exactly where they were and what they were doing when the planes hit. It’s hard to believe it’s been 21 years. As much as we mourn the loss of so much life on that day, and the subsequent loss and sacrifice of so many of this country’s finest in lands far away, I can’t help but recall and dwell in the unity this nation experienced in the aftermath. We’re not there today and it worries me. It should worry us all.
This column isn’t just about Wes. This is for all our servicemen and women who have proudly served our country with distinction and honor. Their stories deserve to be shared as well. Maybe that could be a conversation starter with an active-duty member or veteran who you know, and then maybe Veterans Day will mean a little bit more to you this year as well.