“I can't tell the story without breaking up,” Vietnam veteran Bud Willis, 67, said of one painful yet inspiring encounter in the Vietnam War. “That moment changed my life.”
In 1966, late in his 14-month tour, Willis was assigned to provide air support for Marines by flying the wounded out of combat areas. An emotionally challenging job, he quickly learned to look straight ahead when picking up injured soldiers.
“Some of the sights were overwhelming,” Willis said in the “Everyone Has a Story” series hosted by TODAY’s Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb. “I was just a young pilot with no medical experience. I certainly wasn't a hero, because everyone in my squadron was doing those kinds of jobs — because it was a moral obligation."
On one particular mission, Willis was ordered to pick up a Marine and take him to a specialized facility that treated life-threatening injuries. The young soldier, no more than 19 years old, was in critical condition. He was missing a leg, an arm, an ear and an eye. To ease the soldier’s pain, the corpsman shot morphine into his remaining leg.
After dropping his passengers off at the local hospital, Willis saw the wounded Marine motion to the crew chief to lean forward so that he could tell him something over the deafening noise of the helicopters. The chief nodded, walked back over to Willis and took a minute to collect himself before relaying the message:
“Captain Willis, do you know what he said to me? He said to 'tell the pilot, thanks for the ride.'"
On the way to their base, Willis said his men, touched by the gratitude, were “all bawling like babies” and praying for the full recovery of the wounded soldier.
“Any man who could see through his own incredible circumstances and still have the presence of mind to say ‘thank you’ still brings tears to my eyes,” Willis said. "It made me want to be like him."
Willis still doesn't know what happened to the wounded Marine. "One of the hardest parts about these medevacs — and one of the things that hit us back home — was that we knew his family was going to have to hear about this, and we knew it long before they did," Willis said. "It was traumatic."
Although Willis admits he doesn’t “re-visit Vietnam a lot,” he hasn't forgotten that experience. From that day on, Willis committed himself to thanking at least one person each day.
“I taught all the people that ever worked for me that if they’re not getting thank-you notes, then they’re not giving thank-you notes,” Willis said. Willis believes that thanking on a daily basis is "a basic thing" that will gradually make your life better.
After Willis described his experience in Vietnam, singer Aaron Lazar of Broadway musical “A Tale of Two Cities” sang an original song titled “Carry Us Through,” written by Kathie Lee Gifford and her collaborator, David Friedman. The lyrics expounded on the impact of the heartwarming, simple act:
He never did cry out
He never did complain
But as I began to leave
He said, right before he died
Please tell the pilot 'Thanks'
Tell him 'Thanks for the ride'
With his wife by his side on the TODAY set, Willis gave Lazar a standing ovation. "I thought it was fantastic," he said. Lazar, who has a brother-in-law who served two tours in Iraq, said "it was an honor" to personally thank Willis for his service.
Bud Willis is the most recent winner featured in the “Everyone Has a Story” series, which will continue for two more weeks. Like previous participants, Willis was surprised with a gift: Two wounded soldiers — Justin Lapree, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and Jamel Daniels, who lost a leg in Iraq — presented Willis with a check for a $1,000 donation to the Wounded Warrior Project, which assists men and women soldiers living with traumatic war amputations and gunshot wounds.
Following his own creed, Willis thanked TODAY for the opportunity to represent soldiers and the sacrifices for their country.
“I have told this many times to teary-eyed audiences,” Bud said of his life-changing story. “We should remember to show gratitude and to thank people every day, and to thank God for people like that young Marine.”
For more on how you can help wounded soldiers, visit the Wounded Warrior Project online.