It wasn’t getting shot in the head by a sniper that made the worst day of Rick Turner’s military career. Getting shot while cradling a fellow soldier in 82nd Airborne wounded by the same sniper didn’t either.
Watching him get shot again — and killed — made it the worst.
“Some memories,” says Turner, his eyes welling with tears, “they just never go away.”
Turner was a military brat, dragged from post to post by his father, a “salty” Navy chief petty officer. The family moved from Philadelphia to Washington state to California and, in 1985, to the naval air station in Grand Prairie. After graduating from high school in DeSoto, Turner joined the Army at 18 because Dad scoffed at his lack of discipline, saying he couldn’t cut life in the Navy.
“He told it like it was, whether I wanted to hear it or not,” Turner says of Richard Turner Sr. “I was a dumbass, with limited options.”
“Rick was trouble,” his wife, Tancy, says jokingly. “A true badass. The kind of guy you didn’t want to be on the wrong side of.”
Today, after two tours of combat duty and a 2012 transformative moment in a downtown Dallas coffee shop, the former badass is working to better the lives of vets who return home missing limbs from tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. As founder and president of Spirit of a Hero, DFW’s fastest-growing military nonprofit organization, Turner, 48, spearheads programs to help critically wounded local service members who have sacrificed for their country. SOAH’s annual award recipients include single, double, triple and even quadruple amputees.
“I’m not sure where I’d be without Rick,” says Mansfield’s Omar Milan, SOAH’s 2015 “Hero,” who lost one leg, nerve function in the other and most of his left hand when he encountered four improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan in 2012. “I’d probably be in some apartment, not this house that I love. Who knows? I might not be here at all. I can’t put into words how much that organization has helped me.”
SOAH, which will hold its eighth annual fundraising motorcycle ride May 18 from Argyle to Corinth in Denton County, assists wounded clients with everything, including adaptive training fitness centers, customized homes, and emotional and financial support.
“I just felt moved to help those not as fortunate as me,” Turner says. “I have PTS (post-traumatic stress), my back kills me, I walk with a limp and, yeah, I got shot in the head. But, trust me, I’m one of the lucky ones. I just had to do something.”
First, he had to survive Panama.
Five months after graduating Jump School in Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1989, Turner made the elite 82nd Airborne Division. He soon deployed via a “hot drop” behind enemy lines into Panama as part of the U.S. invasion to overthrow military strongman Manuel Noriega. Two weeks later he was hanging out the side of a Blackhawk helicopter scouring the country’s lush landscape for an ideal communication base.
What Turner didn’t see was the sniper from Noriega’s army, perched camouflaged in a tiny village near Volcan de Chiriqui, the country’s highest peak.
“Just came out of nowhere,” Turner recalls. “Next thing you know, all hell breaks loose.”
One soldier, dangling his legs out of the helicopter, was shot in the kneecap. After an emergency landing, the soldier was hit again, this time in the arm. Turner looked down to tend to his bloodied friend, and his helmet slid down over his eyes. As he adjusted the helmet and wiped sweat out of his eyes, he was struck in the back of his head. A bullet pierced the helmet, fracturing his skull.
“Dumb luck,” Turner calls it. “No reason I should’ve made it out of there alive. Another inch and we’re not here at lunch doing this interview.”
Turner placed his arms around the wounded soldier in an effort to shield him. Physically fortunate but destined for psychological torment, Turner was spared by another sniper’s bullet that whizzed past him and into the wounded soldier’s cheek, killing him instantly.
“Don’t care how tough or macho you think you are, or how much training you’ve been through, you don’t get over that,” Turner says, pausing to dab tears. “A friend I was ready to give my life for to protect, died. Right there. In my arms. I’ll never truly get over that. I’d be fucked up if I did get over that, right?”
While recovering at San Antonio’s Brooke Army Medical Center, Turner received a Purple Heart. He also developed a deeper resolve.
“All I wanted to do was get out of that hospital so I could go fight the bad guys,” he says.
Within six months of being shot, Turner was redeployed for a tour in Iraq.
Boots on the Ground
“I’m not saying it’s not nice to hear ‘Thank you for your service.’ I’m appreciative. I just hope that when people say it, they’re cognizant that right now — this very second — there are boots on the ground all over the world, American soldiers fighting enemies to protect your freedom. American soldiers going through some very bad shit.” – Rick Turner
Sleeping in trenches, tasting sand and mastering the life-and-death science and strategy of longitude, latitude and GPS-assisted artillery bombardment and airstrikes, in 1990 Turner joined the U.S. troops streaming to the Middle East for Operation Desert Storm.
“Our initial mission was to liberate Kuwait,” Turner says. “Once we did that and pushed the Iraqis back, for 11 months we could see them and they could see us. It was a waiting game.”
Armed with binoculars, military maps and advanced training, Turner served as a fire support specialist. “They called me the ‘Eyes of Death,’” he says. With the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, he took part in a precision attack on Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s elite Republican Guard.
Hidden, sometimes virtually buried in a sand dune, Turner surveyed members of the guard and their support group hanging out in a makeshift tent village almost a mile in the distance.
With the help of five GPS satellites, he zeroed in on the Republican Guard, pinpointing his position and radioing back coordinates to a nearby fire direction center. At Turner’s disposal was a massive menu of weaponry from naval gunfire from warships, Cobra helicopters and grenade launchers fired by infantrymen.
“Everyone was waiting on me to play music,” Turner says. “When I did … time to dance.”
When Turner was satisfied with his target, he locked in and delivered the green light in the form of a cold, hard command: “Fire. For. Effect!”
“It was like it started raining from the sky. Like the wrath of hell,” Turner says.
When the 105mm warheads, carrying white phosphorous that burned at 4,500 degrees, had finished their job, nothing remained.
“Just a black mark in the desert,” Turner recalls. “No bones. No tent material. Nothing. Estimated 250 casualties, poof. Just gone.
“The pressure, the intensity of those moments is just unbelievable,” Turner says. “Millimeters matter. Seconds matter. I didn’t physically pull the trigger, but I was responsible for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of deaths. It’s depressing to think about now, but I don’t regret any one of them. Saddam was a bad guy, and it was our mission to ultimately take him out.
“But I’m not gonna lie, that kind of responsibility … it weighs on you for a long time after the deed is done.”
Coming Up Swinging
“I never dared to sneak up on him or wake him up abruptly. I poked him from far away with a broom handle, because he always came up swinging.” – Tancy Turner
Turner’s father arrived home in Oakland one afternoon with a choice: Anchorage or Dallas.
“He didn’t give a shit what we thought,” Turner says. “Luckily, Mom wasn’t going to Alaska.”
Dad was a career military man, following in the footsteps of his father and in line with his brothers, nephews and almost every man from wife Linda’s family.
“He was a great dad. I never needed for anything,” Turner says. “We had a Leave It To Beaver family. But if my room wasn’t clean or organized, he reminded me that a chief is a chief.”
The chief brought his family to Texas, where Turner was a standout athlete in baseball and football in DeSoto. He possessed the size (6-foot-2, 215 pounds) and skill to play college ball as a first baseman or tight end, but that wasn’t his fate.
“It was in the cards what career path I’d choose,” Turner says. “There were a lot of times I thought I took the wrong path, the more difficult road. Had I listened to others, my life would have been easier, but not as rewarding.”
Still, Turner rebelled against both college and the idea that his father knew best. After graduation, he hopped a Greyhound Bus back to Whidbey Island, Washington, to live with family friends. He became a carpenter, working on custom homes.
“Paid on Friday,” he says with a laugh, “broke by Saturday afternoon.”
His longtime friend and virtual big sister, Terri Bartlison, soon persuaded him to pack up and go home. Six months after boldly leaving, Turner returned to Texas and told his father about his desire to join the Navy.
“Nope,” his dad retorted. “You don’t have the discipline. Try the Army. It’s more lenient.”
Recalls Turner, “Part of me just wanted to be out of the house. Part of me was ready to be a man.”
At the recruiting station in DeSoto, Turner charted his path to follow his grandfather, who served in the 82nd Airborne. As he read pamphlets, he was drawn to one description: “Fire Support Specialist.” Turner wanted to be the guy who called for fire.
The job meant he was always in the field, a “bastard child” vitally important to multiple platoons. He entered dangerous territory by parachute, wearing a grenade launcher on his back, a rucksack between his legs and more than 100 pounds of equipment on his body.
With strong commitment and a tinge of naivete, he was off to Panama, where a part of him would never leave. He wouldn’t be a civilian again for two tours and four years.
“It was a long road,” he says. “Some days I still feel like I’m traveling it.”
When he returned to DFW there was divorce from his first wife. Indecision. Depression. Fortunately, there was also Tancy.
Through mutual friends, they’d met when she was in seventh grade and he was in high school. Years later, in 2009, they went through similar divorces, began attending the same church in Red Oak and recognized a spark.
“On our first date, he took me to his house, cooked me enchiladas and we went on a motorcycle ride,” Tancy recalls. “This girl was hooked.”
They’ve been married nine years.
Tancy runs the Discount Trophies, Etc. business in Denton. Turner is a project manager at Arrow Electric, where he’s worked for 26 years. They moved to Lakewood Village on Lewisville Lake and together have six kids, two of them at home.
“Makes me tired just talking about all that’s going on,” Turner says with a laugh. “One Tuesday we get an order for 750 trophies by Saturday. I’m working on the Alamo Drafthouse in North Richland Hills getting ready for The Avengers premiere. There’s the kids. Only thing that keeps me sane is Spirit of a Hero.”
Turner is hair-trigger emotional, crying multiple times during multiple interviews. But he’s also unflappable, dealing with the recent deaths of his father (his mother died of breast cancer at age 48) and his father’s wife, and a resulting, stress-related episode of Bell’s palsy, a condition affecting the nerves in one side of his face.
He wasn’t always this strong.
“When we were dating, he would say, ‘God’s never gonna forgive me for the things I had to do,’” Tancy says. “He said he didn’t even know if he believed in God anymore. He was talking about astrology and this and that. I had to get him back into church.”
A retired colonel and former Huey pilot, Sid Bradshaw, took Turner under his wing at Chinn’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Lewisville and helped restore some of his faith, but that did little for Turner’s traumatic stress problem, which for years he self-medicated in silence.
“Oh, he never talked about the time he served,” Tancy says. “He’d just say, ‘I don’t want to talk about it. I’m just an electrician.’ Then one day he comes home frantic. All emotional. Fire in his eyes, but also tears. Just charged up. Like he’d been shot out of a cannon.”
Goodbye, quiet depression. Hello, Spirit of a Hero.
Esprit de Corps
“Our motto says it all: No arms. No legs. No problem.” – Rick Turner
On April 10, 2012, Turner was working an electrical job at a Dallas office building. A world away, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills was on foot patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
One step, and the two men who had never met were soon to be dramatically intertwined.
A week later, Turner took a break at his job while waiting for an inspector. He sat down at the high-rise building’s café with a cup of coffee and a newspaper. One glance at the front page changed his life.
“He was 82nd Airborne; I was 82nd Airborne,” Turner says. “He was 2nd Brigade Combat Team; I was 2nd Brigade Combat Team. He was 11 Bravo; I was 13 Fox. Everything was just too similar. It just … I don’t know. It just hit me right in the heart.”
In an instant, the meandering civilian turned motivated philanthropist.
“He started looking for change, going through our checkbook and telling me to Google this name I’d never heard of,” Tancy says. “When I read the story, I knew. Rick wasn’t going to let this rest. In his way, he was back in the war. We had six kids and a mortgage, so my initial concern was him not giving all of our money away. But he’d found his new mission. He was gearing up to kick ass for this kid.”
The kid was Mills.
“I’d been out 20 years, almost as long as he’d been alive, but how could I not help?” Turner says. “He woke up on his 25th birthday with no arms and no legs.”
Mills, whose in-laws live in Frisco, was serving his third deployment in Afghanistan when he stepped on an improvised explosive device. He was big and strapping at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, and experts reasoned that his size detonated a mine that smaller soldiers had trekked over safely. The blast tore off all four limbs, leaving Mills one of the war’s five quadruple-amputee survivors.
“In Iraq and Afghanistan, their coward-ass shit doesn’t dare dance with an American soldier,” Turner says. “They hide and just plant these bombs under the sand. Everywhere.”
Within hours of reading Mills’ story — and with him still in Germany recovering from multiple surgeries — the Turners began calling friends, scouring social media, searching for a way to contact a family they didn’t know.
“I was dealing with a lot and my situation was still fresh,” Mills says. “But there’s this brother in arms with a big heart already reaching out, wanting to help. It’s difficult to explain how much that kind of support meant to me at that time in my life. I’m forever grateful to Rick and Tancy. They’re my heroes.”
With tons of fuel but no compass, the Turners began organizing … something.
They’d recently taken part in a motorcycle charity ride and decided to do the same for Mills. The initial goal: 100 bikers donating $50 each.
Rick reached out to the biker community. Tancy searched and manged to get in touch with Mandy Bishop, a cousin of Mills’ wife. Bishop’s husband, John, agreed to put the Turners in contact with Mills’ father-in-law, Craig Buck, who also rode motorcycles.
“I convinced John that we wanted to give every dollar to Travis, that we weren’t keeping even one penny,” Turner says. “He said ‘You’re doing this for a stranger?’ and I said ‘Yes, sir.’ It gave me a purpose. He said it restored his faith in humanity. So off we went.”
At a red light in Lewisville the next day, Turner rolled down his window to spread the word to an idling fire engine. Within minutes, he had a commitment from multiple stations to have their ladder trucks present for the ride. Another call to a former military brother secured a Huey helicopter and a donation of $4,000. During dinner at Texas Roadhouse in Flower Mound, Turner talked to the manager and, sure enough, he had been 11 Bravo. Food for the event? Done.
“Every door I pushed, just opened,” says Turner, tears trickling. “This whole thing was in God’s hands.”
Adds Tancy, “Honest, we started with nothing. But in no time, we had credit card machines, drinks, police escorts, food, everything. Donated. It just all fell into place, like it was supposed to happen.”
What began that April climaxed in July.
With Buck riding out front alongside Turner, the caravan of 1,800 motorcycles — a tad more than the projected 100 — left Stroker’s in Dallas and wound up at the American Legion outpost in Lake Dallas. Since the place had a capacity of 40, the overflow of bikes parked in the lots of a nearby church and school or a vacant field. On a sweltering summer afternoon, an emergency tent was erected by volunteers, and a proclamation declaring July 28, 2012, as “Travis Mills Day” in Texas was read by a representative of Congressman Sam Johnson.
At the end of the day, all cash donations were shoved into the saddle bags on Buck’s motorcycle. With his son-in-law still rehabilitating at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center near Washington, he went home, sorted the bills and texted the Turners a screenshot of his phone’s calculator — $38,805.
“It was gratifying and a little overwhelming,” Tancy says. “But it was just the beginning. We knew we had to do more. Travis wasn’t the only one.”
A month later, Spirit of a Hero was licensed as a nonprofit. Its mission is to make a significant difference in the lives of critically wounded veterans. These days SOAH has a volunteer board, annually names a “Hero” recipient and stages multiple events, including a yearly, black-tie soiree that in 2017 boasted double amputee and Dancing With the Stars competitor Noah Galloway as its keynote speaker. The organization helps pay for fitness programs at Carrollton’s Adaptive Training Foundation (also launched in Mills’ honor), continued education and even attorneys’ fees.
“These guys are coming home from war in all kinds of shape,” Turner says. “But they’re not giving up, and we’re helping them fight. Plus, it’s vets and motorcycles. The shit we do is pretty cool.”
It all started with Mills, SOAH’s catalyst and inaugural recipient. The first influx of funds helped remodel Buck’s home, where Mills learned to take the first steps in his new life with the help of prosthetic limbs. SOAH paid for and installed a bidet, ramps, rails and other modifications.
Mills is now a husband, father to a daughter, Chloe, and author of The New York Times’ best-seller Tough As They Come. He has moved to Maine and established his namesake veterans’ rehab center, located on Elizabeth Arden’s former estate and recent recipient of an anonymous $3.7 million donation.
Mills travels. Speaks. Inspires. And never forgets to mention Turner and SOAH.
“If I can treat other veterans the way Rick treated me, I’ll be proud,” Mills says. “Here’s this stranger, but the first time we met I was immediately at ease. He’s just a regular guy doing special things. He’s not exploiting vets as part of some dog and pony show to make money. He truly cares. He helped me see some light in a dark time.”
SOAH charity rides, such as the one later this month, will always include the same core elements: Helicopter escort. Ladder trucks displaying a huge American flag. Bagpipes. And, of course, Mills’ spirit.
“It’s hard for me to sit back and say things happen for a reason, because that would mean my life was meant to step on a bomb and get blown up,” Mills says. “But there are definitely things at work here — a spirit, if you will — that are bigger than both me and Rick. I don’t think we met by accident.”
A Soldier’s Best Friend
“We do our best to help in every way possible. But sometimes it’s not enough. We lost Jackel.” – Rick Turner
For all the success stories authored by SOAH, there are also grim reminders that some wounds won’t heal.
“War takes victims in many ways,” Turner says. “The physical and PTS, the invisible killer.”
Sgt. Stephen Jackel served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and received numerous awards, including the Purple Heart. In 2011, an IED exploded under his RG31 personnel carrier. To help several soldiers escape, Jackel used his legs, blown off by the blast, to put out the flames.
He returned home to Dallas and learned to use prosthetic legs, but the psychological damage was irreversible. On Jan. 3, 2018, he was found dead in his home.
Says Turner, haltingly, “We lost him to the demons.”
According to the VA’s National Suicide Data Report, 22 military members or veterans commit suicide each day.
“Jackel was larger than life, and he had a heart of gold,” says Turner, who posthumously named him SOAH’s 2018 Hero. “Sometimes you just can’t do enough, but I’ll be damned if we won’t keep trying.”
More times than not, SOAH’s time, money and effort make a permanent, positive impact. “Hero” candidates are nominated by friends, family and associates of former recipients. They are then vetted to confirm an honorable discharge before being interviewed by SOAH.
Jordan Folmar lost both legs in an explosion and returned home to Garland, forced to crawl through his parents’ house because it wasn’t wheelchair friendly. As SOAH’s second Hero, Folmar’s residence was renovated with lower countertops, a wheelchair-height microwave, wider hallways and a frameless shower.
“Sometimes restoring dignity is the best gift,” Turner says.
In 2014, SOAH equipped Marcus Burleson’s home with doors, windows and other devices that operate via touch as a workaround to his loss of both arms to yet another IED explosion. After 40 surgeries over two years, Omar Milan, 2015’s Hero, was the beneficiary of SOAH’s remodeling his home and paying one year’s rent.
“It makes you feel appreciated,” says Milan, a father of two daughters who enjoys a woodwork shop in his garage. “You come back seriously injured after fighting for your country, and it’s nice to know people care.”
This year’s recipient, Flower Mound’s Dan Licardo, survived 16 years as a Navy SEAL but suffered a seizure while driving in 2018 and lost both legs in the accident.
Says Turner, “Total badass. Horrible accident. Perfect recipient.”
While SOAH understands its recipients will never enjoy traditionally perfect lives, it aims to at least provide happier ones.
McKinney’s Brian Aft was on routine foot patrol in Kajaki, Afghanistan, in 2011. By his side was beloved bomb dog and his trusted partner, “Buckshot.” Sensing IEDs in an irrigation ditch, the two leaped over it to the other side, only to land on another mine.
The explosion blew off both of Aft’s legs above the knees and inflicted life-threatening injuries to Buckshot.
While rehabbing for two years at Walter Reed, Aft often inquired about his dog. Repeatedly, he was told only that Buckshot had been “retired.” Back home in Texas, Aft attempted to mitigate the pain and depression by abusing drugs.
After another surgery and a checkup back in D.C., he was slumped in his wheelchair in a hallway, slowly nibbling the only “food” he could choke down, ice chips. He looked up to see a three-star general, who offered a refill.
“Son, I’d be honored to help any way I can,” he said.
Replied Aft, “I just want my dog back.”
The latest to deliver the heartbreaking news, the general explained that hundreds of thousands of dollars are invested into bomb dogs and that “the military doesn’t just give them away, medically retired or not.”
The soldier who lost his legs wouldn’t find his dog.
Jokes Turner, “He’s accepted his fate and makes the best of it. What else you gonna do?”
Answer the door, for starters.
A month after his brief interaction with the general at Walter Reed, Aft received a visitor at his Collin County home. It was a woman in uniform, flanked by two soldiers.
“Corporal Brian Aft?” the woman said. “Sign here.”
Confused but intrigued, Aft pushed for more information.
“You, sir, are now in sole possession of $196,000 worth of retired military equipment,” the woman said. The order was signed by the three-star general.
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“Things are great. I’ve got my wife, family, my friends and I’ve got Buckshot,” says Aft. “I’m not sure what in the world I could complain about.”
SOAH further wowed Aft’s world, naming him its 2017 “Hero.” Turner’s crew remodeled Aft’s backyard, transforming it from a wasted space with hilly, uneven terrain into a leveled playground friendly to both dog and wheelchair. There’s a patio. An arbor. Shade trees. Flower beds. An outdoor grill and refrigerator. And when the neighborhood initially balked at the extensive renovations, Turner and SOAH intervened and got the project approved.
“I’m unbelievably appreciative,” Aft says. “Rick did it all. I’m out there every day with Buckshot and my other dogs. Can’t put a price on something like that.”
Says Turner, again tearing up, “That right there … makes it all worthwhile.”