Vintage pickup honors fallen hero's memory
Bruce Hays kept his promise. To everyone who knew him, that’s hardly a surprise.
Inspired by Hays’ character and sacrifice, hundreds of volunteers offered their time and money to help the fallen soldier deliver one final gift to his bride, Terry – a completely restored 1959 Chevrolet Apache pickup truck like the one her family owned when she was a child. Hays purchased the truck as an anniversary gift for Terry years ago, hoping they might work on it together. But he was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan on Sept. 17, 2008, before the project could be completed.
“Sitting in the truck is like having his arms around us, giving us comfort,” Terry Hays said of the Apache, which was delivered to her Las Cruces, N.M., home in February. “I used to tell Bruce about how, when we were kids, we would go to the drive-in in my dad’s Chevy Apache … how we would drive through the (Mesilla) Valley and enjoy the countryside. He remembered that. He knew how much it meant to me.”
Bruce and Terry Hays met at New Mexico State University in 1992 – after Bruce had served eight years in the U.S. Army, including Desert Storm – and they were married three years later. Upon graduation, Bruce accepted a job with the United States Department of Agriculture and joined the Wyoming Army National Guard, where he became an artillery officer. Soon after, Terry joined the Air National Guard.
Through the years, the couple overcame the obvious obstacles associated with military life. They also received a scare when Terry battled cancer. And with five children – three from Terry’s previous marriage and two daughters together – it was difficult to put money and time aside to work on the old Apache. When it came to the truck, life always seemed to have other plans, and the dream went unfulfilled.
Finally, after six years of saving, the Hays had managed to set aside enough cash to have the truck professionally restored. Of course, it wouldn’t be the same as fixing it up themselves, but they could begin to enjoy it with their children, just as Terry’s parents had done with her and her brothers. So Bruce found a Cheyenne mechanic with a good-looking portfolio and paid him $17,000 to do the job.
In 2008, Bruce received word that a fellow officer, one he didn’t know but who was well aware of his stellar reputation, had personally requested that he join a 16-man combat advisory team bound for Afghanistan. Bruce proudly accepted, saying he wanted to fulfill a promise that our country made to the Afghan people, and Terry proudly supported her husband’s decision. She certainly understood why he was selected.
“Bruce meant so much to so many people,” she said. “His achievements as a man and a soldier were impressive. He commanded three different batteries. That’s unheard of. But he was so modest, so selfless. He was just doing what he thought was right.”
In May of that year, a week before Bruce’s deployment, he received an unsettling phone call about the Apache. According to the Cheyenne District Attorney, the mechanic was nowhere to be found, nor was the money that he’d been paid by the Hays and others. The Apache was left in pieces, and the D.A. said it needed to be claimed or it would be sold to help pay off the mechanic’s debts.
Heartbroken but unwilling to give up on the truck or their dream, Terry and Bruce promised each other they would complete the project no matter how long it took. But Bruce never returned from Afghanistan. He was killed, along with three other soldiers and an interpreter, when their Humvee tripped an explosive device en route to a training session at an Afghan police station.
The news was devastating to Terry and the kids. The 1959 Chevrolet Apache truck, left in pieces, much like their lives, seemed to be the least of their worries. But as Bruce’s story spread, a plan began to unfold. People who didn’t know each other came together for a common cause. Restoring the Apache seemed to be the perfect way to honor Cpt. Bruce Hays and his ultimate sacrifice. And it would also give his grieving wife and children something to cling to.
So with the help of old friends and new friends – including Col. Raymond Kent, the Wyoming National Guard, Stacey Morton and the “Friends of the 133rd,” Kent Stevinson, WyoTech automotive students and staff, Koop Transport Co. and countless others – the truck was completed in late 2011. On Feb. 3, it was delivered to Terry, surrounded by friends and family, escorted to her small New Mexico pecan farm by the Patriot Guard Riders. It was painted dark blue with gold striping at Terry’s request, “like the Army’s Class-A uniform trousers.” And the image of an American flag waved proudly on the tailgate, right next to Bruce’s name.
“They’ve really captured his spirit,” Terry said. “The truck is a beautiful symbol of American strength and unity, and it’s a great representation of Bruce’s personality – masculine and sharp looking, but not excessive.
“Bruce would ask, ‘What is all the fuss is about?’ He’d say, ‘I’m just a soldier doing my duty. I’m not anyone special.’ ”
Many would beg to differ.