Facebook pixel
Rex experiencing emotions while looking out across forest at Jacks wood Bois Jacques Bastogne Belgium

Rex Honors His Father’s Legacy in Bastogne

Since he was a young boy, Rex idolized his father, who served as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division during World War II. To this day, the 101st or “Screaming Eagles” are widely known for their heroic defense of Bastogne, Belgium, as part of the Battle of the Bulge.

Through his father’s tales, Rex learned that the events of the winter of 1944 were the proudest accomplishments of his life. But his father’s service also came with a heavy burden. Rex recalls many moments when his father was in the same room, but it felt like he was many miles away—like he had left a part of himself behind in Bastogne.

However, when his father told stories about the people he met in Bastogne, his face would light up with a smile. He explained to Rex that the residents stood by the American soldiers defending the area and gave them hope during their darkest times.

Rex’s father dreamed of returning to Europe to experience Bastogne outside of wartime and reconnect with the locals. Sadly, he never had the chance to do so.

Rex views memorial Battle of the Bulge memorial in German War Cemetery Recogne Bastogne Belgium
Memorial in German War Cemetery Recogne Bastogne Belgium

Inspired by his father, Rex also wanted to serve his country. He became a commissioned officer and Naval aviator, serving as a Naval Aviator during the Gulf War. Much like his father, Rex experienced the physical and mental challenges of war, which still affect him today.

Rex loved being a pilot, but his favorite part of his service was humanitarian work. He had the opportunity to help small villages in the regions he served recover from natural disasters and other challenges.

And his desire to help others has not stopped. Rex has continued to give back and serve his community after his discharge and retirement. While he was stationed in Texas, Rex shared his expertise in aircraft maintenance by volunteering with the Commemorative Air Force from 1980-1982. He has also volunteered for the American Red Cross in Southern California and as an amateur radio operator during disaster response with the U.S. Forestry Service, CalFire, California Highway Patrol, and the San Diego County Sheriff.

Today, at age 71, Rex has gained the nickname “make-believe grandpa” from four young kids in his neighborhood. He makes them homemade woodcraft toys, which he also donates to children in local hospitals.

Rex has also devoted his spare time to learning about World War II and digging through every available record of his father’s service. With so many unanswered questions, he has dreamed of visiting Bastogne to understand his father’s experience on a deeper level.

Rows of trees and memorial markers of Battle of the Bulge soldiers WWII
Rex stands next to WWII era foxhole from Battle of the Bulge

When Wish of a Lifetime heard Rex’s story, we jumped at the opportunity to help him fulfill a lifelong dream. Finally, Rex would have the chance to follow his father’s footsteps in Bastogne and honor his legacy.

After a long flight from San Diego, Rex and his wife Joyce landed in Brussels, Belgium. Before settling in for some well-deserved rest, they enjoyed a walk around the city and admired the fantastic architecture all around them.

The next day, they visited the Royal Museum of Armed Forces and Military History in Brussels, and made the two-hour drive from Brussels to Bastogne, the real destination of the trip. Looking back, Rex commented that the weather felt appropriate—cool, with drizzling rain on and off all day.

In Bastogne, they were joined by Aure, a photographer, and Henri, a local historian. Rex noticed the warmth and generosity of his new companions, just like his father had described the locals to him as a boy. Henri shared historical context as the group explored the battlefield in Jack’s Wood or the “Bois Jacques,” where the famed Battle of the Bulge occurred.

As he approached the monument at the edge of the forest, Rex felt a rush of emotion. He let the memorial’s words sink in as he read the inscription, recounting the harrowing conditions and courageous battle he knew had taken place on that ground: “May the world never forget.”

Standing within the dense, serene woods felt surreal, knowing his father had walked through the same forest in 1944. Rex could even see some of the remaining foxholes soldiers had made as they had spread out in a defense perimeter of Bastogne City. He imagined the deep cold the soldiers felt as they held their ground while temperatures dropped far below freezing each night.

To complete their trip, Rex and Joyce visited the 101st Airborne Museum and the Bastogne Barracks before returning to Brussels.

Reflecting on their time in Bastogne, Rex shared that it was meaningful on many levels and gave him a sense of closure. “I wake up at night and just think about our trip. It solved so many issues—clarified what it felt like. And to see Bastogne honoring the Allies today is amazing.” he said.

Rex thanked Wish of a Lifetime, commenting that he could not imagine anything else paralleling this experience.

“This was a wish of a different caliber! I think you have truly granted not one, but three wishes of a lifetime,” he said. “My dad’s, mine, and another wish I never realized until it was happening.”

What was that third wish? Before the trip, Joyce had been adjusting to her recent retirement after 19 years of teaching—an emotional event for her, and big lifestyle change for them both.

Their journey to Bastogne brought the couple a much-needed break from the pressures of everyday life. It was a chance to simply enjoy each other’s company while laughing, talking, walking, and exploring a new place together. Rex said it felt like they were dating again!

Rex speaks and gestures with hands to wife and Henri within the forest
Rex and wife stand in front of WWII memorial at Jacks wood

Want to see more stories like Rex’s?

Sign up for our email list and continue to be inspired by the stories of older adults fulfilling their dreams.

Rex wife and guide walk toward Jack’s wood (Bois Jacques)

Wish of a Lifetime from AARP is changing how we age, one inspirational wish at a time.

Submit a life-changing wish in your community, and share your favorite wish story on Facebook and Instagram to inspire your network!