I always admired and enjoyed the company of my cousin Bruce (Thomas B. Hillhouse, b. 4 January, 1957, d. 4 March 2007). He was a kind and gentle person, a bit shy but self-assured in his own way. He was fun to be around, and was more like the big brother I never had. I remember many wonderful fishing trips with him and my other cousins along the Beaver Creek Arm of Bull Shoals Lake near our grandfather’s “cabin” in Taney County, Missouri. I also recall many memorable visits to Webster Groves, Missouri where he grew up. When he enlisted in the Air Force out of Saint Louis in the mid-seventies, I was captivated by his every move. I would call him often and write on occasion, but was always eager to tell my friends of my cousin in the Air Force! When I think back, there were a few people who positively influenced my decision to join the military, and I am proud to say that my cousin Bruce was among them.
In one example of his generosity, I received a letter from him during a particularly stressful time as I was adjusting to life as a soldier. My mother mentioned my struggles to her sister Sue, Bruce’s mother, who evidently passed it along to him. He penned a note with encouraging words that were welcomed then and appreciated even more now. I’ll never forget that. Bruce always did seem to place other people and other creatures above himself. That’s one thing that made him so special.
In a fitting tribute to her brother, Melissa Hillhouse wrote and recited the following poem at his funeral:
I am soldier. Soon I will take my last breath. Maybe not today. I stand on the sun scorched plain in Gaul. My worn sandals sink in mud filled with the finished lives of many young men. Too many lives to count, in piles and pieces and pools. I smell wet grass, blood and fear. A rabbit darts across my path. I see in its eyes the terror that slashes at my soul. I hear a whistling and I take my last breath.Bruce was laid to rest at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, Section N, Site 19, March 10, 2007. His mother Martha Sue (Slack) Pompeo is also located nearby in the same cemetery.
I am soldier. Today I may take my last breath. I stand in the rain on strange French soil. I smell mud, horses and agony. Perhaps today this slaughter will slake the general’s thirst. I hear snorts and groans and music. Drums and fifes play amid the chaos of battle. I smell cannons firing, horses, and death. Red fountains flow and young men crumple in heaps. Cannons fire, the music stops and I take my last breath.
I am soldier. Soon I will take my last breath. Please God don’t let it be today. I sit in my Hummvee in crushing heat in Bhasra. I survey the blazing street and wipe my brow. I smell terror, cigarettes and gasoline. This is not my war, nor my country, but my job. A bearded young man holding a little girl’s hand leaves a house. He lets her hand go and approaches the vehicle smiling with out stretched arms in his winter coat. I say a prayer and I take my last breath for I am soldier.
To paraphrase “High Flight” a sonnet written by John Glllespie Magee, and in tribute to my cousin Bruce, “Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth…Put out my hand and touched the face of God”.