by Tech. Sgt. Dustin Martin
502nd Air Base Wing Chaplain Corps
7/6/2012 - 7/1/2012 - JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas -- When Virginia Stafford's eight children asked her what she wanted for her 90th birthday, she said she wanted to revisit the place where she and her late husband were married 69 years ago - a chapel at Lackland Air Force Base.
In 1943, Virginia traveled by train for three days from Dayton, Ohio, to San Antonio to meet her fiancé, Robert, for their wedding. She carried her wedding dress in a box on her lap the entire trip. At the time, Cadet Robert Stafford was enrolled in the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center.
On Monday, June 21, 1943, only two years after the Airman Memorial Chapel was built, Virginia A. Jefferson and Robert W. Stafford met at the chapel at 9:30 a.m., as scheduled, only to discover that the priest, Chaplain Eugene McCahey, had forgotten about the wedding. The entire wedding party, in full wedding attire, waited until 4:30 p.m. when the chaplain was finally available to perform the ceremony.
Sixty-nine years later, Virginia was back.
I received a phone from one of Stafford's children asking about information on Airman Memorial Chapel. She was trying to verify if it was indeed the chapel in which her parents were married.
After a short phone conversation, I was able to confirm that her research was correct. She informed me of her mother's birthday wish and asked if I could accommodate her, her mother, her siblings, and their spouses by giving them a tour of the chapel. I agreed to meet them that Sunday afternoon, April 15, 2012.
I met the group at the gate to escort them on base. I found out that Stafford, her eight children, and their six spouses had traveled all the way from Centerville, Ohio, for the trip down memory lane.
They had already gone by the place where Stafford and her late husband called home for their first year of marriage. Unfortunately, the house had been demolished and a parking lot sat in its place.
When we pulled up to the chapel, I saw Stafford pull out a black and white photo of her and her late husband on their wedding day. It was taken in front of the chapel. From the look on her face, I could see memories flooding back.
Unsure of herself, she showed me the picture and asked if it was the same chapel. As I looked at the old photo, I noticed some changes had been made, but I found it to be recognizable.
The steps and the original doors had been replaced, but the siding remained the same. As soon as I opened the doors, Stafford saw the exposed wooden beams and she knew without a doubt that this was the place she was married.
As we sat down and spoke I was astonished at the memory of this 89-year-old woman. Her family mentioned how she could remember things that no one else could. She told me her husband's graduation date from the cadet school was March 4, 1944, class 44C. Throughout his career, they were stationed at now non-existent bases like Bonham Air Force Base, Sherman AFB, and Eglin Field, to name a few. She also recalled that Robert piloted the B-24, B-17 and B-29.
We continued on to the parade grounds. As Stafford sat on a bench enjoying the view, some of her children took a walk around and looked at the static airplanes. They discovered all three of the planes their father had flown were displayed there.
We were ready to leave the parade grounds when the national anthem began playing on the loudspeaker. As I stood there saluting the flag, the entire family placed their hands over their hearts. When the anthem was finished, I dropped my salute and overheard one of her children say, "What a perfect ending to a great day."
At that moment, every family member felt like Robert was there with them. With tears in their eyes, they thanked me for what was truly a once in a lifetime experience for the Stafford family.
Editor's Note: Tech. Sgt. Dustin Martin is the NCO in charge of the Gateway Chapel, the designated chapel for Air Force basic trainees. He is assigned to the 502nd Air Base Wing Chaplain Corps.