“Life is a funny journey…”
Colonel Helen May Norris, USAF retired, entered into this world on September 18, 1933, in Borger, Texas. She passed into heavens honored ranks at the age of 84 on February 8, 2018 in Amarillo, Texas. She will be laid to rest in Llano Cemetery, Amarillo, Texas on February 10, 2018.
Helen spent her years as a youth growing up in the Panhandle of Texas living in Spring Creek, Borger and Skellytown. While attending Borger High School, she sang in the choir and played basketball. She was known for her angelic voice and playing a steel guitar. Helen loved to go camping and fishing with her parents, Melvin and Eva Norris. After graduating from Borger High, she enrolled into Southern Methodist University to study nursing.
On July 21, 1960 she began her career in the United States Air Force as a 1st Lieutenant. Helen knew her calling was to become a flight nurse and to serve her country caring for the wounded soldiers in Vietnam. She completed her flight nurse training in February, 1966. Upon completing her training, she was assigned to the 902d Air Evacuation Squadron stationed out of Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. During her service in the Vietnam War she rose to the rank of Capitan and was a proud member of the “Flying Nightingales of Vietnam.”
It was recorded that during her 18 months of service of air evacuating thousands of wounded soldiers from air bases in South Vietnam, she only lost one soldier in flight. She always felt that even though they flew 14 to 16 hours a day hustling the wounded out of harm’s way, she knew what she was doing was important. She stated “You felt like you were doing an important job, and that the job takes all you got, but it felt so good to see them smile…when they smile you got the feeling that you were useful.” She admired the wounded stating, “…I never once saw one bitter about the job they were doing in Vietnam.”
When asked about the dangers and hazards she faced, she would simply say, “We were shot at a time or two, but you didn’t notice it much when you flew during the day. At night you could see the shells flashing, and got a bit spooky. But you were so very busy.” When asked what her toughest mission was she said, “Once, during the heaviest fighting, we landed at Dong Ha. I had 45 litters to take, and as we took off, small arms fire broke out on the runway. That was close. We had to move 75 men out of battle, and it was like running an intensive care ward…but we did not lose a single soldier.”
Helen recalled a poignant moment when a pair of soldiers she had evacuated to the Philippines said “Hey Jim, look, I told you we’d make it alive.” His buddy replied, “Well, I’ll be darned.”
Recalling her time in Vietnam she said, “One of the biggest thrills the boys got when they reached Clark, was hearing the Air Force band. The music made them stand taller as they walked off the plane…”
She did have many fond memories during her tour including meeting Bob Hope and numerous dignitaries. One memory she recalled was watching General William Westmoreland greeting soldiers on a Vietnamese airstrip thanking them for their service, gallantry and wishing them Godspeed. Looking back, after completing her tour in Vietnam, she said “I felt a little lost, like I was leaving something undone.”
During her service in Vietnam, she received the Air Medal 1st thru 3, Oak Leaf Cluster; Air Force Commendation Medal; Air Force Longevity Service Award w/1 Oak Leaf Cluster; Air Force, Outstanding Unit Award w/1 Oak Leaf Cluster; National Defense Service Medal; Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon; Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal and Vietnam Service Medal w/1 Bronze Service Star.
After leaving active duty on July 21, 1970, she settled in Bushland, Texas with her best friend Lt. Colonel Donna Forstrom, who was also a retired Air Force nurse, and went to work as an Ob/Gyn nurse in Amarillo, bringing beautiful babies into this world. She remained in the USAF Reserves and retired from the Air Force after 33 years of service on September 18, 1993, achieving the rank of Colonel.
Upon retiring from the Air Force and as an Ob/Gyn nurse, she enjoyed spending her days relaxing with Donna, spoiling their dogs, nieces and nephews. She may never have had natural children of her own, but in her heart she “adopted” a young man named Chris Monroe and proudly called him “grandson.”
During her final hours on this earth, she told her niece, “Life is a funny thing and such a journey…you take so many journeys and roads in this life.”
Her memory will forever live in the hearts of the men she cared for, the babies she helped bring into this world and the lives she touched as she walked down this road we call “life”.
She is preceded in death by her parents, Melvin and Eva Norris and her brother Master Sargent, Melvin Norris, USAF.
She leaves behind her best friend Donna Forstrom, Bushland, TX; sister, Alice and Jackie Dickens, Hobbs, NM; sister in law, Janie Norris, Tucson, AZ; adopted grandson Chris Monroe, Amarillo, TX; nieces, Tammy and Jayson Ussery, Hobbs, NM and Shelly and Tony Tucker, Carlsbad, NM, Nickie and John Durik, Linda and Joe Hill of Tucson, AZ; great nieces, Shyanne Ussery, Portales, NM, Angelique Hill of McKinney, TX, Brandee Crawford and Heather Norris all of Tucson, AZ; great nephews Brady and Garret Tucker, Carlsbad, NM and Cordale Ussery, Hobbs, NM; great-great niece Evelyn Inez and great-great-great niece Ivy Inez of Tucson, AZ; and all the service men who made it home cause of her care and compassion.
Colonel Helen May Norris, USAF Retired – February 8, 2018
“Life is a funny journey…”