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Until we meet again: a POW’s story

three photos lined next to each other, one of Tillman's service photo, one of Tillman's VA volunteer portrait
it’s no doubt that Tillman provided that camaraderie to many Veterans who visited Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital for the care they earned. Photo courtesy: Daniel Rutledge

As the nation honors its Prisoners of War and those Missing in Action on September 15th, South Texas reflects on one of its own, who continued to serve other Veterans once he returned home.

Chief Master Sergeant Tillman Rutledge enlisted in the United States Army at the age of 17 for the opportunity to go overseas during World War II and fight for his country. During his time overseas, he was captured in the Philippines in 1942, where he was a POW for three and a half years.

Tillman endured the brutal 65-mile Bataan Death March, where thousands of troops died due to the brutality of their captors. Prisoners were forced to walk for five days without food, water or rest. While facing starvation, POWs were also beaten along the trail, and even killed if too weak to walk.

Daniel Rutledge, Tillman’s son reflected on how his father did not share many details and stories about his time as a POW, but the ones he did share stick with Daniel to this day. One he recalls was how prisoners were given just one canteen cup of water at a time.

“They had to figure out how to utilize it, multipurpose it, filter it and drink it. It’s amazing he made it through there, it really is,” Daniel said.

Tillman released an autobiography in 1997, “My Japanese POW Diary Story,” in which he shares lessons he carried throughout his life.

“One thing we learned quickly as Japanese prisoners of war, was to adapt quickly to situations of which you had no say…This certainly helped me afterwards; I have known…ex-POWs that are still bitter, still hate…I’ve told them…that they are only hurting themselves to no avail. Hate can tear a person apart, and that’s sad.”

After being shuffled from camp to camp and forced to work in coal mines in Fukuoka, Japan, Tillman and other survivors were liberated after the Japanese abandoned the camp due to the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in September 1945.

But this experience did not deter Tillman from continuing to serve. Instead, he reenlisted and continued to serve in the United States Air Force for another two decades. During his time of service, Tillman received the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, four Purple Hearts, the POW medal, and the Combat Infantry Badge.

After Tillman retired from the Air Force with a total of 26 years of service, he continued to serve in a new capacity; as a volunteer when the Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital in San Antonio, Texas first opened its door in 1973.

Providing more than 37 years of service as a volunteer, Tillman accrued over 41,000 volunteer hours spanning over many decades. And his son Daniel, who is an employee at South Texas Veterans Health Care System, fondly remembers the time he spent alongside his father in serving Veterans as volunteers.

“He was a great helping hand and never said no,” Daniel shared. His mother, Joyce Ann, also served as a volunteer at the Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital, where she gave more than 24 years of service and 15,000 hours.

Daniel, a Veteran himself, remembers his father and mother leading by example and guiding him into volunteering as a young man. Even though he wasn’t a Veteran yet, Daniel believes this time serving Veterans assisted him in gaining a better understanding for the men and women who selflessly gave to their country.

“He’s definitely a giver and he and my mom kept my sisters and I on the right path and made sure we did the right thing.”

Even while his mother was in hospice care at Wilford Hall in San Antonio, Daniel remembers how his father didn’t sit on idle hands. Instead, he discovered the volunteer services at Wilford Hall and volunteered there while Joyce Ann was receiving hospice care.

After her passing in 1997, Tillman continued to serve until his passing on October 25, 2014, which happened to be at the Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital.

“Volunteers made his last days very comfortable and honorable,” Daniel shared. “He’s probably up in Heaven, still giving.”

The Center for Development and Civic Engagement (CDCE) proudly serves South Texas Veterans and their loved ones and has the support of more than 550 individuals across three locations.

“Volunteerism positively affects our VA culture and morale while enhancing the Veteran and employee experience,” Elizabeth Cazares, Assistant Chief for CDCE said. “Volunteers influence engagement and connectivity which allows for a camaraderie to develop with Veterans and staff.”

And it’s no doubt that Tillman provided that camaraderie to many Veterans who visited Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital for the care they earned.

Among numerous awards he received during his time as a volunteer, South Texas recently held a display dedication ceremony in February, Tillman’s birth month. His display sits stoically in the halls at Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital.

Reflecting on his time with his father, Daniel fondly remembers one of his father’s favorite songs; Happy Trails by Roy Rogers. And rather than saying goodbye, Tillman would kindly say Happy Trails.

So from the rest of us, Happy Trails, Tillman.

Should you or someone you know be interested in volunteering, email or call (210) 617-5107.

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