From poor Missouri farm boy to military meteorologist, Bill Hecke has had quite the life. In this month's Voices of the Brave, Leslie Draffin takes a look at this Vietnam veteran who has become a household name in many parts of Central Texas.
Bill Hecke is a fixture on television and radio stations across Texas, but the meteorologist, who's been forecasting and observing weather for over 55 years, got his start in the Air Force after graduating high school.
At 17, Hecke went to boot camp and then started weather school.
"Initial weather school is basically weather observer," Hecke said. "It’s every instrument that’s map plotting because we didn’t have computers or anything like that. We had to know all the instruments. We had to learn every type of cloud. We had to learn codes"
Hecke was stationed in Missouri, but soon after his life would change.
"We found out the Army doesn’t have weather teams and so they took 28 of us physically-fit, young guys, and we went and trained with the Army Rangers," Hecke said. "We knew our lives were going to be a little different."
In 1966, Hecke headed to Vietnam. He was assigned to first brigade first infantry division, which meant he had the very first official combat weather team.
Hecke, who was just an Airman Second Class at time, worked alone to set up a weather station on his base in rural Vietnam. He worked with his brigade commander and helped forecast weather that would affect ground and air missions.
His forecasts helped save lives.
When he wasn't observing the weather, he was running combat missions like any other troop.
"We immediately had headed up to go capture [a nearby village] and they needed a gunner on a machine on the jeep so that’s what I did," he said. "I flew a lot of missions on a chopper as a door gunner."
But Hecke said it's what he volunteered to do that had the most long-lasting and damaging impact.
"When you had real high kill rates, we were overloaded, and there were only two graves registration guys there," Hecke said. "So when I was in base camp I would always volunteer to go down and help out identify and bag."
Hecke helped identify hundreds, maybe even thousands, of the men killed in the Vietnam War.
"For the longest time my mind would make me remember every single person identified," Hecke said. "I couldn’t get them out of my head for years. But now you get old and you start forgetting everything. So I can forget some of that, but that probably was such a stark reality of what we were losing. We lost 58,000 troops and didn’t win a war.”
After his time in Vietnam was over, Hecke came home but says he wasn't the same person. "I drank, I fought and I had a hard time. It makes you bitter, makes you angry and I think too because I was as young as I was it just sticks with you."
He calculated the rest of his career down to the minute.
At 20 years, two days, three hours and 16 minutes, Hecke traveled the world forecasting the weather from the tropics of Panama to Fort Hood.
In fact, he retired as Chief of Weather Station Operations for “The Great Place."
"That’s the biggest military installation in the free world so you don’t get any bigger than that," Hecke said.
Then, Hecke started a new career: First doing the weather on radio stations across the region, then as a weekend meteorologist here at Channel 6.
"I was horrible," Hecke said. "I was scared to death. I’ve never been so scared, even in any situation in Vietnam, as when I first went on our Channel 6. I think was 1981"
All these years later, he's still doing weather on the radio and hosting a gospel show every Sunday morning.
He's extremely active: He's an avid marksman, a gun enthusiast and a third degree black belt.
"By doing that, they think I got rid of a lot of what I held inside and what I think. So basically, it’s therapeutic," Hecke said.
His other form of therapy?
In fact, his sense of humor is what many people think of first when they think of Hecke.
"Don’t criticize my forecast. I told you I hold a third-degree black belt,” he joked.
But his love of country is also evident.
Hecke proudly wears a Vietnam Veteran hat and comes from a deeply patriot family.
He’s part Native American on his mother’s side. In fact, his Uncle Dewey Youngbear was a Meskwaki Indian who served during World War II as a code talker when he was just 15 years old.
Hecke’s hopes for today’s troops?
“I just hope our young troops today know what they’re there for, and that’s for the United States of America," Hecke said. "I love this country and I’ve been to several others. Until you’ve been there, don’t gripe about this one. This is a good one."