Bugsy's final flight

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Joshua Hastings
  • 6th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

Just after his 16th birthday, he heard President John F. Kennedy deliver his empowering inaugural address to the nation, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Inspired by JFK’s words, Rector Stewart II gained clarity on what he wanted to do. Two years later, as an 18-year-old high school senior in Miami, he drove an unreliable car to class. 

Frustrated at his vehicle, he told himself one morning that if his car did not start, he would drop out of school and serve in the armed forces. Soon after that day, he swore the Oath of Enlistment and joined the U.S. Air Force.

“My dad became a C-130 Hercules aircraft mechanic and got stationed at Sewart Air Force Base in Tennessee,” said U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Jason Stewart, U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Central Command G-6 operations officer. “Not long after that, he was in Vietnam flying missions in Southeast Asia as a crew chief.”

Rector Stewart also went by the name “Bugsy,” a nickname passed down to him from his father. Bugsy shared stories of his military experience with his family.

“Serving in the Air Force was a formative experience for him,” Jason Stewart said. “He was so proud for the rest of his life that he had served. Even though he only did four years, he always held service members and veterans in the highest regard.”

The pride Bugsy felt in giving back to his country was shared by his father, who fought in the Pacific Theater during World War II as a U.S. Navy Sailor. Bugsy’s affection for America and its values carried on to his sons and grandson, who also joined the armed forces. 

“It’s about civic duty, civic responsibility and serving a purpose higher than yourself,” said Jason Stewart. “It’s about voluntarily doing the things people won’t do, but more importantly, what other people can’t do. I came from a lineage of folks who weren’t in the business of burning their draft cards down on main street.”

Following his enlistment, Bugsy settled back home in Florida and started a career at the Publix grocery store chain. 

Using the leadership skills he developed while serving in the military, he worked his way up the fleet service manager out of a Miami warehouse. He retired from Publix after 26 years.

“I remember how he would run his shop and inspire those who worked around him,” said Jason Stewart. “He was a leader in his place of work. I admired those traits and thought it was awesome my dad was a leader of people. I believe he picked up those traits in the Air Force.”

The proud Vietnam War veteran is remembered by his family, peers and coworkers as an honorable man who loved his country and gave back to the community he grew up in.

On Sept. 1, 2021, Bugsy passed away from complications from the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Jason Stewart held his father’s hand in the hospital as he took his last breaths. 

“I made a promise to my dad,” said Jason Stewart. “I said, ‘Hey, dad, I know how proud you are of your service, and I promise to you, I’m going to fly your ashes on a C-130 one last time.”

Jason Stewart then assured his father, whose eyes were closed, that he was around his loved ones and it was okay for him to pass. Bugsy passed away five minutes later. 

On Sept. 1, 2022, one year after Bugsy’s passing, Jason Stewart fulfilled his promise to his father.

Accompanied by his son, Senior Airman Cameron Stewart, Air Force Special Operations Command administrator, the grandson of Bugsy, Jason Stewart carried the ashes of his father on an HC-130J Combat King II aircraft assigned to the 920th Rescue Wing, Patrick Space Force Base, Florida. The Joint Communications Support Element and the 920th RW coordinated the flight that took off from MacDill AFB. 

“Flying with my father on the aircraft my grandfather worked on during his tenure in the Air Force was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I’m thankful I got to be a part of it,” said Cameron Stewart. “As an administrator, most of what you see is on a computer screen. Knowing my grandfather got to experience all he did in the military inspires me to want to pursue more and to be more.”

After the flight, family and friends of Bugsy gathered outside of the MARCENT headquarters building for a memorial ceremony honoring the late C-130 crew chief. Cameron Stewart and Stormy Stewart, Bugsy’s surviving grandchildren, were presented with a folded flag at the ceremony symbolizing their grandfather’s faithful service and the passing of the torch. The memorial concluded with words from Jason Stewart.

“My father’s story is a story about service and the indomitable spirit of the American people,” said Jason Stewart. “He wasn’t a general. He wasn’t a chief master sergeant. There was never going to be a Bugsy Air Force Base, but that’s not what matters. His story reflects generations of young Americans, who time and time again, raise their right hand and swear an oath to the Constitution of the United States when their nation calls and are all willing to give the last full measure of devotion to fulfilling that endeavor. The ones who come back are proud and humbled by their service, and they raise families, they become leaders in their communities, they work hard and they go to their graves knowing they made a difference. That’s what it’s really about.”