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The Story of Trey Wilbourn, Casualty of Desert Storm:

James W. (Trey) Wilbourn, III was born in 1962 in Huntsville, Alabama as the only son of Joyce and J.N. Wilbourn.  His mother describes him as “thoughtful, compassionate, caring – just a very good son.”  She recalls a time when Trey was a child and she had taken him shopping at the local mall.  Somehow, Trey became separated from her in JCPenney’s.  Joyce searched frantically for her little boy, but couldn’t find him anywhere.  It was as if he had disappeared.  Finding no trace of him in the store, she dashed out to the parking lot.  And there he stood, waiting patiently by the family car, where he knew she would find him.  He was always that responsible.

As he grew older, Trey enjoyed hunting in North Alabama’s Appalachian foothills.  In high school he played both offense and defense on the football team, an unusual feat for a young man of his generation.  But, unlike most of the boys on the team, his paramount goal was not to be a football player, but to become an aviator in the United States Marine Corps.  When he first told his mother about this dream, she immediately thought of the dangers involved.  Flight school can be dangerous and even when the country is not at war, serving as a Marine aviator is risky.  Still, she vowed to support her son and give him the encouragement he needed to make his dream a reality.

Trey went to Auburn University where he successfully completed the ROTC program, and received a degree in aviation management.   After graduating, he went on to the Marine Corps as he had planned. He complete Technical Basic School at Quantico, Virginia and then attended Marine Flight School where he received his wings as a Marine aviator. 

He first flew the A-6 Intruder, switching to the Harrier in 1990.  While Trey honed his skills as a pilot, a conflict was escalating in deserts along the shore of the Persian Gulf.  And, whether he knew it or not, the plan for his life was being irreversibly altered.  In 1990, Iraqi troops were in the process of invading and over-taking Kuwait.  In response to this assault on the Kuwaiti people, the U.S. and other allies assembled forces to repel the invasion.  When Operation Desert Shield was initiated, Trey Wilbourn joined thousands of other Marines in the theater of operations.  Poised for retaliatory combat in the desert, Operation Desert Shield changed to Operation Desert Storm with the onslaught of US bombing missions over Iraq.  During his service in the war, Captain Wilbourn flew thirty-eight missions averaging two or three missions a day.

While in the Persian Gulf, Wilbourn regularly wrote to his parents and his sister back home.  He often signed the letters: "Love, Trey, pilot, patriot and defender of freedom."  In one of his letters home, he wrote, “Mom, I don’t like dropping bombs on people.” 


When their doorbell rang on a Saturday, February 23, 1991, the Wilbourns, like the rest of the country had been watching CNN for updates on the Gulf War.  Joyce Wilbourn climbed the stairs to answer the door and saw two Marines and a Navy Corpsman standing on her doorstep.  They informed her that, Wilbourn's AV-8B Harrier had been shot down over central Kuwait during a night attack.  Trey’s Harrier Jet had been hit by anti-aircraft fire. He was 28 when he was killed.

For his skill, courage, and devotion to duty in the face of hazardous flying conditions, Captain Wilbourn was posthumously awarded the Air Medal, Third Strike Flight Award, and the Navy Commendation Medal with Combat Distinguishing Device.

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