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Tampa brothers relish family and service to country

TAMPA

In 1969, a sweet, simple woman had a hero's procession at her funeral.

Six men stood tall in olive green and navy blue, the finest uniforms from three branches of the armed forces. They had traveled from all ends of the Earth — an Air Force base in the snowy north of Canada, Vietnam in the heat of war.

They clutched her casket and marched into New Salem Missionary Baptist Church.

They were her sons, the Billups brothers.

She lent them to the military, and they all came home.

They grew up in Dobyville, a historic black neighborhood on the western edge of Hyde Park. Their father, James Sr., was a landscaper. Their mother, Louise, did domestic work and was head of their elementary school's parent teacher association. In all, seven brothers and three sisters lived in a house on Fremont, not far from the church, and just a block away from a playground they couldn't use because they weren't white.

The brothers had big dreams for their futures, but little opportunities in Tampa. James Jr. was the first to go.

A high school football player, he went off to a small college in Georgia, but didn't like it. He returned to Tampa. In 1960, the draft card followed him. He would serve more than two decades as an Army engineer.

That same year, Lewis married just after his graduation from Blake High School and wanted a career that would provide for his new family. He went to an Army office and was waiting on the recruiter to return from lunch when a man from the Air Force office down the hall struck up a conversation. Before Lewis knew it, he was in the Air Force and headed to Canada.

A year later, John got his draft card. It said Army, but he wanted Air Force. He got his wish, and he spent his 20-year career strapping famous generals into cockpits as a jet aircraft mechanic.

Homer wanted to go to college, but he knew his parents couldn't afford it. In 1965, he graduated from Blake on a Friday. That following Monday, he was headed to an Army base in Germany.

Homer served on the front line in the Vietnam War, a quarter mile ahead of the rest of the troops in the Tet Offensive. In 1968, a friendly fire missile hit his leg, landing him in a Japanese hospital for three months. He still can't wiggle his left toes.

Joe, the youngest, enlisted in the Army, and Marion, one of the older ones, joined the National Guard.

Together, the six brothers accumulated too many medals to count.

• • •

In uniform, the brothers have flanked the caskets as pallbearers for every family funeral since their mother's: their brother Joe's in 1973, their nonmilitary brother A.J.'s in 1999, their 98-year-old father's in 2005 and their brother Marion's earlier this year.

The four brothers who remain are trying to squeeze as much out of life as they can, before it's their turn. Homer and Lewis live in Orlando, and James and John in Tampa, but they gather often.

They've created a "bucket list" of things they want to experience. John, 64, and Homer, 62, want to see Niagara Falls. Lewis, 67, and James, 71, planned a trip to California to see the redwoods.

They've already done a lot. John sat in protest of segregation at downtown Tampa's Woolworth lunch counter. Homer walked in the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. They witnessed racial integration, and hope to see the inauguration of the first black president.

They've delved into their past and traced the family history to a plantation in Georgia with a white slave master named Col. John Billups who fought in the Confederate army. They've figured out which slave ship imported their ancestors and are trying to track its origin in Africa.

And they've looked to the future, establishing a $1,000 scholarship for any young relative who enrolls in college.

Their sense of country hasn't faded with age, Homer said. "I still will fight for this land."

And John has a fresh uniform waiting, for his own funeral. He doesn't shy away from making plans like that.

He knows his brothers will carry him.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Tampa brothers relish family and service to country 07/03/08 [Last modified: Sunday, July 6, 2008 4:01pm]

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