If you ask William H. Butler Jr. how many times he has jumped out of an airplane he will give you an exact number – fifty-two times.
The response comes instantaneously and without a doubt.
As I sit across from William in the PSTA drivers lounge there is a certain air that follows him; an elegance. His hands sit folded in front of him and his posture is perfect. He is not your typical army veteran. Not rough or rugged but almost reticent and reflective. Today I will hear firsthand the stories of former Sergeant First Class in the U.S Army’s 82nd Airborne Air Assault Division—William H. Butler Jr.
When William told me his name he wanted to make sure I included the suffix: Jr. He said it was important. At first, I wrote it off as habit. As someone with a very common name that is very commonly misspelled, I appreciated his clarity. But the more I began talking to William, the more I began to understand him and even more so his desire to be a part of something bigger – to leave a legacy.
William joined the U.S Army shortly after graduating from Northeast High School, located in St. Petersburg, Florida. After being offered a number of scholarships to play college football, it was at the request of his grandmother that he first considered enlisting in the service.
He recalls the memory like it was yesterday. “My grandmother said to me: it would be great to see you in a uniform just like your great grand-daddy,” William said. “The military was the last thing I was thinking about, but I went for it.”
As a self-proclaimed adventurer and a thrill-seeker, I think William found his calling that day.
During his first three years in the army, William was deployed to different warzones in different countries on different continents. He talks about the Gulf War and being a part of Operation Desert Shield and then after that Operation Desert Storm—memories he would only lightly touch on.
“You don’t want to hear about that stuff,” he would say.
What William enjoyed talking about was the jumps. When asked about his number one tip for jumping out of an airplane he had to think about it, but only for a second.
“Don’t eat a big meal!” he laughed and then recalled his first jump. “My legs instantly turned into spaghetti.”
As someone who is vocally terrified of flying in planes, I cannot even begin to stomach the thought of jumping out of one—but those were the moments William lived for.
“Honestly, I joined to impress the ladies,” William laughed. “They were looking for people who wanted to go into the airborne division, and I saw the ladies start eyeing us. I joined right there on the spot,” he laughed.
William’s laugh is absolutely contagious.
After being convinced to join the army by his grandmother and then volunteering to jump out of airplanes by little more than a passing glance, I think it’s safe to say that William would do anything for the women in his life.
Good for you, William.
Every jump comes with its risks. There are a million things that can go wrong at a million different times, but that was not something William ever mentioned. In fact, he told me an entire story about jumping out of an airplane only to find out mid-air that his parachute had blown a gigantic hole with a smile on his face.
It’s not that he thought the situation was funny—actually he told me it was one of the most terrifying moments of his life. But to understand his smile you have to understand William.
Having spent a total of 22 years in the service, William has gained a few army-attributes that you cannot scrub off. Aside from his frequent use of military jargon, he is relentlessly, tirelessly, unconditionally dedicated to what he does.
The day after his crash-landing with a blown parachute, William went back up and jumped again.
It is that same amount of dedication that he brought with him when he joined PSTA nearly three years ago. William talks about his passengers with the same passion and pride as he does with the army. He talks about the importance of leadership, responsibility, and respect.
“One of the big things I learned from the army was to be a better listener,” William said. “I had peoples little brothers and sisters lives in my hands.”
William told me leaders must be listeners—I couldn’t agree more.
Of all the places William was stationed he told me his favorite was Germany. He recalls seeing the Eiffel Tower in Paris and taking trains across the country.
“I owe that to the military…my bucket list,” he said with a smile.
I couldn’t help but be jealous.
There really isn’t a good way to end a story on William because in the few hours that we spoke I feel like there is so much more to learn about him. But if I had to wrap up William in a few words I would say that he is just what he always wanted to be—a legacy.
The riders who know William on the many routes he drives, such as the 52 and 19, will not see him driving the bus on Veterans Day. Instead, he will be volunteering at Bay Pines V.A. hospital in St. Petersburg.
“Some of the veterans there do not get visitors,” William said. “I go there and listen to their stories. They inspire me.”
Well William, on behalf of PSTA and the citizens of Pinellas County, I’d like to say thank you for your service and sacrifice. You inspire me, too.