As a tornado demolished Master Sgt. Dan Wassom's house, he and his wife, Suzanne, tried to protect their 5- and 7-year-old daughters by using their own bodies as shields. It worked. Their children survived, but Dan didn't make it.
With winds reaching nearly 200 miles per hour, the devastating EF-4 tornado smashed into Vilonia, Arkansas, April 27, 2014, killing 16 people. The twister demolished 50 of 56 homes in the Wassom's subdivision, as well as nearly half the businesses in the town of 3,800. Known as "Bud" to his family and close friends, 31-year-old Wassom died while hovering over his 5-year-old daughter, Lorelai.
Wassom was a C-130 Hercules loadmaster evaluator with the Air National Guard's 189th Airlift Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas. Joining the Air Force as a patriotic calling shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, he followed in his dad's footsteps. The senior Dan Wassom was a C-130 Hercules maintenance crew chief at Little Rock AFB before retiring from active duty. He still works at the base as a civilian in the 19th Maintenance Group, just minutes from his son's unit.
A decorated Airman, Wassom earned an Air Medal during his deployment to Kuwait – a combat tour he volunteered to do. He was supporting Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom in 2010. According to his award citation, Wassom flew 16 successful combat missions -- conducted day and night under the threat of enemy anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles -- over the war-torn countries of Iraq and Afghanistan, executing multiple, flawless contingency airdrops.
According to his parents, the only thing Wassom treasured more than his Air Force career was his family. So while his death came as a shock to those who knew and loved him, the way he died – protecting his family – surprised no one.
Wassom's wife told his parents that he remained calm, cool and collected even as the monster twister began to consume their 2,300-square-foot home. As Wassom bent his 6-foot-2 frame over his youngest daughter, forming a semi-protective cocoon over her, a heavy structural beam struck the back of his neck and a one-by-four impaled his chest. Lorelai lost a toe on her left foot and suffered a serious injury to her right shoulder, but she, along with her mother and sister, Sydney, survived.
Wassom's last mission … accomplished.
"He was the best daddy I'd ever seen, and he loved his wife with all his heart," said his mom, Pam Wassom, who along with Dan Sr. resides in Cabot, Arkansas, only 20 minutes from where their son's home used to stand before being reduced to a pile of rubble.
"He took to parenthood as naturally as breathing air," she said. "He was involved in every aspect of those girls' lives. He was their hero, and he proved it with his last breath."
Wassom was posthumously awarded the Airman's Medal, along with a Meritorious Service Medal and the Arkansas Distinguished Service Medal from the governor of Arkansas. Additionally, a Little Rock AFB street now bears his name. -- MSGT DAN WASSOM ROAD.