ODESSA, Texas — The competitors in the Professional Armed Forces Rodeo world finals were spread throughout the country when they heard the news of a train colliding with a trailer with wounded veterans on board.
RJ Eppers, the president of the Professional Armed Forces Rodeo Association (PAFRA), said he was working in his heavy equipment shop in Idaho when he first heard.
Four veterans died in the tragedy and another 16 riders were injured, which happened at the intersection of South Garfield Street and West Industrial Avenue in Midland.
Eppers said he heard a small news piece on the train accident, which only noted the accident was in West Texas. He said he knew the Show of Support Hunt for Heroes parade was occurring that day, however, and was able to put it together before returning home and confirming his suspicions.
“I know how patriotic Midland is and how supportive,” Eppers said, “And this was really going to damage the community.”
In light of the accident, the spokeswoman for the Midland County Horse Shoe Arena, Tammy Dooley, said organizers decided not to go all-out in promoting the event.
Instead, Dooley said 20 percent of ticket sales will be donated to Soldiers of Today and Yesterday, an organization that has been assisting families locally and statewide since 2005.
Johnie Lee Qualls, the founder of the organization, said he is going to take that money, divide it up amongst the families and cut checks directly to those families. All of the money collected from the 20 percent of ticket sales will go to the families.
“When this happened, immediately this event went into first of all shock and then we said we can’t promote this event,” Dooley said. “Instead, we’re going to honor the veterans.”
And throughout the event special commemorations were held for those veterans who died and were injured in the train accident.
“It, amazingly, has strengthened everyone’s resolve for what we do with this event,” Dooley said.
Eppers, who is an active-duty member of the Air Force and is about to deploy to Afghanistan, said despite not knowing any of those injured or killed personally, it still has an affect on him.
“Just the fact that they’re veterans and they served basically makes us brothers,” he said.
Lt. Col. Val Baker, also with the Air Force, said she’s competed in PAFRA events since 2009, but the recent train crash in Midland is making everyone pause for thought.
Baker said even when members of the military don’t know each other, they instantly have a bond because they know what the other person has been through.
“Whenever veterans are injured in the line of duty, it’s bad enough,” she said. “But that’s a tragedy.”
Scott Willis, an Army veteran and major with the Texas State Guard, is a recreational therapist with the Veterans Affairs hospital in Big Spring.
Willis brought a group of veterans with him to the rodeo after PAFRA donated 50 tickets to the group.
“I think it’s pretty unique because I’ve been to rodeos before, but I’ve never been to a rodeo that’s solely dedicated to veterans,” he said.
Willis said it’s a good thing for the veterans to see organizations such as PAFRA contributing to the victims of the train accident and that a lot of the veterans empathized with those injured and the families of those killed.
“I think a lot of our veterans were shocked that something like this happened,” he said.
This is the second year for PAFRA to host its world finals at the Horse Shoe Arena, Dooley said. After years of searching for a new venue after outgrowing a venue in Fort Worth, PAFRA signed a three-year deal in Midland.
Dooley said she hopes the Horse Shoe Arena can become the organization’s permanent home.
“(People) can expect all the things you can see at a regular rodeo,” Dooley said. “But what you won’t expect is all the patriotic aspects of the rodeo.”
In addition to the donation of ticket sales to train wreck victims and their families, Dooley said a banner with the words “Strength and Courage,” that will be signed by everyone from rodeo participants to the crowd, will be hung in the Horse Shoe Arena.