It’s been a month since Tracy Flax went to check the mail outside her Krum home and never came back. Pictures of her still cover the refrigerator at her parents’ home in Denton.
“Little did we know how entwined she was in our lives until she was gone,” said her mother, Katie Phillips. “She did a lot for us.”
The 48-year-old Air Force veteran was out by her mailbox on FM1173 at about noon May 13 when a 19-year-old man driving a 2010 Ford F-150 pickup hit her. According to Lonny Haschel, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, the man had taken his eyes off the road and drifted into the shoulder.
Haschel said the incident is still under investigation, but there were no initial signs of texting or driving under the influence.
After losing their only daughter, Johnnie and Katie Phillips hope Flax will be remembered not for how she died, but for how she lived.
“Her life was so full,” Katie said. “People said her eyes sparkled. She just wanted to make people happy.”
Born at Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Tracy followed her family around the globe while her dad was in the service. She surrounded herself with animals as a child and always gave to those in need.
“She would go to school in a brand-new coat and come home without the coat,” Johnnie said. “She told us she gave it to a classmate because they didn’t have anything to wear.”
When she graduated from high school, Tracy told her parents she didn’t want to have anything to do with the Air Force, Katie said. But after working odd jobs for a few years, she decided it was time for a change.
“She came into our bedroom at 3 a.m. one night and asked if we could go to the Air Force recruitment center the next day,” Johnnie said. “So off she went.”
Tracy enlisted in May 1988 and spent 26 years working in communications. She was stationed in multiple countries during her service and was one of the first women deployed during Operation Desert Storm, Johnnie said. Her son was only 6 weeks old at the time.
She also took on extra duties, like planning ceremonies and parties, and set up a club at a base in Saudi Arabia where servicemen and women could relax and unwind.
“She was doing her job and the job of higher-ranking individuals,” Johnnie said.
Her dedication didn’t go unnoticed. By the time she retired in 2014, Tracy Flax had received four meritorious service medals, two commendation medals and two achievement medals. She retired at the rank of senior master sergeant, the second-highest enlisted rank in the Air Force.
She also found something other than accolades during her service. While she was stationed in Iowa, she met Steve Flax, who later became her husband and a father to her two kids, Jonathan and Nina, from a previous marriage.
“I think he put her up on a pedestal and that’s where she stayed for the rest of her days,” Johnnie said. “He was the best thing in her life, and I think vice versa as well.”
Even though she was out of the military, Tracy Flax remained dedicated to helping her fellow veterans. She and Steve joined several veterans groups and helped people with disabilities get funds or services.
“She took me to an appointment at the VA hospital in Dallas and came across a man sitting on the floor,” Johnnie said. “She asked him when he last ate, and he told her it was the previous morning. She asked where he was staying and he said under a bridge. She told him to wait there and she came back with food and a phone number to call for a hotel room. She did that anywhere she went.”
In their spare time, she and Steve would ride their motorcycles or drive around in her Camaro SS. An avid NASCAR fan, she would attend as many races as she could and buy extra tickets to give to young airmen. Katie said Flax even went on to meet and befriend the legendary NASCAR driver Richard Petty.
Flax also continued her education and encouraged her children to do the same. She picked up a nursing degree while in the military and went on to get a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Texas. She had just been accepted to Baylor University to pursue a master's in business administration when she died.
Flax’s son, Jonathan, currently serves in the U.S. Navy and her daughter, Nina, is a student at UNT.
“She wasn’t a quitter and she taught her kids the same thing,” Katie said. “She always told them to go higher and strive for more.”
One of the last things Flax did in her life was co-founding a local chapter of Women Veterans of America. Their first meeting was a few days before her death, Johnnie said. Since then, Katie said the group has decided to set up a scholarship fund in Flax’s name.
As they look at photos of their daughter, tears well up in Katie’s eyes, while Johnnie falls silent. They know they’ll continue to move forward, but a hole in their hearts will never be filled.
“She was my best friend,” Katie said. “I’ll miss the hell out of her.”
CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.
FEATURED PHOTO: Katie and Johnnie Phillips treasure the photo of their daughter, Tracy Flax, and her husband, Steve, in their U.S. Air Force uniforms. Tracy served 26 years in the Air Force and retired with the rank of senior master sergeant. She was killed last month after being struck by a pickup outside her home in Krum.