The couple went out of their way to help the elderly veteran reach his son safe and even offered to take him back home even though it meant driving 1664 miles.
An Illinois couple is being hailed good samaritans on social media after they went out of the way to reunite an elderly veteran with his son. Tracy Eckhardt and her fiancé Elton Hood's heartwarming efforts went viral on social media after they documented their impromptu journey on TikTok. It all started when Hood struck up a conversation with 79-year-old Dennis Milentz at a gas station in Illinois and discovered that the elderly gentleman had been on the road for a week and had gotten lost multiple times. "He was walking through there with a piece of paper in his hands and he had directions and I just said hi to him, asked him how his day was and he said well I’m lost again. And I thought again?" Hood told KWQC.
Milentz, a Marine veteran, had set off from his home in Heber-Overgaard, Arizona about a week earlier and was headed to Fremont, Wisconsin to see his son Steven for the first time in nearly 20 years. However, he did not know how to operate his GPS and kept getting lost on the way—sometimes going hundreds of miles in the wrong direction—ultimately adding an extra 200 miles to his trip. "It was really hectic," Milentz told NBC affiliate WMTV. "I fought to keep conscious so that I wouldn't get into an accident."
"It broke both of our hearts," said Eckhardt. "To be lost at all is one thing but again—how tired is he? Has he eaten? Has he slept? Has he been taking care of himself?" Wanting to make sure that the elderly man safely reached his destination, Hood carefully wrote out directions from the gas station to Fremont and even spoke to Steven on the phone to update him on the situation. "I told him well let's get you a new piece of paper and we’ll write the instructions back out for you. Then I realized he was in a 2020 Toyota Tundra and I thought maybe it has navigation in it," he explained.
When he found that Milentz's truck did have GPS, Hood programmed the address into it and spent 20 minutes explaining how it worked. The 44-year-old also gave his new friend his phone number in case he came across any trouble. Sure enough, 15 minutes later, Milentz called to say he was lost once again. "I looked at Tracy and asked her if she was ready to make a trip to Wisconsin. She shrugged her shoulders and said whatever it is you feel like we need to do, let's do it," Hood revealed. "[Hood] just looked at me and said, 'Are you ready to go to Wisconsin?' Of course, I said 'yes' because I couldn't let him be lost," said Eckhardt.
And just like that, the couple embarked on a 3-hour journey to Steven's house, with Milentz driving behind them. Eckhardt said the distance was not a problem for them. "Neither one of us could bear the thought of-- if we saw a missing persons alert or if something bad happened to him, if we had the potential to help turn this around and didn’t do it. That was just not going to work for either of us," she said. "We had kind of already said that that could be anybody's parent or anybody's grandparent. There are so many people who have parents that will go do these things and they end up lost, or they meet somebody not so nice that takes advantage of them. And that just wasn't going to be an option for us to hear down the road that he was missing and know that at one point we had the opportunity to turn it around and get him there safely," she told PEOPLE.
"We would have felt guilty forever if something like that would've happened. So when he called, it was pretty instantaneous. Here we go!" Eckhardt added. The group stopped to enjoy lunch in Iowa, swapping stories about their lives as they learned about Milentz's history as a veteran, a train engineer, and a driver near LAX. However, their journey did not end with reuniting Milentz with his son. The couple had stayed in touch with his family and came to know that certain circumstances prevented them from traveling with him back to Arizona.
"[His family's] plan was to take him to Madison and write out instructions and hope for the best," said Eckhardt. "And we had already discussed that him going on his own was not going to be an option for us because we would still feel bad. Like, we had started it with him and didn't see it through to the end. And neither of us were raised that way. And that's not how we raise our children. If you start something, you finish it. So we started it by getting him to his son and it was the right thing to do to finish getting him home. So he called me and instead of saying, 'Are you ready to go to Wisconsin?' he said, 'Are you ready to go to Arizona?'"
The couple met up with Milentz and his family in LaSalle, Illinois on July 22 and spent the next 27 hours making the 1,664-mile trip back to Heber-Overgaard. They drove Milentz's truck while he rode in the back and by the time they reached Arizona, they had a pleasant surprise waiting for them. After hearing their story on the local news, a good samaritan like them offered to pay for their plane tickets back home so that they wouldn't have to drive all the way back again. "We're normal people. Alone, we're not exceptional," said Eckhardt.
"But together, people can do exceptional things... 2020 hasn't been a good year for most of us. You kind of forget the good parts of the world and your neighbors and your communities. And I feel like we kind of brought that to light and that's been the best feeling of all." The couple has now set up a nonprofit to continue to give back, through which they are selling T-shirts with the phrase "Driving Mr. Dennis," the profits of which will benefit veterans and Alzheimer's organizations. "We want to continue to do good and help others," she said.