By KATIE EUBANKS
Bubba and Lea Holifield
Warriors By Grace
State trooper Bubba Holifield and his wife, Lea, were in the middle of building a house when he got shot in the line of duty.
He’d just left work that Friday — Feb. 19, 2016. He and Lea visited their house pad, took a selfie, and were about to go to dinner with friends when he got a call. There was a hostage situation in Iuka, a small town more than 200 miles away in northeast Mississippi.
“I’d never heard of (Iuka),” Lea recalls. But she knew that once Bubba was out of danger, he’d call her. That was their deal.
“It was 12:45, 12:50 a.m., when I get awakened with a phone call, and I knew something was wrong. He said, ‘Baby, just calm down, don’t freak out,’ and then the phone died.”
By the time Bubba was shot, he and Lea had known each other nearly 20 years. They were high-school sweethearts who’d met at East Rankin Academy.
After high school, Bubba joined the Army National Guard as the fourth generation of Holifields to serve in the military. At his basic training graduation, he proposed to Lea. Two years later they were married, and two years after that, they had their son, Wes.
Meanwhile, “we started college together,” Bubba says … They both attended Hinds Community College, but Bubba quit and got a job as a utility lineman. Lea stayed at Hinds, got her associate’s degree in social work — and then suffered the loss of her father in a truck wreck.
While Lea was pregnant with Wes, Bubba was deployed to Washington, D.C. Lea gave birth two weeks after Bubba left. In a recent Facebook post recalling Wes’ birth, Bubba recalled that he “cried like I never have before over the joy of my healthy son and of the pain for not being there.”
After Wes was born, Lea worked as an administrative assistant at Hudspeth Regional Center, a long-term care facility for patients with intellectual disabilities. When Wes was 2, she went back to Hinds to become a registered nurse (RN).
A month after graduating nursing school, Lea gave birth to Kylee, now 14. Two weeks after that, Bubba started patrol school at the Mississippi Law Enforcement Officers Training Academy (MLEOTA).
“I’ve always wanted to be law enforcement,” Bubba says. “When I was in the eighth grade at Stringer Attendance Center (near Laurel, before moving to Rankin County), a state trooper came and spoke, and I knew I wanted to be a state trooper.” (He’s also an adrenaline junkie, Lea says.)
So in 2007, after reaching the rank of sergeant in the Army National Guard, Bubba finally became a state trooper. He balanced riding the roads with attending Guard drill two weekends a month, and in the middle of all that, he was deployed to Iraq in 2009-2010.
But he didn’t balance much else.
“My focus (was) 100 percent on the job.”
From ‘good actor’ to sold-out for Christ
“I was a good actor,” Bubba says of his life before February 2012.
“I was (at church) Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night. Honestly, I thought I was saved. My idea of a Christian was somebody who ‘said the prayer’ and that was it.”
He “went through the motions” of saying that prayer a couple of times, once for Lea’s sake — “I thought he was (saved), yeah,” she says — but in February 2012, he truly gave his life to Christ.
That included surrendering to “His work,” Bubba says. “I surrendered to the ministry, to be a student pastor. It was an immediate thing I felt God calling me to do.” He started leading seventh through 12th graders at Leesburg Baptist Church in Morton.
“He acts like them?” Lea says and laughs. (Bubba is the one who strikes a goofy pose with his daughter in a family portrait, or photo-bombs a group of teens getting their picture made before a dance.)
In all seriousness, “I can recall when I was that age, I don’t remember a lot of adults pouring into me to make sure I was on the right track with God,” Bubba says.
Lea noticed how Bubba changed after he truly surrendered to God.
“He was always at church (before he was saved), but it went from just being at church to being involved in everything,” Lea says. “He did more stuff with the kids. Everybody could see there was a difference.”
He also changed as a trooper, he says. “Before … I just wanted to do my job and go home. But after, I remember sitting with a guy in cuffs in the parking lot, talking about the Lord, just because he was curious. (Knowing Jesus) helped me have more compassion for the lost.”
Naturally, Bubba’s priorities changed: “I used to care about the job more than my family. Since then, it’s completely reversed.”
Four years after her husband came to know Christ, Lea got that phone call in the middle of the night: “Baby just calm down, don’t freak out —”
‘All I could think of was my little girl’
Approximately 30 SWAT officers had shown up to the hostage situation in Iuka, including Bubba, Trea Staples, DeAndre Dixon, and Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics agent Lee Tartt.
“Trea Staples and DeAndre Dixon, I had worked with a lot before. Lee Tartt, occasionally,” Bubba says.
The suspect was under the influence of drugs and was holding his 10-year-old daughter hostage. “He just wanted his wife back in the house — and for us to leave,” Bubba says.
Movies and television make SWAT operations look like tactical victories in which the “bad guys” don’t stand a chance. But in reality, “a hostage situation is the most dangerous situation, because you have to put your safety aside to make a dynamic entry,” Bubba says.
Dynamic meaning fast.
Bubba had been in another shootout the year before, but what made this one different for him was the suspect’s daughter. “All I could picture was my little girl.”
When the team tried to make their way in, the man opened fire. Bubba was shot in the foot, Trea was shot in the thigh, and DeAndre also was shot in the foot.
Lee, the MBN agent, was shot in the torso. A police vehicle escorted him to the ambulance pickup, but it was too late. Agent Tartt was killed in the line of duty.
By God’s grace, “the little girl wasn’t injured at all,” Bubba says. “Not a scratch on her. She actually ran through the gunfire. God had His hand on her that night.”
Her father was killed when the officers returned fire.
A new family
After receiving that short phone call, Lea started packing a go bag. Meanwhile, a sheriff’s deputy was racing down a dirt road in Iuka, with Bubba as his passenger.
“I feared more for my life riding with that deputy than facing 19 bullets,” Bubba says. He can laugh about it now. “Then we had a wreck with a deer coming from Tupelo to Jackson, after I told him, ‘Don’t take the Trace.’”
Four surgeries and two reconstructions later, Bubba recovered from his injuries. He went back to work the following year, and remains close to Trea and DeAndre, though they’ve since taken different career paths.
The Iuka shooting solidified the Holifields’ desire to start a missions organization, which they now did in memory of Lee Tartt.
“The name (Warriors By Grace) kind of derived from what we pictured Lee Tartt as,” Bubba says.
“As a Christian you’re supposed to be a warrior on the battlefield,” Lea says. “It was by grace (Bubba) was still here, but Lee lost his life.”
The Holifields had led mission trips before. Bubba was student pastor at New Hope Fellowship Church in Pelahatchie, and Lea was the children’s director. They’d talked about starting a ministry, but they hadn’t done it yet. Then after the Iuka shooting, Lea attended a women’s conference. One of the speakers kept emphasizing the idea of “getting out of the boat,” like Peter did when Jesus called him to walk on water. It was time for the Holifields to follow suit.
“I called (Bubba) on my way home,” Lea recalls. “He said God had been telling him the same thing.”
The most powerful part?
“Lee Tartt’s sister is probably our biggest fundraiser financially, and that started before she knew why we started (the ministry),” Bubba says. “She started (donating to our mission trips) two months after I got shot, before we’d started the ministry.”
Lee’s brother and sister-in-law are “prayer warriors” for Warriors By Grace, Lea adds. And while Bubba — who was the “point person” that night in Iuka — kept saying, “It should’ve been me” who was killed, Lee’s brother Keith told him, “Bubba, it happened how God intended it to happen.”
“They were consoling me,” Bubba says. “They became my extended family, my new family.”
Warriors By Grace
In early 2017, Warriors By Grace was born.
“We love doing missions,” Lea says. “We do at least one or two trips (domestically per year) and one international, and we were working up to two (international) trips per year pre-COVID.”
At press time, a Florida mission trip was in the works for late July, and a possible trip to the Middle East for the fall.
“Costa Rica is our heart, that’s where we’d been the past several years, but we haven’t been able to go the past two years,” Lea says. “We were going to New York last year and that got canceled.”
Warriors By Grace also evangelizes here in Mississippi.
“One of our favorite things to do are block parties,” Lea says. “We go to low-income areas with lots of kids. We have a block party trailer with tons of equipment, and it was all donated in a couple months. … If you have a block party, with music and food, the kids are going to come. We never end any event without a gospel presentation.”
WBG’s main purpose is simple: to share the gospel and train others to do the same, particularly on the mission field — though of course that includes everywhere!
“One of the things in Costa Rica that we really battle is the difference between religion and relationship,” Lea says.
Another strange obstacle: “One young woman (in Costa Rica) heard the verse about dying to yourself daily (as a Christian), and she thought she’d immediately die, physically, if she got saved.”
The WBG team was able to lead that girl to Christ, and soon she was translating for them at her school.
Around the time the Holifields founded WBG, they also helped plant their current church home, Hangar Church, which meets in a former airplane hangar on Highway 80 in Brandon. (“Our pastor is a pilot,” Lea says.) Bubba serves as associate pastor.
Honoring ‘the epitome of a state trooper’
Bubba has lost at least three law enforcement officers whom he knew personally: Lee Tartt; Josh Smith, a classmate from trooper school; and John Harris, with whom Bubba shared an “active friendship,” he says.
When John, then in his late 30s, said he was going to start trooper school, Bubba met him for lunch and tried to warn him about how tough it would be.
“And he said, ‘Bubba, I’m not going to quit. They’re going to have to carry me out in an ambulance.’”
Sure enough, “he never quit,” Bubba says. “He was just the — I guess the epitome of a state trooper. The most passionate guy I’ve ever seen in my life for the uniform,” Bubba says. “He was a true red leg. That’s our nicknames, for the red piping on our pants.”
On May 28, while conducting a traffic stop on Highway 16 in Madison County, Trooper John Harris was struck by a vehicle and killed. Bubba and Lea came straight from the funeral to this interview.
“I try to avoid (law enforcement funerals),” Bubba says. “The 21-gun salute and ‘Taps’ gets me every time — and that Lee Greenwood song (‘God Bless the USA’).”
There’s a lot more that could be said about Trooper Harris — but in the meantime, Bubba and Lea decided to help John’s wife, Kate, and their two kids, Parker and Cooper.
“We started talking about it (that night he was killed), or maybe I started talking about it, and we wanted to do a small fundraiser for his family,” Bubba says.
“I know when (Bubba) got shot, I had a meltdown because we had seen five or six doctors and didn’t know if he’d walk again,” Lea says. And that was just a shot in the foot. “So I can only imagine what it’s like for (Kate).”
The “small” fundraiser grew exponentially: At press time, more than $150,000 had been raised for the Harrises, and that didn’t include two additional fundraisers started by others.
“We’re trying to figure out how to give (Kate) $150,000. We’re trying to do everything we can to help her out without the government getting involved,” Bubba says.
‘He’s not done.’
On April 2, 2020, Bubba finally retired from the Guard as a staff sergeant after 22 years. He still works for the Mississippi Highway Patrol, but instead of writing citations, he administers polygraph tests to criminal suspects and prospective law enforcement officers.
“Every trooper has to pass it before they can advance any further,” he says.
While the machine technically does the “lie detecting,” there are other tricks of the trade: “You have to try to read people also. Pay attention to body language. There are a lot of skills and techniques we use. I can’t reveal everything,” he quips.
And yes, he absolutely has used the polygraph on Wes.
“Oh, the first thing he did when he got home was tell our son, ‘Come here,’” Lea recalls.
For her part, Lea is a nurse at the same place she was an administrative assistant, Hudspeth Regional Center.
“My patients have intellectual disabilities, and they have physical disabilities as well. A lot of people tell me, ‘How do you do this?’ But when I walk in a room and patients recognize my voice and I put a smile on their face, that makes a big difference to me,” she says. “Everybody has a purpose, even though some people may think if you have a disability, you don’t really matter that much. But God has a plan for everybody.”
Last month, the Holifields flew to Hawaii for their 20th anniversary. One of the photos from the trip shows Bubba, exhausted, sitting on the side of a hiking trail that would take him and Lea multiple miles up a mountain. He’s dropped his phone in the dirt, and the phone has opened itself to the “health” app.
The photo might elicit a chuckle, but there was a time when Bubba and Lea weren’t sure he’d ever walk again.
Whether hiking a mountain, caring for patients, sniffing out lies, or sharing the plan of salvation, there’s plenty of race left for the Holifields to run. And plenty of work God wants to do, both through them and in them, Bubba says.
“He’s not done. He still has a lot (left) to do with us.”