Airwork: Honoring the Sacrifice

Honoring the sacrifices made by our servicemen, -women and their families.

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For those of us who donned military uniforms during the Vietnam venture -- either voluntarily or reluctantly -- and came home to a less than supportive populace, today's bands, banners and parades honoring our retrurning soldiers are gratifying. We seem to have learned our lesson and now publicly show our appreciation for the sacrifices too many of our young men and women are making in our name. Several organizations have been established to honor the sacrifices of those we've sent into harm's way and the families they've left behind.

Veterans Airlift Command (veteransairlift.org)

An indication of the change in the response to homecoming vets is the Veterans Airlift Command (VAC). The VAC was established to provide free transportation to wounded warriors and their families for medical and other compassionate purposes through a network of volunteer aircraft owners and pilots.

The VAC website suggests: "Imagine returning home from combat facing devastating injuries and long-term hospitalization -- in a facility hundreds of miles away from your family. Imagine someone brings you together." Walt Fricke, founder of VAC, had reason to imagine it after being wounded in Vietnam and sent to a hospital at Fort Knox, Kentucky. He was hospitalized 700 miles from his home and family for six months. But it wasn't until his family eventually managed to come to visit him that he began to improve. It was that experience that gave him the idea for the Veterans Airlift Command.

Veterans post a travel request online at the VAC website indicating where they need to travel, the dates, how many passengers and their reason for wanting the flight. An e-mail is then sent to volunteer pilots to see who is willing and available to take the flight. Fricke says that within minutes of posting a request there are often responses from volunteers wanting to take the mission. Since it was founded in 2006, VAC has signed up nearly 1,000 volunteer pilots, flown more than 720,000 miles and carried some 1,400 passengers. The volunteers are unpaid and cover all their own costs to fly the missions. The Airlift prefers that volunteers have high-performance airplanes and requires an IFR rating.

Until a recent story appeared on network television, awareness of the VAC was spread primarily through word of mouth and airshow performances by the Trojan Horsemen, a six-ship T-28 formation and aerobatic demonstration team of which Fricke is a member. What VAC provides, Fricke says, "is more than a ride, it's a relationship."

Veterans Retreat (veteransretreat.com)

A 501(c)(3) organization established to show appreciation to wounded veterans is Veterans Retreat (VR). Tim Suereth, president and founder of Veterans Retreat, says the organization aims to help wounded vets get active again by having them participate in inspirational, educational and challenging recreational activities.

Suereth, the son of a decorated Navy fighter pilot, enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1984 at age 17. It was his experiences as a "Navy brat" and his own active duty service that influenced him to found the Veterans Retreat. Always fascinated by flight, Suereth holds a commercial pilot certificate.

Among the challenges and educational courses offered by VR is Introduction to Aviation and Flight Training.

"We intend to inspire others by introducing them to aviation and the thrill of flying," he says.

The course is offered free to qualified veterans who are interested in flying. In coordination with Pilot Journey (pilotjourney.com), VR will make its aviation courses available throughout the country, at airports near the veterans.

The curriculum of the aviation course includes a ground school class that lasts approximately three hours. Students get a complete overview of the flight instruction process, and each student gets a logbook with an entry for at least one hour of flight time. The vets are also provided information for earning a pilots license or pursuing other aviation options, either for fun or to build a career.

Although VR is capable of offering introduction-to-flight training at FBOs around the country, Suereth says he'd like to bring the veterans to Miami when possible. "They can bring their wives or husbands and make it a weekend vacation of flight training and bonding."

The GI Bill for education is available to the veterans, and VR plans a link on its website to help the men and women pursue their pilots licenses through the GI Bill. Suereth says if they attend colleges or universities that offer aviation curriculum, they might qualify for 100 percent of the cost.

Word of the VR program has been spreading through the Army's Wounded Warrior Program (AW2) advocates. An advocate in Tennessee heard of what VR was doing and asked if one of her soldiers could attend. This experience led to six other soldiers from Tennessee signing up for the aviation program, and other state advocates have contacted VR to include their group members.

Teens-In-Flight (teens-in-flight.com)

According to its mission statement, Teens-In-Flight, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) foundation, "provides flight training and aviation maintenance scholarships to those teens who have lost a parent in the global war on terrorism or is the teen of a parent who was wounded in action and is disabled. Another phase of our program also focuses on selected teens that are considered 'at risk' within our community by providing a positive aviation intervention experience."

Founded by Jack D. Howell, a retired Marine Corps colonel and award-winning educator, the idea for the Teens-In-Flight program came to Howell when he was teaching a Marine Corps ROTC program and provided orientation flights to aviation students through the program.

The flame was further fanned when, as a Marine casualty notification officer, Howell frequently had to deliver the bad news to dependents who had lost a service member.

"When you do that, you often have to deal with misguided anger," Howell says. "The young kids don't really understand what's going on, but the teenagers want to know why daddy or mommy is in that box. They're not happy and they take their anger out on anything and anybody. That's why Teens-In-Flight focuses on military families. We try to change that misdirected anger into positive energy."

Teens-In-Flight was started by Howell in partnership with the Stephen M. Price Foundation in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2006. Today there are three active locations, two in Florida -- one at Flagler County Airport in Palm Coast and one at Craig Municipal Airport in Jacksonville -- and the third run through A-Cent Aviation at the Colorado Springs Airport in Colorado.

Teens-In-Flight relies on money raised from private donations and contributions of time and resources from volunteers; none of the administrative staff receives a salary. In fact, Howell said he has just purchased a Cessna 150 with his own money to be used for the training at the Flagler County facility. And a donated office and classroom facility in Palm Coast that houses several computer-based flight training devices was recently opened. To be eligible, teens have to be 13 years old or older, have a grade-point average of 2.5, write a 1,000-word essay on Why I Want to Fly, sit for an oral interview, pass a drug screening and be recommended by their school principal or superintendent.

Top priority goes to teens who had a parent killed in action; next are those who had a parent wounded in action and severely disabled. After that, priority goes to teens from low-income families and to teens considered at risk.

Howell says the organization is planning additional programs around the country, near military installations. Locations he's looking at include Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; Fort Hood and Fort Bliss, Texas; and Camp Pendleton, Oceanside, California.

We've come a long way in recognizing and honoring our military personnel and their families for the sacrifices they have made to protect our freedoms. It's only right that they're being given an opportunity to enjoy the freedoms they've helped to protect.