It’s been more than 10 years since the United States entered into war in the Middle East. During that time, thousands of lives have been lost. Thousands more have been changed due to injuries suffered while on the battle grounds – injuries that serve as constant reminders of war.
The men and women who suffered these injuries are our modern-day heroes, yet many times their needs go relatively unnoticed. Especially when it comes to their travel needs.
That’s where Veterans Airlift Command comes in.
The VAC provides free air transportation for wounded military personnel and their families who are in need of medical services or compassionate purposes, according to the organization’s corporate website.
These flights are carried out through a network of volunteer aircraft owners and pilots. The pilots come from a variety of backgrounds, including military, but all of them have a similar desire: To serve the wounded veterans.
The organization was started in 2006 by retired Vietnam veteran Walt Fricke who was injured in the line of duty. A banker by trade and weekend pilot, once retired Fricke began flying soldiers in need throughout the Minneapolis area where he lives as a way to give back to the community.
Fricke’s mission expanded once he got a call from someone with the Department of Defense asking if he would be willing to transport wounded combat soldiers.
Soon after, Fricke managed to pull together 2,000 pilots and aircraft owners willing to donate their time and money to helping the country’s wounded warriors with their transportation needs.
According to Jen Salvati, Fricke’s daughter and one of the three fulltime employees with Veterans Airlift Command, the organization quickly went from being a charitable operation carried out by her father on a local level to a national effort.
Helping Wounded Warriors and Veterans
Currently, the needs of wounded veterans and warriors of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom are being met by the volunteers with VAC. The services offered to these veterans include transport related to service-connected medical needs, transport for family and close friends visiting the wounded at medical facilities and transport of wounded warriors to specific events such as homecoming reunions, which aid in the healing process.
All veterans and warriors need to do is have a medical release assuring that they are able to travel signed by their doctors. From there, volunteers at VAC will schedule a plane and pilots to meet the needs of the veterans and warriors.
Visit www.veteransairlift.org or call 952-582-2911 to plan a trip or find out more information.
While the website states that the only requirements passengers must meet to be eligible to fly include being ambulatory, able to enter and exit the aircraft without assistance, sit upright for three hours at a time and able to travel in an unpressurized aircraft, Fricke said there are exceptions to these rules.
For instance, many times passengers have lost limbs and do need assistance getting on a plane. Fricke said that just recently the VAC flew four passengers who were quadruple amputees who needed assistance getting on the plane. Fricke said to get these passengers on the plane, men from the Fixed Based Operator at their location didn’t even hesitate to assist their needs.
Fricke said that the biggest challenges to flying wounded passengers is that currently any passenger needing to fly on a stretcher is unable to be served by the VAC because they do not have aircraft that can safely secure a passenger on a stretcher.
That said, if anyone surfaces with an air ambulance then the VAC will be able to meet the needs of virtually any wounded warrior or veteran, according to Fricke.
Once on board, should medical care be required on the flight, passengers are responsible for securing a medical attendant to fly along with them. This can be a friend or family member and that person will also fly for free.
Beyond Medical Care
Fricke said that medical appointments are not the only places the wounded are flown to.
Because the founder of the organization understands that healing from war goes beyond what’s offered at a medical facility, passengers can also be taken to special events or family functions, Fricke said.
Recently, a group of wounded veterans were flown out to Challenge America in Aspen where wounded military personnel can go to experience therapeutic recreation programs and get together with fellow veterans.
Challenge America was started by a man who lost his son in Iraq and was determined to not let the tragedy negatively affect his life. Instead, he wanted to use his experience and honor the memory of his son by creating a place for other military personnel to go heal, Fricke said.
Attending family events is another activity that is important to not only military personnel, but their families as well.
Fricke said she has a trip coming up that is for a man who was injured eight years ago in the war and lost an eye and suffered a traumatic brain injury, but wants to be able to go to his son’s graduation from basic training at Fort Benning so he can be the one who places his son’s rifle pin on his uniform at graduation.
Flights are also schedule to take the wounded to meet service or therapy dogs that have been trained specifically for them to meet their needs, Fricke said. Other times, service or therapy dogs fly right along with their owners in the seats next to them or on the floor of the jets.
Ways to Help
Like all nonprofit organizations, donations are always needed and can be sent online or to Veterans Airlift Command at 5775 Wayzata Blvd., Suite 700, St. Louise Park, MN 55416.
Pilots willing to make pro-bono flights are always needed and can find information about necessary requirements on the VAC website.
Fricke said that air ambulance services would benefit the organization and anyone who can offer this service can contact the VAC.
For more information about the organization, visit www.veteransairlift.org