““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Volunteer Group Gives Wounded Vets a Lift
The Veterans Airlift Command (www.veteransairlift.org) is looking for a few good pilots-and airplanes. The mission: help convalescing servicemen and women wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan with their recovery. Formed in July 2005, the nonprofit VAC uses volunteer pilots and donated aircraft to transport soldiers and their families to military hospitals and rehabilitation centers and help with their other travel needs.
Founder Walter Fricke, a former Army helicopter pilot wounded in the Vietnam War, knows firsthand the importance of family visits to recovering soldiers. "I didn't start healing until my family got [to the hospital where I was recuperating]," Fricke said. "In fact, I was going downhill until they got there. I really know the value of having a family close by and also for kids getting home on convalescent leave."
VAC flew its first mission in late 2006, taking a wounded marine home to Melbourne, Fla., from a ceremony in Jacksonville, N.C., where he received a Purple Heart and other honors. The trip from Melbourne, using commercial air transportation, took four layovers and 13 hours. The marine's father, hoping to spare his son the ordeal of a similar return trip, sought help from VAC after being referred by the Military Severely Injured Center. "We flew him home in two-and-a-half hours nonstop," Fricke said.
"The aviation community really connects on this, and they have been pretty aggressive in signing up," added Fricke, who noted that more than 230 aircraft and 300 pilots are currently in the volunteer network. VAC expects to provide at least 250 flights by the end of this year and will be capable of flying 1,000 missions in 2008. Most flights are 500 miles or less and the maximum distance is about 800 miles.
The pilots and those who donate use of their aircraft bear all costs, including fuel and airport fees. Volunteers say it's a small price for the opportunity to give something back to the soldiers who've done so much for their country. Meanwhile, these volunteers are heroes in their own right to those who rely on VAC.
"[VAC's] support to our nation's service members, as well as to their families, plays an integral role in raising morale and aiding the healing process," said Gen. Richard B. Myers, honorary vice-chair of VAC's National Advisory Board. "The service they provide is both unparalleled and unwavering and shows that America really appreciates all their sacrifices."