Reflections on Veterans Day

Forty years ago TODAY, a 19 year old Army helicopter pilot, having served the larger part of his tour before being seriously wounded arrived back on US soil from Vietnam. He was strapped to a stretcher in the back of a C-141 Star-lifter. And to a welcome home and “thanks for your trouble”, that thankfully is not being repeated today. Thanks, in part to the volunteer pilots who make up the ranks of the elite “Veterans Airlift Command”.

Veterans Day is a good day to reflect on the positive change in attitude in America toward our returning warriors. It makes me proud (and not for the first time) to be an American.

Today a Chicago based volunteer for the VAC is en route from San Antonio to Columbus Ohio (after responding to an urgent call yesterday afternoon and flying to San Antonio last evening) to deliver a young Army specialist and his mother home to Columbus due to a family emergency. This young soldier is a bilateral above the knee amputee with a serious traumatic brain injury. And he knows he is appreciated by a grateful nation. The Veterans Airlift volunteers see to it that these families are treated with the respect, dignity and support that they deserve. While most of these heroes will tell you that this is not what they expect, we cannot deny that is our obligation as a grateful nation to recognize their sacrifice and offer them the best that we have.

Our volunteers do that. And this “old” Army Helicopter pilot…the one referred to above, is proud to be associated with this, one of the finest volunteer outfits in the US.

Letter from Donald Shade-a VAC Volunteer

Marine Corporals Brett Sobaski and Christopher Lawrence

First, let us thank you for what you created with the VAC and all the time and effort you invest in what you do. This program provided the most amazing weekend for Roger, me and dozens of others in our Big Bear City, CA airport community.

As you know, Viet Nam Combat Veteran Roger Schmidt and I each flew our Skylanes to San Diego Montgomery Field in response to a VAC request to provide wounded Marines with an introductory flight in small aircraft. The date seemed perfect since our Pilot’s Association already had two aviation events planned which we were certain the Marines would enjoy.

On Friday, July 11th, Roger and I took off from Big Bear City Airport for the 100 mile flight to San Diego arriving just before noon. We met Marine Corporal’s Christopher Lawrence and Brett Sobaski at the terminal. First impressions proved accurate throughout the weekend as these two shining examples of courage & patriotism reminded us of the thousands of men and women who risk their lives to keep our country free.

Of coincidental note was the fact that Cpl. Sobaski was wearing a John Deere tractor t-shirt. This led to the quick discovery that Brett and Roger were Iowa neighbors, both knowing many of the other’s relatives.

Each Marine sat right seat in our Cessnas doing a fantastic job navigating over Miramar Naval Air Station and March Air Reserve Base en route back to Big Bear. Once landed, we hopped into my Jeep, top down, and headed off to lunch at a local Mexican restaurant. A drive around Big Bear Lake terminated at the airport where both Marines were enthusiastically greeted by our airport staff.

That evening, the Marines were again welcomed by 10 of us “airport folk” with a barbecue chicken dinner at my home. As most of us over-ate, Cpl. Brett Sobaski put us at ease by sharing the mid-west advice that his Grandfather gave him at an early age: “Bretty. Let me tell you… When Sobaski’s dine we don’t get full. We just get tired of eating.” That seemed to set the tone for the rest of the weekend.

After dinner we retreated to the big screen to watch “The Final Season”, a DVD movie about Iowa Baseball Champions in the town where Roger and Brett grew up. I won’t bore you with all the Iowa comments, but rest assured that Cpl. Lawrence, a Wisconsin native, and I, a California boy, had to roll our eyes more than once in response to the banter between the two.

Cpl. Sobaski left to spend the night at Roger’s home while Cpl. Lawrence stayed with me.

On Saturday at 0830 it was off again to the airport to fly EAA Young Eagles ( ). Eleven Big Bear Aircraft flew more than 60 Big Bear kids around the mountain peaks that morning. Cpls. Lawrence and Sobaski spent most of their time flying a turbine powered Aero Commander piloted by Big Bear Airport Commissioner Jay Obernolte. Scattered clouds and docile winds provided everyone with a great flying experience.

After lunch Cpl. Sobaski opted for a flight lesson with B.B.A.P.A. CFI Bill Jones and headed off down runway 08 in the Skylane. Cpl. Lawrence chose to spend his time “flying” on the ground in Roger’s 2007 Corvette. Rumor has it that ground speed of the Corvette may have exceeded that of the 182 for a short period of time. I do know that both Marine’s returned from their “flights” with smiles on their faces.

At 1500 both Marines were guests of honor at our Big Bear Airport Pilot’s Association Hangar Party / Barbecue. Seventy-five community members came out to thank the Marines for the sacrifices they’ve made and injuries they’ve suffered to keep us free. With the Marine Hymn playing in the background, retired Marine Colonel Bill Alley choked back tears of pride as he presented the Marines with a decorated cake, thanking the soldiers for service to their country. A dozen other Marine Veterans in attendance were evidenced by utterances of “Semper Fi” and “Oorah” heard throughout the afternoon. It was a proud day for all of us.

Both Marines expressed thanks and appreciation to those in attendance, and again tears started to flow. A standing ovation was immediate and well deserved for these two amazing young men.

U.S.M.C. Veteran Joe Landaker, father of Big Bear’s Marine 1st Lt. Jared M. Landaker, hosted both Marines at his home that Evening. Jared Landaker is a Big Bear Community Hero who died Feb. 7, 2007 when the helicopter he was flying in crashed while supporting combat operations in Anbar: ( )

This was a very special weekend for many people in Big Bear and Roger and I look forward to doing it again as VAC volunteers.

Marine Corporals Christopher Lawrence and Brett Sobaski should be a reminder to all of us that there are hundreds more like them rehabilitating in Military Hospitals all round the country. They appreciate any show of support that you can give them. Stop by a hospital and visit, send a card or care package, take them out on the town or a short trip, everything is appreciated.

This morning I had the personal honor and privilege of flying these two heroes back to San Diego. As you wrote to me in an earlier email, it’s the best kind of flying you can do.

Thanks again for what you and all the other VAC volunteers do. It does make a difference.

- Donald Shade

Here's an email we received today:

Jim, Bob, and Jen,

Attached please find pictures of my son and I upon his return from Iraq. Words can never say thank you for the assistance of seeing my son home. I only hope in the future I can help in any way I can with any of the foundations. While waiting for the bus to arrive at Quantico, I sat back and watched the families and friends that were anxiously awaiting seeing their loved one for the first time in a number of months. Nothing warms a persons heart more that to see the anticipation on faces and to know the same feeling. The pride that I felt was a feeling I have felt a number of times before in simple ways such as a ball game when the National Anthem is played. These fine young men and women put their lives on the line everyday to make sure America is free for each and everyone of us. They voluntarily make the choice to do this. I was addressed as Mamm, yet I felt I should be calling them by the highest title I could think of. The troops filed off the bus, with knees weak because they wanted to run to their families, however they stood in formation. That is a TRUE man. Yes, I yelled so loud, I am sure I was heard in Iraq. It was a strange day as I knew that at the same time as my son was in the air arriving back safely to the states, my older brother was in the air on his way to Afghanistan with the 7th unit of the Special Forces. Our stay at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel was a memory that will always remain in our hearts and minds. Upon arrival, we were treated as though we were a dignitary and every one of my concerns of rest for my son were diminished. Bob Sierralta became like one of our family. My son made comment about how down to earth he was. Bob repeatedly thanked my son for his service. He thanked me for my families devotion to the Armed Forces. Bob- I feel you have become a friend forever! Jen Salvati put the ball in motion. She called me a number of times to make sure all my needs were met. I will get the HONOR to meet her soon. Trust me- I will hug her until she tells me to stop. Again, Thank you for the opportunity to hug my son, a proud Marine as he stepped off that bus onto American soil.

Darcy Jones
A proud mother, sister, and American

HERO FLIGHT- submitted by guest author Chuck Asbury

The sleek Lear 25 rocketed out of Modesto California and turned eastward into a crisp spring dawn, climbing four thousand feet a minute. Within minutes it caught the jet stream dead on the tail and boosted its already legendary speed. The crew grinned as the GPS ratcheted upward, soon indicating 565 knots ground speed at 39 thousand feet. Owner/pilot Roger Claypool, turned to the cabin and smiled at the passengers; “We’re doing 650 miles an hour, and we’ll arrive right on time.”

Aboard was Sergeant Eric McManus, his wife Danielle, year old baby and mother-in-law. The one thing McManus longed for was a reunion with his combat unit back in Ft. Bragg North Carolina. He had been rotated home a couple of months before his tour of duty in Iraq was over, and it came without the happiness one would expect. While on patrol McManus caught a sniper’s bullet in Baghdad. The slug impacted just above the armored chest plate of his flak jacket and tore into his spine, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. His band of brothers, paratroopers of the 325th Airborne Battle Team of the famed 82d Airborne division awaited his return at Fayetteville Regional airport.

As might be expected, the pay of an airborne infantry sergeant isn’t at the top of the income ladder, so hiring a Lear isn’t the first means of transport that comes to mind. But cost wasn’t a problem. It wasn’t, because of the creation of Walt Fricke, founder, Chairman and CEO of Veteran’s Airlift Command…the VAC. Fricke is himself a veteran helicopter pilot of the war in Vietnam and so seriously wounded during a combat mission that he spent more than six months recovering in military hospitals.

Fricke’s brainchild was borne of the need for wounded warriors to get to hospitals providing continuing medical care and to provide a means of reconnecting with comrades and loved ones. The slogan of the VAC; “THEY’VE GOT HEART, THEY NEED WINGS” is thus, both telling and fitting. Hundreds of aircraft owners have signed on to provide cost-free transportation for wounded warriors and their families. In less than two years after inception, Fricke’s VAC has flown over 550 Passengers across the breadth and length of America. On this particular flight McManus was in good hands, as Roger Claypool is also a doctor, and Britt Easterling, Roger’s regular first officer, has experience attending disabled persons and therefore capable of tending to needs that may have arisen en route.

Faster than scat, the Lear still needs fuel half way across the continent, and in a tad over two hours we landed at Grayson County Airport in Denison Texas. Before departure, calls were made to en route FBOs to arrange handling. When the purpose of the flight was made known, the response was astounding. Heartfelt thanks and appreciation were immediate, as were fuel discounts and priority handling. Lake Texoma Jet Center, prime FBO at Grayson County, handled refueling quickly and topped things off by providing box lunches for all. Every employee of the FBO came forward to give thanks and good wishes to McManus and his family.

The FAA has also come on board for these flights. While you’ve likely heard of Angel Flights and Lifeguard, you may soon hear a new call sign, as the FAA has issued the call sign “Hero Flight” to aircraft transporting wounded warriors arranged through the VAC. Astoundingly, the FAA granted use of the special call sign just two weeks after application was made by the VAC, shortcutting a process typically requiring six months. Using this call sign, ATC grants priority handling whenever possible, and that’s done often according to pilots flying these missions.

Volunteers of the VAC, individuals and corporations alike, are of a similar mind; the incredible sacrifices made by these young soldiers for our country and for all Americans far outweigh the generosity of aircraft owners and crews. Bottom line; it’s just a little time and some gas.

Sgt. McManus, perhaps a bit shy, perhaps anxious about reuniting with comrades he hadn’t seen in many months, noticeably perks up on the approach to Fayetteville Regional Airport, next door to Ft. Bragg. It’s a bit of a reunion for co-pilot author Chuck Asbury of Sacramento as well, for during Korean War days he too was a paratrooper in the same unit as McManus, thus making a unique and comfortable bond between crew and passengers.

The Lear pulls up to the Landmark Aviation FBO ramp two hours after leaving Texas and precisely on the ETA. When the engines spin down and the door opens, McManus’ paratrooper pals run to the plane and give a tumultuous welcome. His anxiety vanishes instantly, the troops are jovial, happy and unrelenting in their greeting. The reunion is awesome and solid, and McManus too, is again happy.

Standing behind are two grizzled combat veterans, Captain Jason Gardel and Master Sergeant Jamie Nelson, members of McManus’ unit, who quietly grin broadly at the heart-tugging reception. As well, several ladies are present, wives of both officers and enlisted men, and all members of the family of soldiers and kin irrevocably bound together by war. Indeed, there were few dry eyes.

Many more troops will arrive in the following days, as entire units require several days to cycle from a distant continent to home. Many will bring more greetings for their friend Eric in the coming days. To the man, they will be pained by the thought that he will not likely ever again walk on his own in the land we call home.

You have the opportunity to join in the cause. Your aircraft and crews are needed, and the VAC is grateful for your participation. The VAC is a fully qualified 501c3 organization and as such, operational costs of missions are tax deductible. If you’re going to Oshkosh you’ll have a chance to check into things on a first hand basis, as the VAC will have a trailer parked near the Warbirds CafĂ© this year, so make it a point to drop by and meet Walt Fricke and his folks. Likewise, you can call Walt at (952) 582-2911, or check out their website:
CPT Ethan Allen, 1-87 Rear Detachment Commander
Sherry Allen, Walt Fricke, Kim Vanek, Mandy Anderson

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warmly welcomed the Veterans Airlift Command and other members of the Dept of Defense “America Supports You” network to the Pentagon last week with an update on our progress on the War on Terror. While good news about the effects of the troop surge in Iraq was the general tone, caution about assuming a “quick fix” is in place was the underlying message. 3200 Additional Marines are being ordered up for the “fighting season” in Afghanistan which begins again when the snow recedes.

His primary purpose in addressing the group (over 200 in attendance) of non-profit organiztions was to express the gratitude of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who are the recipients of the support system represented at this gathering. (American Supports You 2008 Summit).

The day was filled with opportunities to network with other organizations who are engaged in serving our military families. The Veterans Airlift Command was among a small number chosen for a Public Service Announcement (PSA) Television commercial which was developed for the Armed Forces Television Network and, as I understand it, will be shown during the Super Bowl to all our overseas military. It will also be aired periodically on the Pentagon Channel Stateside.

My visit to DC included a round at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) and dinner out at “Van’s Steakhouse” with 25 or 30 wounded warriors and families who were bussed to the restaurant as guests of the Aleethia Foundation and its supporters. What an awesome group of kids. Their attitudes are amazing, considering what some are having to endure.

On Saturday morning I was honored to have breakfast with a couple of 10th Mountain Division wives who were flown to DC for a funeral service at Arlington National Cemetery for one of their fallen. A VAC volunteer flew to Macon and Savannah GA to pick up the company commander and battalion commander’s wives in order that they could represent the deployed soldiers to the family….an extremely important gesture. I am absolutely amazed at the quality of the soldiers and families who serve this great nation. We are truly blessed. I would loved to have met the volunteer pilot who flew this mission (both ways) but had to catch my own commercial flight back to MN prior to their departure for home on Saturday.

Our volunteers are the BEST!
KimVanek, Benton Gatch (pilot), Mandy Anderson

Written by Mandy Anderson

On December 21, 2007, the ladies in the Family Readiness Group (FRG) of 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division received the news they dread hearing every time the phone rings. A soldier in their husbands’ battalion had paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Private First Class George Howell died when his vehicle was struck by an IED upon returning to the forward operating base from a mission. 1-87 is currently serving a 15-month tour in northern Iraq, and the unit has produced great success since their deployment in September. But, as is often the case, that success has come at a huge price. PFC Howell leaves behind a wife, two children and a baby on the way. It is for his family that the men of 1-87 and the FRG strongly desired to have representatives attend the funeral for their fallen hero at Arlington National Cemetery.

1-87’s Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Chris Vanek, could think of no better person to represent him and show his immense respect for one of his best soldiers than his wife and ultimate source of support, Kim. PFC Howell’s Delta Company Commander, Captain Jon Anderson, felt the same about his wife, Mandy. Since continuing the mission in Iraq called these men to duty, Veterans Airlift Command and its volunteers made it possible for their wives to represent them at PFC Howell’s funeral.

Benton Gatch, a Vietnam vet and corporate pilot employed by S&S Management out of Baltimore, graciously volunteered his time for two whole days to fly Kim and Mandy from their homes in South Georgia to Arlington, and safely home again. His generosity and that of the company he represents cannot be overestimated in the minds and hearts of the 1-87 family. It was so important that representatives were present at PFC Howell’s service and that his survivors had as much support on that day as possible.

The 1-87 family will be forever grateful to Mr. Gatch and everyone at Veterans Airlift Command. These Americans are true patriots and are indeed serving their country with honor and integrity. Being a military family is, at times, not an easy job. But these honorable people have provided peace of mind by ensuring that no family needs to worry about transportation when their soldier needs them. The Veterans Airlift Command network will answer that call every time.