Letter to our Pilots and Aircraft Owners

I am sharing with you all my husband’s recent experience flying commercially so that you can get a better understanding of how much you help out not only us, but also veterans across America.

My husband, Jack Zimmerman, was asked by a foundation that wanted to support him, and his passion for hunting and send him on a weeklong elk, and white tail deer hunt. Being that we have only flown privately through Veterans Airlift Command, I was tentative about hearing he would be flying commercially. He was injured last March 2011 after stepping over an IED in Afghanistan while serving a 12-month deployment with the 101st Airborne Division. He lost both his legs, above the knee, and most of his right hand and arm. I called the airline he would be flying on ahead of time and went through all my concerns with them, and they assured me, everything would be taken care of.

We arrived to the airport extra early, as I knew with having a 24” metal rod running down his right arm, and an 8” metal plate in his left elbow, along with loose shrapnel throughout his legs, getting through security would be a nightmare. He only had two bags, one, for his medications and other necessities in case the airline lost his luggage, the other, his carry on- easily small enough to fit in the overhead compartments. However, since he was flying alone, and since he had to push his own wheelchair, we were forced to pay and check his extra bag in just because he couldn’t carry it to his gate from security.

We got to the security checkpoint, and with no one assisting him, and myself not being allowed any farther, he had to push himself through while trying to take everything out of his pockets, and get everything out of his backpack attached to his wheelchair. Being that he doesn’t have any fingers on his right hand, he has to wear a splint that covers from his wrist to his elbow, and allows him to push himself in his wheelchair. After airport security tested his splint, and it came back as an “explosive” they were not going to allow him to take it with him. This splint, being the ONLY way he can move himself and being a necessity, they finally allowed him to bring it on the plane. This may have been the part of the days complications that got to me the most because, here sits a veteran, completely helpless in his wheelchair, who has given America the ultimate sacrifice in DEFENDING our country against terrorists and these people are actually going to question his motives going aboard a plane?

My husband is not dangerous.

My husband is a big guy, being 6’3” when he was blown up, and I was worried about how they would actually get him onto the plane. To my understanding, he could take his own wheelchair up to his gate and then “transfer” into one of the airport wheelchairs, where an airport personal would push him aboard the plane. The wheelchairs the airport provided that fit up the aisles of the plane were so narrow, and small, that his shoulders hit the seats as they wheeled him down the aisle, and he couldn’t fit past the first row of economy seats. I would like to add in though, he COULD fit through first class, but there were obviously more important people aboard the plane. So, to get to his seat, he had to get out of the wheelchair and scoot on his bottom down a dirty plane isle that millions of people have walked across until he got to his seat on the plane. He had to do the same when exiting the plane.

Did I mention he had a layover for 3 hours in Denver, where he had to again, scoot on his bottom on and off the plane, and then push himself around an airport looking for his connecting gate, and then sit and wait for 3 hours, just to scoot onto the plane again.

Finally, after a grueling travel day, and upon arriving at his destination, he now received notice that his bags were left behind- his bag, which included the extra battery to his, now dead, wheelchair, and the battery charger.

In this, I didn’t even include the millions of stares from people around you, and the completely terrified person who has to sit next to someone who is missing their legs, and how un human it makes you feel.

I just wanted to write you about our only experience thus far in his injury flying commercially so that you can truly understand how difficult it is for a wounded veteran to fly.

Veterans Airlift command is truly the greatest organization we had ever heard of, and cannot be more thankful for all the pilots who fly for us. Eliminating the security, and layovers, and transportation onto the plane.

I hope that from this, you all know how much we really appreciate your service to us, and how you really are the heroes, and the ones to be thanked.

Megan Zimmerman
The challenge is on. I have challenged one of our VAC volunteers to see who can raise the most money for VAC Hero Flight 2011. The winner of the challenge will have the opportunity to start out our golf event in North Carolina by skydiving onto the golf course right before the shotgun start. After having two kids, I crossed skydiving off my bucket list for being a little too risky, although it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. However, this particular opportunity comes with the benefit of doing a tandem jump with (former Golden Knight) SFC Mike Elliott, who took President Bush for his 85th birthday. Right back in the bucket list. I’m asking you to help me check this off the bucket list the RIGHT way-by actually doing it! And, asking your support of a great cause.

The Ranger Group is donating the jump, so ALL proceeds go directly to VAC. You can also purchase your tickets to our event and even sponsor a table in support of my jump. And, if you can’t make it to our event, but want to support VAC, you can do that too! Feel free to pass this on!

Click HERE to donate:

Thanks for your continued support of our mission,

Jen Salvati
Operations Manager

What I Learned from Listening to Heroes by Mike Gaston-VAC Pilot

Veterans Airlift Command pilots and aircraft transported wounded warriors and support staff from San Antonio to Las Cruces on Friday March 25 so they could participate in the annual Bataan Death March Memorial hike through the White Sands Missile base.
My passengers were two Army and one Air Force enlisted men from the 59th Warrior Transition Battalion and a physical therapist from their unit. We left San Antonio in a flight of two, our Cessna 340 and a Cessna 414. We stayed a flight of two until we reached Pecos, TX, where I decided to get more gas to cope with the un-forecast 55knot headwind and the guys decided we were short on Mexican food.
The FBO in Pecos gave us the keys to his old Suburban and directed us to La Fiesta Restaurant. There Gabriela steered the men to the ‘Mexican Chicken Fried Steak’, a La Fiesta specialty. This masterpiece of culinary art hung over the sides of the plate, but my men were up to the task at hand and laid waste to the paper thin beef patty coated with abundant fried batter and pepper sauce. Sounds terrible, but is actually pretty good.
Back to the airport and ready to go Las Cruces. Before we left, the FBO presented each of us with honorary sheriff’s badges representing the “Law West of the Pecos” enforced by the legendary Judge Roy Bean.
Over lunch I learned that Oscar, the squad leader, was from Hollywood, CA and has been to Afghanistan once and Iraq twice on a striker team. He is responsible to make sure his 16 man squad in San Antonio is getting all the support they have available from the various resources and that they are following their rehabilitation plans.
Mark, the physical therapist, is retired from the Navy after a career as a corpsman and physical therapist and is a civilian in the program in San Antonio. His wife is an Air Force surgical trauma nurse, who has completed three tours in Iraq. Mark just completed a program to teach how to use a Segway to candidates who need it for mobility. The Segway Company has donated 1,000 of the two wheeled units to the program.
Justin is from Greenville, TX and was in Iraq on a 101st striker team. He climbed up front in the right seat on the trip from Pecos to Las Cruces. I thought he wanted to fly the airplane, but he was asleep in ten minutes. The man can eat an entire Mexican chicken fried steak, but he can’t stay awake afterwards.
Marcus is an Air Force electronics guru from “some-little-town-in-Oklahoma-you-never-heard-of”. He is based in San Antonio now, but was based in Biloxi, MS. He is eager to get back on a motorcycle. He is back on active duty as he continues his rehab.
I listened to good natured Army versus Air Force versus Navy jabs all the way to Las Cruces. Neither the Marines nor the Coast Guard was mentioned at all. Thanks for little favors. Also, I have never had any passengers use the relief tube so many times. Must have had too much iced tea at La Fiesta?
I learned that a military wife give you no slack when you do not call home when you said you would even though you are out on a “black op” in Iraq. Communication from active areas are usually pretty good except when out on patrol.
I learned that the controversial “Surge” worked in Iraq. Oscar and Justin were there and saw the results as they worked in the neighborhoods with the Iraqi people. Many Iraqis have satellite dishes and watch shows like Jersey Shore and South Park… both certain to improve their opinions of the U.S.
I learned there are three good things about being an amputee:
The Army does not care about your weight anymore.
It is quicker to get a buzz from alcohol.
The VA will refit your motorcycle so you can ride it with a prosthesis.
On this hike through the desert it is a good idea to carry more than one leg. Oscar brought three.
All these men are on active duty and had to get permission to go on the Bataan Death March Memorial Hike in Las Cruces. They made this trip on their own time and took personal leave to do it. That’s right, they had to get permission to use their personal time to travel to the high desert in New Mexico, walk almost 30 miles in the heat and sand to honor their heroes from World War II.
They shared their concerns about being able to complete the hike on Sunday. It is not the physical challenge that worries them; it is their fear of failing to properly honor the men who were on the original Bataan Death March in 1942. Please read that sentence again.
They will do just fine.