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


A Splett said...

No one should have to go through what Jack Zimmerman did! I think the VAC is so wonderful for what they do for our veterans. It seems so wrong for him to have been treated by a commercial airline in the manner he was treated.

Cozmo said...

Agreed. First of all, nobody with any sort of disability should be treated like that, but especially once it's learned that it came about in defense of our nation and of freedom and liberty. What they SHOULD have done is had a special guide to take him through to the terminal, ensured that he gets on the plane safely, explained to the passengers that they have the privilege of sitting next to a hero, and saluted him before leaving the plane.

I understand the need for security, but I'm appalled by the number of wounded warriors who have been harassed by TSA employees.

Kim Gustafson said...

Reading of this experience this made me mad and sad, and I want to say "unbelievable"...but I know better. Thank you Veterans Airlift Command for providing an alternative to our Wounded Warriors.

Anonymous said...

This is disgusting. The airlines needs to get it together. If we have a wounded warior travelling on commercial airline this warriors Military I.D. should be enough for him to get all the help he needs and absolllutly no charge for baggage. These are the guys fighting for our freedom and we disrespect them.The problem starts with this administration they are not providing adequatly for them.


Anonymous said...

What are there-typically 16 to 20 fist class seats? You would think somebody would have offered to give up their seat -

Jack Hoover said...

Is this letter for real?
There are so many inaccurate items in it:
First off, a disabled person who is as injured as this vet can have one person escort/assist to gate.
Second, the airlines provide people to assist disabled, elderly and children without cost all the way from curbside to seat on aircraft.
The airlines must be ADA compliant. If this really happened as stated a complaint should have been filed with the FAA.
In my opinion the organization should have provided a ticket for this man to have a helper accompany him, it is the responsibility of this man and or his wife to only agree to travel if they feel like they can handle it.
To another poster, First Class seats are not free. Being a combat disabled vet does not entitle you to an auto upgrade. Its vulgar to expect it.
My generation is an all volunteer military. I am a combat disabled vet. I have had close to 200 surgeries. I fly first class for comfort and if I'm I am not 100% confident I can travel comfortably, I don't do it.
I found your site because we own aircraft. A Cessna Corvalis TTX and a Pilatus PC-12 NG. I was hoping to be able to link up with organizations like this to help vets that are in need. I find myself wondering if its bogus for sympathy... It sounds harsh Im sure but there are so many ridiculous things in this letter, in my opinion. Please advise. I hope you respond to my comments, I am fairly confident you won't publish them but I'd appreciate feedback.


Veterans Airlift said...


Happy to publish your comment, and happy to give you feedback. Might help answer questions others have but may not want to ask, too. This is only one veteran's story, and unfortunately, it is a real story. I'd also like to say that this story is an anomaly, but it's not (and I do believe a complaint was filed after the incident). We've flown almost 14,000 passengers since 2006. I've been with VAC 10 years. So, we've heard from a few more people about their experiences flying commercially than just this letter. Sometimes the stories are entirely as bad as the story above, and sometimes they are bits and pieces of a similar experience. A few have been significantly worse. Ultimately, the purpose of the letter was to thank our pilots so they understand exactly what service they are providing. Those of was who go through airports able bodied may not even consider the issues that combat wounded face while traveling.

What we *think* the airlines do and should do does not always line up with reality of what happens at the airport. For example, the statement you made above (which I think most of us would think is a fair assumption), "the airlines provide people to assist disabled, elderly and children without cost all the way from curbside to seat on aircraft," is actually only an assumption on our end. Major Scotty Smiley, who was blinded by a roadside bomb in Iraq can tell you about the time he was escorted all the way to the gate, only to be remembered again after the aircraft was boarded and had departed without him (he had asked multiple times when they were boarding, and they told him to wait, and they would get him when it was time to board). I could tell you story after story, but these experiences may be better told by the veterans themselves. If you look us up on Great Non Profits, you can read reviews from close to 200 veterans about their experience with VAC, and many can directly compare their experience with us to commercial travel. However, rather than just read reviews, I would encourage you to sign up your aircraft to fly a mission for us, and meet some of our veterans firsthand to hear their stories. I believe you will find that our passengers are truly deserving of the private flights our volunteers provide. I'd be happy to connect you with some of our volunteer pilots who can tell you about their firsthand experiences, too. In fact, I'd be more than happy to connect you with a few Pilatus owners as well so they can share their flight experiences. Feel free to reach out to me directly.

Jen Salvati
Executive Director
Veterans Airlift Command
952-582-2911 EXT 23