Group Takes Helping Wounded to New Heights

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 30, 2007 - Sometimes all it takes for a wounded veteran to begin healing is being surrounded by family and friends. That's the premise on which the Minnesota-based Veterans Airlift Command was founded.

Walter Fricke, founder of the nonprofit organization and a former Army aviator, knows having family and friends nearby can aide a wounded vet's recovery. "I was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, and I was wounded while flying a helicopter," he said.

Fricke said he spent about six months in a military hospital with 700 miles separating him from his family. It was only after his family members gathered the resources to visit him that his condition, which had actually begun to decline, started turning around.

"I didn't start healing until my family got there. In fact, I was going downhill until they got there," he said. "I really know the value of having a family close by and also for kids getting home on convalescent leave."

Years after Fricke made a full recovery, he realized there was again an unmet need. Wounded veterans of the global war on terrorism are recovering at military medical facilities and Veterans Affairs hospitals across the country, sometimes far from home and their families.

With the mission of providing "air transportation for medical and other compassionate purposes to wounded warriors, veterans and their families through a national network of volunteer aircraft owners and pilots," he began Veterans Airlift Command.

It began in spring 2006 and in November, with nine aircraft in its network, Veterans Airlift Command flew its first mission, which involved a young Marine.

"We now have well over 200 aircraft in our system," Fricke said, adding that the number of volunteer pilots has grown without any formal advertising. "The aviation community really connects on this, and they have been pretty aggressive in signing up."

Fricke said he received many requests for assistance during the holiday season from wounded servicemembers wanting to get home to spend time with their families. Typically, though, about half of requests for transport come from family members, he said.

In fact, that's how the first mission came about. A young injured Marine had traveled from his home in Melbourne, Fla., to Jacksonville, N.C., to receive his Purple Heart and other awards. The trip took 13 hours and required four layovers.

The Marine's father, in an effort to make things easier for his son's return trip, contacted the Military Severely Injured Center, which put him in touch with Veterans Airlift Command. "We flew him home in two and a half hours, nonstop," Fricke said.

Other inquiries typically come through official channels, Fricke said, adding that his group has developed a good relationship with Walter Reed Army Medical Center here. The medical facility makes at least one request daily.

The organization operates with very little overhead, Fricke said. The group works with donations that include the pilots' time, use of their planes and fuel. The cost of the flights can vary greatly depending on the distance flown and what type of aircraft is used. A typical flight, up to 500 miles, costs the pilots a minimum of $500, but can go as high as $10,000 when a corporate jet flies a mission for Fricke.

When the group's fundraising mechanism is organized, Fricke expects that anything raised above what is needed to cover his few overhead costs will be used to buy airline tickets when it's not practical to use a private aircraft. For example, if a flight is outside the organization's maximum flight radius of about 800 miles, a commercial airline is a more practical choice.

The organization also has been working with USA Cares on a travel request hotline, Fricke said. Though the group prefers requests come to them via their Web site, by the end of February, USA Cares will be fielding and vetting requests for Veterans Airlift Command assistance received on the travel request hotline, 1-866-784-8917.

USA Cares is a member of America Supports You, a Defense Department program highlighting the ways Americans are supporting the nation's servicemembers.

To date, Veterans Airlift Command has flown about 35 missions and expects to complete at least 250 this year. While he anticipates the organization's volunteer network will be able to handle 1,000 missions in 2008, Fricke's ideal number would be much lower.

"Zero would be the perfect number," he said, to indicate he wished the need for his service didn't exist.

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