The Veterans Airlift Command (VAC), a nonprofit organization that provides air transportation aboard private aircraft for wounded veterans and their families, is being organized as this year’s recipient of the Al Ueltschi Humanitarian Award.
“The aviation community really connects on this, and they have been pretty aggressive in signing up,” noted VAC founder and former Army helicopter pilot Walter Fricke.
Formed in July 2005, VAC volunteer pilots and loaned aircraft reunite wounded servicemen and women with family members in an effort aimed at speeding their physical and mental recovery. Fricke, who was wounded in Vietnam, said he understands the impact such assistance can have on a soldier’s ability to heal.
“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.”
The honorary chairman of VAC’s National Advisory Board, Sen. Bob Dole, seconds that sentiment. “As a wounded war veteran, I know firsthand how important the support of your family is in your recovery,” Dole said in a statement issued by the organization. “For those soldiers and their families who sacrifice so much for our great nation, an organization like VAC is a Godsend.”
VAC flew its first mission last November, taking a wounded Marine home to Melbourne, Fla., after a Purple Heart ceremony in Jacksonville, N.C. The trip from Melbourne on an airline flight would have taken more than nine hours with layovers. The Marine’s father, hoping to spare his son the ordeal on the 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.
By the beginning of the year VAC had conducted about 35 missions. Now more than 230 aircraft and 300 pilots are in the volunteer network. The Walter Reed Army Medical Center makes at least one request for a VAC flight each day.
Cathy Blanchard, a social worker who recently arranged for a veteran’s wife and children to travel from Arizona to Washington state, where he was recuperating, called working with VAC “incredibly easy.”
In May, General Motors donated a Hummer H3 to the group for ground transportation between Walter Reed and other military healthcare facilities in the Washington area and local general aviation airports used for the charity flights.
VAC expects to provide at least 250 flights this year and will be capable of flying 1,000 missions next year. Most trips are 500 miles or less and the maximum distance VAC flies is about 800 miles. Eventually Fricke hopes to raise enough money to provide airline tickets for wounded veterans who need to travel greater distances.
A priority is given to flights for veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, but VAC (Booth No. 7986) plans to offer support for veterans of other conflicts as resources become available.