By Wally Kennedy and Andy Ostmeyer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
TAMKO Building Products’ corporate pilots spend most of their time shuttling executives to and from job sites and business meetings, but when possible, they also fly wounded veterans and their families across the country as volunteers for the Veterans Airlift Command.
TAMKO pilots recently flew U.S. Army Spc. Eric Lund between Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, and Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where Lund said he has been meeting with an arm transplant team.
On May 20, 2012, Lund’s vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. He was one of 10 members of the Michigan Army National Guard injured in the attack. Lund lost both arms above the elbow, suffered a fractured hip, femur and vertebrae, and underwent facial reconstruction. Four other soldiers in his unit also suffered serious injuries.
Lund, speaking by telephone last week from his home in Ludington, Mich., said such flights are “very important” to veterans and their families.
In his case, he said prosthetic limbs make it difficult to fly commercially.
“Pulling out my ID all the time, checking tickets, checking bags ... it’s really hard,” said the 30-year-old veteran.
But with private planes, there is less waiting, fewer delays and hassles, and it is easier to accommodate veterans by removing plane seats, for example.
The Veterans Airlift Command was founded in 2006 by Walt Fricke, who was wounded during the Vietnam War, to provide free transportation known as Hero Flights to wounded veterans and their loved ones. When wounded veterans or their family members have a travel need, the VAC sends out a request for open seats on private and corporate airplanes.
Many of the veterans have mobility issues and find commercial flights uncomfortable or impractical, Fricke said.
TAMKO’s first VAC flight was in May 2008 for Matthew Miles, 36, and his wife Maria, 35. Miles lost his left leg and suffered other severe injuries when his vehicle hit an IED in 2007 in Afghanistan.
Since then, the Joplin company has provided about a half-dozen Hero Flights, according to TAMKO officials.
David C. Humphreys, president and CEO of TAMKO, said in a statement: “TAMKO supports the Veterans Airlift Command to do our small part helping these men and women who were injured in service to our country. It is difficult for them to travel on commercial airlines and to be subjected to TSA patdowns. We’re trying to make their lives easier after all that they have done for us.”
Humphreys also noted that a number of combat veterans work at TAMKO.
Maria Miles said her mother came to stay with the children while she was at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C., with her husband. When it came time to return home, TAMKO provided a flight to a small airport in Manhattan, Kan., that was only 18 miles from the family’s home. The smaller airport and nearby location made it much easier than flying commercial into Kansas City International Airport.
“I can never repay what they did for us,” Maria Miles said. “It was amazing. I will always appreciate it.”
Five years later, she said her husband’s recovery is going well. She was so taken with the program that she stayed in touch with Fricke and his daughter, Jen Salvati, who also works for the Veterans Airlift Command as operations manager.
When they heard that Maria Miles was looking for a job, they set her up as a mission coordinator, a job she does from the family’s home in San Antonio.
The complications for veterans and their families when they travel are many, Maria Miles said. Some have external braces and other medical devices that are bulky. Others travel with intravenous equipment. Many times, because the veterans might be in a wheelchair or on crutches, they are unable to help carry luggage or push strollers.
She also said amputees — especially those in wheelchairs — are often targeted by screeners at commercial airports, and sometimes that can become invasive. That’s where the private flights come in so handy.
“America cares, and this is a real way of showing it,” Fricke added.
WALT FRICKE, founder of the Veterans Airlift Command, said the program so far has transported 7,500 passengers about 3.5 million miles. He said the group has 2,300 volunteer pilots and aircraft owners who offer their services.