Wounded veterans often live a long distance from the services they need to deal with their injuries. Travel on commercial airlines can be difficult for them. The Veterans Airlift Command, a non-profit organization, coordinates flights for veterans with pilots who offer their time, airplane and expenses. These flights occur throughout the United States and here in Florida.
On June 18, 2021, local Keys pilot Jabe Luttrell donated his time and airplane to accomplish two missions for Veterans Airlift Command. The first was for Army Staff Sgt. Jason Dodd, who served in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. He spent more than 11 years in the infantry, two years as a Ranger Instructor, and three years as a combat diving supervisor. Jason was medically retired as the result of his combat injuries and suffers from TBI, PTSD, and chronic pain in his back.
Dodd’s mission involved travel from Destin to Key Largo for a Wounded Warriors Scuba Dive at John Pennekamp State Park. He helped train a quadriplegic veteran and dove with him during the event. What was important to Dodds is that during a dive, the quadriplegic feels freer and less restricted.
Because Key Largo has no airport, Luttrell and Jenna Diebel of the Veterans Airlift Command coordinated with Erica Torres, the Ocean Reef Club airport manager, to use the private Ocean Reef Club airport as a convenient destination to minimize Dodds’ ground travel. The alternatives would have been long drives from Key West or Homestead. While many of us do make these long drives, the drive is particularly uncomfortable or even painful for someone living with war wounds. This coordination also allowed the pilot for the return trip, Lance Boxer, to land at Ocean Reef Club.
A second mission brought triple amputee Marine veteran Sgt. Carlos Evans from his home in the Orlando area to Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. In May 2010, Evans stepped on an IED, resulting in the loss of both legs and his left arm. This tour was his fourth and final deployment. Evans spent two years at Walter Reed Medical Center and now lives in Florida with his wife and two daughters.
This second mission consisted of two flights, reducing the cost burden for each pilot. Maria Miles of the Veterans Airlift Command coordinated the two-leg mission. The first flight leg, flown by Luttrell, was from Orlando to Mount Pleasant; the second, from Mount Pleasant to Manassas, Virginia, was flown by Chris DiPaola. Returning to Walter Reed will allow Evans to continue months of physical therapy to integrate new prosthetic legs with the remaining portions of his femurs.
These are just two of the many Veterans Airlift Command flights that occur every day. There are typically 60 missions to accomplish at any given time. The flights occur throughout the United States and are conducted completely by general aviation volunteer pilots. To date, more than 1,018 pilots have contributed more than 6,130 flights. About one third of the pilots (345) have just begun completing missions, while a few have completed more than 100 missions.
The Veterans Airlift Command is a non-profit organization. More information is at www.VeteransAirlift.org. Non-pilots can also help these missions by donating to the Veterans Airlift Command and by informing pilots who may not be aware of Veterans Airlift Command and who might want to participate in these missions.