"Glamorous Gal," a P-51 Mustang.
"Glamorous Gal," a P-51 Mustang. Gemma Watters/NPR
"Panchito," a World War II-era B-25 bomber
"Panchito," a World War II-era B-25 bomber Gemma Watters/NPR
This week, Marine Sgt. Jason Grabill got the ride of a lifetime, in a vintage P-51 Mustang fighter. When the snub-nosed, jaunty plane rumbled to a stop on the tarmac of the Frederick Municipal Airport, about 50 miles north of Washington, D.C., Grabill got out whooping.
Grabill's ride was part of the Wounded Warrior Project, an organization that helps veterans who have suffered wounds in service recover their lives with workforce programs, education services, and — like today — some simple fun and entertainment.
Grabill was stationed at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. He still struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, bouts of alcoholism, depression and other afflictions. "Hasn't been easy, but you do what you have to do," Grabill says. "This was a good day."
And that’s why pilot Chris Baranaskas is with the Wounded Warrior Project — to "give these guys a day they can take their mind off of things, do something different, get out and enjoy it."
The small air corps on the airfield is composed of both modern and vintage aircraft, including a World War II-era B-25 bomber that's been named "Panchito" and that P-51 Mustang. It’s got "Glamorous Gal" airbrushed just behind the prop.
Army Maj. Lisa Marie Maddox, who has had multiple knee surgeries, got a ride in a '60s-era vintage Paris jet. "It’s kind of a dream," she says. "I've kind of always wanted to fly in a jet like this, so that's an amazing thing to be able to do. Just being up in the air is kind of liberating."
Sgt. David Hatmaker served in both Afghanistan and Iraq before the vehicle in which he was riding ran over an improvised explosive device. "My vehicle rolled over and I got my ankle halfway taken off."
"I was one of the lucky ones that made it out of the vehicle," he says. "The other guys didn't, and I've been dealing with that ever since."
But being airborne for just a while feels good, he says. "Put a big old smile on my face from ear to ear. The best part about it was when he was pulling about 6 G's. Face felt like Play-Doh."
Brothers That Just Met
The IED that blew up Neil Duncan's vehicle in Afghanistan in December of 2005 broke his jaw, shattered many of his teeth, and sheared off both of his legs. As he sits at the edge of the tarmac looking at the sleek planes, his khaki shorts reveal artificial limbs that end in sneakers.
"Being independent's important," Duncan says. "That independence is gained by a lot of work, and a lot of rehab, and a lot of opportunity. I'd be nowhere without opportunity, and the Wounded Warrior Project has provided that for me."
The project helped Duncan learn to ski again, go hiking, and even climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
But while it helps give wounded vets the strength to stand on their own feet, the project offers a community for men and women who have shared life in the service — a community of people who share their struggles. Whether Army, Navy or Air Force, veterans become close across all lines of service. Duncan and Hatmaker just met, but they’ve already bonded.
"It's that brotherhood," Hatmaker says. "You can walk up, make a friend in the civilian world, forget his name and he'll forget your name. You go in the military and serve time with these guys — especially out in Iraq and Afghanistan — and you create a brotherhood and a friendship and a bond that stays with you for life."
An Unforgettable Flight
Dale Snodgrass is lithe and athletic, a silvery retired Navy pilot who could look like Tom Cruise's taller older brother. He’s a legend among airmen, and today he’s flying for the Wounded Warrior flight team. The project means a lot to him.
"I'm a veteran," he says. "The project is ... a way to give something back. To put a sparkle in their eye; to say, 'Wow, that was cool.' " He’s taking Duncan up in an MS-760 jet.
The two leave the cockpit canopy open as the jet springs to life. Ahead of them lumber an LS-39 Albatross jet and Panchito — that B-25 bomber — in line for takeoff.
They fly in formation, old and modern aircraft, retired and active service people. The planes are close enough for a frog to leap across their wings — if they weren't flying so high and fast. Panchito is a moving sight in the air. It's hard to believe that, not so long ago, 19- and 20-year-olds would crawl into a craft with such thick plating and glassy gun turrets that look like they could be shattered by a baseball bat.
Duncan looks above and below, snaps photos and shares stories with Snodgrass. The G-forces slam into them when he pops the plane skyward, leaving green fields far below. When Snodgrass brings the heavy jet in for a landing, his touch is so light and exacting, it has all the force of a feather-filled duvet plopping on a bed.
The Wounded Warrior Project's logo, on the tailfin of this plane, is a soldier carrying an injured comrade.
The Wounded Warrior Project's logo, on the tailfin of this plane, is a soldier carrying an injured comrade. Ned Wharton/NPR
Carrying Comrades Back
The day in the sky, of course, is just a way of opening a window of hope for vets in the Wounded Warrior Project. Spokesman John Sullivan hopes that the programs they have to assist veterans will drive down an alarming statistic. More than 300 service members committed suicide last year.
"If you look at our logo," Sullivan says, "it's the iconic image of a warrior carrying his comrade off the battlefield — and we selected that for a reason.
"We envision our organization being the warrior on the bottom at first — we're there to help them get back on their feet. But it's our mission to honor and empower wounded warriors and eventually, it's our vision that the warrior on top becomes the warrior on the bottom. That's what we hope to accomplish."