Flight Lifts Wounded Warriors From Private Battles "One day at a time" is a familiar phrase for veterans recovering from injuries sustained in the war zone. The Wounded Warrior Project is helping them cope by spending some of those days having fun.
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Flight Lifts Wounded Warriors From Private Battles

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Flight Lifts Wounded Warriors From Private Battles

Flight Lifts Wounded Warriors From Private Battles

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(Soundbite of airplane)

This week, Marine Sergeant 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 at the Frederick Municipal Airport, about 50 miles north of Washington, D.C., Sgt. Grabill told his pilot Chris Baranaskas...

Sergeant JASON GRABILL (Wounded Warrior Project): Oh, that was great.

Mr. CHRIS BARANASKAS (Pilot, Wounded Warrior Project): Good job.

Sgt. GRABILL: That was - thank you. Thank you.

Mr. BARANASKAS: My pleasure.

Sgt. GRABILL: That was too cool.

SIMON: Sgt. Grabill loves history and riding in that Mustang gave him a new appreciation for the young flyboys of World War II who dared the skies in those planes which now look so cramped and fragile.

Sgt. GRABILL: That seat isn't as good a cushion as you probably would find on your local Holiday Inn to lay your head on.

SIMON: Yeah.

Sgt. GRABILL: So for those guys to fly and fight for eight hours took an incredible amount of endurance and stamina.

SIMON: Sgt. Grabill is a wounded veteran. He was stationed at the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001, and still struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, after bouts of alcoholism, depression and other afflictions.

And it would be fair to say youve had some rough years.

Sgt. GRABILL: Yes sir. Hasn't been easy, but you do what you have to do. There's plenty guys out here that's done more than me.

SIMON: How are you doing now?

Sgt. GRABILL: Hanging in, every day, day-by-day. Now, this was a good day.

Mr. BARANASKAS: Well, that's why we're here to give these guys a day that they can take their minds off of things and do something different and get out and enjoy it.

Sgt. GRABILL: Yeah, it's a great day.

(Soundbite of airplanes)

SIMON: Sgt. Grabill got his ride as part of the Wounded Warrior Project, an organization that helps veterans who have suffered wounds in service pick up their lives with a range of programs, with some simple fun and entertainment like today.

A small air corps has gathered on the airfield, both modern and vintage aircraft, including a World War II-era B-25 bomber that's been named Panchito and that Mustang, with Glamorous Gal airbrushed just behind the prop.

We met three other warriors, including Army Major Lisa Maddox, whos had multiple knee surgeries and got a ride in a '60s vintage Paris jet.

Army Major LISA MARIE MADDOX (Wounded Warrior Project): Its kind of a dream. I mean, I've always wanted to fly in a jet like this, so that's an amazing thing to be able to do. And, you know, just being up in the air is kind of liberating. It's - with the skill of these pilots and everything you experience, this is - its pretty amazing.

SIMON: Sergeant David Hatmaker served in both Afghanistan and Iraq before the vehicle in which he was riding ran over an improvised explosive device.

Sergeant DAVID HATMAKER (Army, veteran; Wounded Warrior Project): Got hurt out on a convoy. Went out looking for IEDs, clearing the roads so other soldiers can come through without getting hurt, and we got hit. And my vehicle rolled over. I got my ankle halfway taken off. And I was one of the lucky ones that actually made it out of the vehicle. The other guys didnt, and I've been dealing with that ever since.

SIMON: How are you feeling now?

Sgt. HATMAKER: It feels good to come out and do something like this. It's nice to come out and be recognized for something that we did and, you know, be remembered for stuff that we did, not just for just being a soldier.

SIMON: Yeah. To what Ms. Maddox said, liberating to be up there?

Sgt. HATMAKER: Put a big old smile on my face from ear to ear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sgt. HATMAKER: The best part about it was when he was pulling - I think he said we pulled about 6 G's. Face felt like Play-Doh when he was doing, so everything was just dragging...

SIMON: Six Gs? Oh my gosh.

Sgt. HATMAKER: Yeah, he said about five or six, something like that.

SIMON: The IED that blew up Airborne Infantryman Neil Duncan's vehicle in Afghanistan in December 2005 broke his jaw, shattered many of his teeth, and sheared off both of his legs. As he sat on the grass at the edge of the tarmac looking at sleek planes in the sky, his khaki shorts reveal artificial limbs that let him stand and walk.

It's amazing to see you getting around. How does it feel?

Sergeant NEIL DUNCAN (Army, veteran; Wounded Warrior Project): Great. I think being independent is important and that independence is, you know, is gained by a lot of work and a lot of rehab and a lot of opportunity. You know, I'd be nowhere without opportunity. And it's - the Wounded Warrior Project has provided that for me. It's the same group of people that early on brought me out to learn to ski again, and then, you know, go hiking, and just - and do these different activities that, you know, Wounded Warrior...

SIMON: Youve gone to Mount Kilimanjaro, right?

Sgt. DUNCAN: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: While Wounded Warrior helps give wounded vets the strength to stand on their own two feet, it also surrounds men and women whove shared the closeness of life in the service a community of people to share their struggles. Army, Navy, Air Force veterans become close friends across all lines of service.

Sgt. DUNCAN: And we never met before today.

Sgt HATMAKER: It's that brotherhood that you feel that you get in the military feel amongst us now. I mean, you dont that in the civilian world. You know, you can walk up, make a friend, you know, 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 Afghan, and you create a brotherhood or friendship and a bond that stays with you for life.

SIMON: We got to take a ride too, and were privileged to fly with a distinguished pilot.

(Soundbite of movie, "Top Gun")

Mr. TOM CRUISE (Actor): (as Maverick) Ice, that bogey's still behind you. I'm maneuvering for a shot.

Mr. VAL KILMER (Actor): (as Iceman) Stay with them Mav. Stay with them.

SIMON: Not Tom Cruise, someone who actually knows how to fly a plane, the lithe, athletic, silver retired Navy pilot who could look like Tom Cruise's taller older brother and is a legend among airmen.

Captain DALE SNODGRASS (Ret. Navy; Wounded Warrior): Im Dale Snodgrass, retired Navy Captain, and I'm part of the Wounded Warrior flight team here and flying this MS-760 in support of the project.

SIMON: And have you met Tom Cruise?

Cpt. SNODGRASS: Actually I have, yeah. I didnt really get to be too involved with the movie "Top Gun" but I was the fighter pilot of the year that year, so it sort of became the - so youre the real guy kind of deal. So, anyway, it was fun.

SIMON: You are, the movie "Top Gun" aside, a legend in aviation circles.

Cpt. SNODGRASS: Thank you.

SIMON: What's this project mean to you?

Cpt. SNODGRASS: It means a lot because, A, I'm a veteran and I'm flying with -most of my friends that are flying with are all veterans. I'm an F-14 pilot. I have another Navy F-18 pilot, an F-16 pilot in the Air Force and an F-15. And then we have a young JO.

SIMON: Junior officer.

Cpt. SNODGRASS: Junior officer who is flying the Mustang. So we treat him he's the guy that has to go he's our designated driver, et cetera.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Cpt. SNODGRASS: No, not really. But, I mean, he takes care of us, so we have a good time.

But the project itself is something that - we all had successful military careers and we weren't hurt, but it's a way to sort of give back and put a sparkle in some of these wounded warriors' eyes. That's really what it's about is put a smile and a sparkle in their eye and give them a tremendous visceral experience that hopefully will, you know, keep them, something they'll always look back and go, wow, that was cool.

SIMON: We're supposed to fly with you, you know. What are you going to do?

Cpt. SNODGRASS: We're going to be in a six-ship flight.

SIMON: Yeah.

Cpt. SNODGRASS: We're going to be flying in close formation with the B-25. The B-25 is going to take off, then the Mustang will take off, then we'll do a formation take off with Jerry Kerby, my wingman. You're going to be flying next to airplanes that are about as close as we are right now.

(Soundbite of plane)

SIMON: Forgive me, you're going to have to beep this, that sounds fan-(beep)-tastic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Cpt. SNODGRASS: So we're going to do that.

(Soundbite of jet)

SIMON: By the way, the flying name that Captain Snodgrass' fellow pilots hung on him during training is Snort. I can't really tell you why.

You're hearing the wine of an MS-760 Paris jet as it comes alive. Canopy open, wind blowing back from an albatross bomber in the lumbering B-25 ahead of us in line for takeoff.

Unidentified Man: Okay, all aircraft are ready to go.

SIMON: We 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 we weren't flying so high and fast. Panchito, the old bomber, is a moving sight in the air. Hard to believe that not so long ago, 19 and 20-year-olds would crawl into a craft with such a thin skin and glassy gun turrets that look like they could be shattered by a baseball bat. We peel off.

(Soundbite of jet)

Cpt. SNODGRASS: Mustang 4, I'm going to take a spin to the right and try to get back behind Panchito.

Unidentified Man: Roger.

SIMON: Neil Duncan looks above and below and snaps and shares stories with Snort. He pulls our jet up toward the clouds and rolls our plane over toward the right. We feel the force of several Gs against our bodies while our eyes fill with amazing sights of the blue sky and green fields all around. When Captain Snodgrass brings our heavy jet in for a landing, his touch is so light and exacting as all the force of a feather duvet flopping on a bed.

(Soundbite of jet)

SIMON: You can put this plane down like you're kissing a baby.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: The day in the sky, of course, is just a way of opening a window of hope for vets in the Wounded Warrior program. Spokesman John Sullivan hopes that the programs they have to assist veterans will drive down an alarming statistic. Over 300 service members committed suicide last year.

Mr. JOHN SULLIVAN (Spokesman, Wounded Warrior Project): That's extraordinary.

SIMON: So an event like this can help put people in touch with each other.

Mr. SULLIVAN: Absolutely. And that's a big part of Wounded Warrior Project. If you look at our logo, it's the iconic battlefield image of a warrior carrying his comrade off the battlefield. We envision Wounded Warrior Project, our organization being the warrior on the bottom at first. When a warrior first gets injured, 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 and that's what we hope to accomplish.

(Soundbite of airplane)

SIMON: Our piece on the Wounded Warrior Project was produced by Ned Wharton and Gemma Watters with help from Jonathan Rappaport. You can see pictures of the vets in the vintage aircraft on our website, NPR.org.

And, tomorrow, on NPR's WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY, listen for a profile of Captain Juan Guerrero competing for the decathlon in this weekend's Warrior Games for wounded service members in Colorado Springs.

You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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