Quenton McLarry remembers the determined double amputee “who brought his own board.”
The legless Afghanistan war vet was wheeled to the steps of McLarry’s plane where he wedged the board between the steps and his chair. Then he scooted on his bottom up to the top of the steps, hoisted himself onto the plane’s floor, scooted again down the aisle, then pulled himself up onto the plane seat, and he was ready to go. And he wasn’t the only one.
McLarry, John Wesley and Al Cherry fly wounded vets all around the country as part of the Veterans Airlift Command. All three are full-time pilots for the Choctaw Nation in Durant, and Cherry is director of Choctaw flight operations. They fly the two Choctaw planes and the tribe covers all the costs of every mercy flight.
The VAC was founded in 2006 by Walter Fricke, a Vietnam war pilot who had suffered severe leg injuries when his helicopter was shot down. As he recovered he recognized a need for private transportation help for vets after they returned home. Now, about 2,500 private pilots each fly several missions a month to get vets where they need to go. Since the VAC program’s inception they have carried an estimated 5,700 veterans plus their friends and families.
They take wounded vets for medical treatments near or far, take family members with the wounded men and women if possible, or take the family separately. In a Daily Democrat interview, the three stressed their admiration for the people they call “the real heroes.” They downplay their contributions, but the countless letters and messages from those they and other pilots have helped make clear how important their work has been.
“The airlines have no compassion, no flexibility,” Cherry said. He cited a letter from the wife of a wounded vet who had a very difficult experience when he had to fly commercially for complicated treatment. He had lost both legs and his arms were badly wounded. She said he got little help getting through the airport and especially through security. For his next flight she contacted the VAC and was almost overwhelmed, she said, by the care and comfort he received. Not having to go through the customary long-lines security check was a particular relief.
Asked about other flights that stand out, besides the vet and his board, McLarry and Wesley described one they made to get a vet to his hometown of Mankato, Minn., where he had been a high school football star. The vet didn’t know the town was honoring him, and the pilots steered the plane around the stadium so he wouldn’t see the crowd until they landed. They then helped him out of the plane and into the stadium and the crowd response was terrific
They mentioned several other missions:
Flying in a grandmother to care for her grandchildren so the vet’s wife could be with her husband; flying a few hundred miles to pick up a service dog for a vet; flying in a legless vet who also had a head injury for a funeral for the grandmother who had helped raise him.
Cherry said he initially became interested in VAC when he saw an advertisement for it. The tribe signed on after he told Chief Gregory Pyle and others about it.
The VAC posts a listing of flights that are needed, including details of the horrors inflicted on the veterans. One posting was for an Army staff sergeant who lost all four limbs when he stepped on an IED. VAC volunteers flew him from the east coast to Dallas to spend time with his family. A Marine sergeant was maimed by a missile strike that broke his back and arm and sheared off part of his ear. A VAC pilot flew him home from the hospital with his newly acquired service dog
Another Army sergeant, a tank gunner, was injured when an IED struck her vehicle. She had been standing in the turret when the blast threw her back, causing hip, knee and facial injuries. She was flown from Walter Reed Hospital in Washington to Kansas “with her 50-pound service dog Daisy.”
Cherry, McLarry and Wesley have been flying for the tribe 12, eight and five years respectively. They began flying VAC missions in 2010 and have no intention of ever leaving the VAC program.