As the war in Iraq comes to an official close and troops begin to withdraw from Afghanistan, veterans of those conflicts are coming home to a world that sometimes seems as though it’s not quite ready to accommodate them. There are the big problems (unemployment, undiagnosed brain trauma). But then there are the little things – like flying home for Christmas.
Consider Sargent Michael Frazier. After three tours in Iraq, he was deployed to Afghanistan with the Marines. While out on patrol, Frazier stepped on a pressure plate IED. No one else was injured, but Frazier lost both legs and much of the use of his right arm. He spent his first night back in the U.S. intubated and being prepped for intense surgery; drawn in by his blue eyes, Navy corpsman Monica Montes stayed up with him all night and went with him into the operating room the next day. After they got engaged a few weeks ago, the couple started making plans to spend the holidays with Montes’s family in Miami. Frazier was eager (and maybe a little apprehensive) to meet his future father-in-law for the first time. But Montes and Frazier had larger worries than awkward silences at family dinners: namely, how would they get from Walter Reed National Military Center in Bethesda (where Frazier is undergoing rehabilitation) to Montes’s family home in Miami?
These days, air travel isn’t easy for anyone. That’s even more true for Frazier and his fellow wounded warriors, many of whom have injuries that make commercial air travel range from grueling to downright impossible. That’s where Veterans Airlift comes in. The organization links wounded vets (and their families and friends) with a national network of volunteer pilots and plane-owners. When a combat veteran needs to go somewhere – say, to Miami to meet his future in-laws – an alert gets sent out on the Veterans Airlift email list. A pilot on the list who has plans to fly on a day and a route that matches the vet’s needs will volunteer to take the mission. The wounded warrior gets a ride in a private jet without having to worry about switching flights, cramped middle seats, and nightmarish transportation scenarios. Oh, and the flight is free.
On a recent morning, Frazier and his fiancee, Monica Montes, joined Glyndon residents Stephanie and Edwin Greenberg before the two-hour flight to Florida. The Greenbergs are accomplished pilots and have flown five previous missions with the organization. “[Veterans Airlift] is one of those miracles of the internet,” says Stephanie Greenberg. “It pairs a need with a desire to help.” These days, the 2,000 pilots who make up Veterans Airlift’s volunteer force are so eager to help that requests like Frazier’s get snapped up right away, and it’s easy to see why – the goodwill in the room is palpable. It’s as if no one in the room can stop grinning.
Stephanie Greenberg credits Walt Fricke, the Vietnam vet who founded the organization, with understanding just how crucial it is for wounded vets to be able to see family and friends. In its five years of operations, Veterans Airlift has flown more than 4,700 wounded warriors. Most missions are like the one the Greenbergs are flying with Frazier – taking a warrior to see far-flung family. Others have a more light-hearted intent; last year, the Greenbergs helped two Marines get to Miami so they could hang out with friends.
Spending time with wounded warriors has allowed Stephanie Greenberg to “see the untold cost that war has taken on these young people and their families,” she says. “And for the duration of a flight, we’re able to honor them. And it’s a great honor for us – very gratifying and humbling.” For their part, Frazier and Montes seemed excited to bask in their first jaunt on a private jet; they’d brought cupcakes to share, and looked forward to hanging out with the Greenbergs’s dalmatians, which were along for the flight as well.
Like many wounded warriors, Frazier resists attempts to paint him as a hero. “I was just doing my job,” he insists. And yet, that job changed his life irrevocably. We live in a world where, as Frazier notes, “a lot of people still don’t know that there’s a war going on in Afghanistan.” Frazier doesn’t have the luxury of that ignorance; and by connecting people like Frazier with people like the Greenbergs, Veterans Airlift helps make the world a bit easier for those who have given so much.