VAC: A Mission with Heart
by Dianne White
For an injured soldier, what does it take to start healing? For many, medicine’s most talented doctors and latest technology isn’t enough. Oftentimes, all it takes for a wounded soldier to begin their journey to health is to connect with those who love them. Veterans Airlift Command was founded on that premise, and the very personal experience of its founder Walt Fricke.
Veterans Airlift Command is a network of private aircraft owners who provide free transportation to wounded soldiers and veterans for medical and compassionate purposes. The majority of the beneficiaries are veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. For soldiers facing extensive rehabilitation requiring lengthy hospital stays, they spend months in isolation from friends and family. The military does not cover transportation costs for visits home, nor for family to travel to the hospital.
In addition, airline travel is extremely difficult or in some cases impossible for wounded soldiers. Simply getting through airport TSA security and then down the typical airliner aisle can be traumatic both physically and mentally. For some, the risk of infection or the painful nature of their injury can negate airline travel. VAC provides a safe, comfortable and honorable mode of transportation.
A decorated Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam, Fricke had more than 800 hours of combat flying before being injured by a rocket misfire in 1968. He was medevac’d back to the United States, where he spent six months in a hospital 700 miles away from his family and friends. It was only after his family pooled their resources to visit him that he actually began to improve.
“Laying in the hospital, I felt hopeless and was anxious about how my family was going to receive me with my injuries. When they arrived, I realized in their eyes that I hadn’t changed and that I was okay. That’s when I began to heal,” Fricke said. “Veterans Airlift Command was born out of that experience. There are kids recovering at medical facilities and hospitals all across the country and far from home and their families.”
In 2006, after retiring from a successful business career, Fricke put his piloting skills and desire to help to work. “I had my own airplane and initially planned to go over to the VA hospital to find guys who needed rides home. My goal was to fly a couple of missions a week,” Fricke recalled. “Six months later, I invested in a technology platform for scheduling and recruiting pilots nationwide. By November of 2006, Veterans Airlift Command flew its first mission. That’s when we started our recruiting efforts in earnest. Early on, I saw that pilots had a visceral reaction to the mission. So when you tell someone about it, they want to do it,” Fricke added.”
As the only national nonprofit flight organization, VAC can coordinate missions coast to coast. Fricke said the organization will be around as long as there is a need.
“This thing is much bigger than me now, he said. “It isn’t the ride in the private jet that matters so much. It is the idea that, this is how much we think of you guys. We want to honor your service and sacrifice in a big way: we will transport you in comfort and deliver you into the arms of those who love you.”