For “The Right Reason”: Taking care of our Wounded Troops.
Have you ever had an experience where you are so overwhelmed, that you were at a loss for words? Mind you this is pretty difficult for a pilot, but it happened this weekend in Vegas where they held the fifth annual “Tribute to the troops” get together.
American Airlines partnered in conjunction with the Sands Corporation, the USO, Fort Worth Air Power Council, Clint Black, Gary Sinise, Terry Fator, the VFW, NCOA, The Mirage, Red Rock Helicopters and a whole host of others I don’t know about to put this together. Mind you, there isn’t much publicity about this function except for a rather small press release from American Airlines and I was curious about why there was not more? Jim Palmersheim, an Army Veteran, explained American’s stance on the subject as we talked in the Vegas airport, and he explained that the company was doing this for the “Right Reasons,” paying back and giving tribute to our wounded troops and veterans from WWII on and not for the publicity which he could care less about. Jim is a humble guy who has given his soul to start this office up within American Airlines, and I would venture to bet that he spends 18 hours daily on the job making calls and bringing new folks into the group for the next big adventure. Like any great leader, he is assisted by a strong team, Toni, Judy, Tonya, Rachel, and Steve who make all the behind the scenes seamless.
Jim is the catalyst that binds all the different events together (SkyBall, Tribute to the Troops, SnowBall Express, and Honor Flights just to name a few), and when he met Mr. Sheldon Adelson and his beautiful wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, he knew he had a winner for the “Tribute to the Troops” function. Mr. Adelson, a veteran from Korea and owner of the Sands Corporation decided that it was his time to step up, and take care of our troops who have made the choice to defend our country and the freedom this gives us. He began flying wounded troops from Walter Reed Hospital in D.C. five years on his private fleet of jets to Vegas to live a dream weekend. He told us that the hotel caters to the richest of the rich, and he only wanted our guys to feel like high rollers for the weekend. We all stayed in the most incredible suites, overlooking the Venetian. He truly succeeded in making our veterans feel like billionaires (four days at no cost)!
Ok, that is all background on the events. Really, I could write a feature article on the subject and do it no justice because it included so much; private concerts, shows, picnics, helicopter tours, dinners, etc. Instead, I am going to talk about some of the guys and gals I met, and how they have CHANGED my life.
As a Marine reservist, I have served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have seen the effects of our enemy’s attacks on the Marines and Soldiers there. You always have the attitude that it will happen to “The Other Guy” and not to you. I say this because it’s one of the mental challenges you must overcome, or you would never leave the base. When it does happen to the other guy, a close friend, then it starts to eat at you a little bit so you try to block it out of your mind. Well, on this trip, you got to see “The Other Guy” and how he is coping with his injuries and adjusting to daily life which seldom happens, because they end up moving back to their home towns across America.
Right off the bat, I meet Capt Kevin Lombardo USAF, who was assisting one of his men, a Soldier named Sgt. Joel Tavera, USA, along with his folks and Shari Jenson from the USO. Joel is blind, missing a large chunk of his skull and a shell of the handsome soldier he used to be. He is funny as hell with a wicked dry sense of humor, and self depreciation that makes his personality really shine, so that you see the inner beauty of a human being and not the shell so many tend to focus on. His dad, Jose, a former Marine, wanted him to join the Corps, but Joel said, “No way! Join the Corps and it would be my luck I’d get stationed at Cherry Point and living next door to the folks. I wanted to get out of N.C.” So, he joined the Army. Joel and Kevin’s lives were both changed one day in Iraq when a RPG blew up Joel’s vehicle right next to the base. Captain Lombardo is very modest about helping save Joel’s life, and there is a brotherly bond between them, which exudes the compassion and caring that an officer has for his enlisted, but goes FAR beyond the call of duty. They are in it together, both recouping from the war and helping one another along. Their story doesn’t happen often, different services being reunited after returning from the war under such circumstances, but they made it work.
Then you have Corporal Todd Nicely, USMC, and his wife, Crystal, who were sitting with me one day for lunch. Todd was hit March 10th in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, while leading his patrol on a daily mission. The Washington Post did a nice piece on his experience for Veteran’s Day. He has no arms or legs, but you would never know that from his recovery and watching him interact with people. He is fresh from rehab and still working on his abilities. Todd has a fire in his eye; I would say his mobility will be night and day a year from now. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him running in the NY marathon. During the private concert with Gary Sinise and the “Lt. Dan Band,” Todd and his wife got up in the front row and started to slow dance. His wife Crystal is the epitome of “Rock Solid” and as a former Marine, tough as nails like her husband, but always displaying a beautiful smile to everyone. You can see the love between them, and the devotion a man needs in tough times to make it through. This whole hearted devotion was supplied by her and all the other spouses who I met during the weekend. All truly beautiful, and angels to boot!!
Sgt First Class, Dana Bowman, who lost both his legs while skydiving on the Army’s Parachute team, “Golden Knights,” gave a presentation that everyone should hear. Here is man who didn’t let this horrible tragedy overcome his life, and has become a beacon to others like him. Dana asked Todd to come front and center to receive one of his coins along with a promise to take both Todd and Crystal tandem sky diving soon. He visits our wounded around the country, donating his time to their recovery. Truly a great American! You know it’s hard to complain about anything in life when you are seated next to a young man like Todd and inundated by his perseverance and his will to live that would crush the average person.
Another couple I was able to spend time with was Patrick Zeigler and his fiancée, Jessica, from Fort Hood. Patrick was shot by that traitor who I can’t even bring myself to name last year. He is in a wheelchair, and slowly recovering with the help of Jessica, another angel. Here is a man who has survived multiple combat tours only to be attacked at home by a fellow soldier. I am going to get him hooked up with my old squadron mate, Randy Norfleet, who survived the Oklahoma City bombing, and went through the same issues after a domestic terrorist attack. Patrick and Jessica will be married next year, and I can tell you that he will overcome his wounds and couldn’t have found a better woman to assist him in life.
There were many more stories from the men and women I was fortunate enough to meet this weekend, but how do you put that on paper? If anything, I learned that the indomitable human spirit and Esprit De Corps displayed this weekend gives me a renewed outlook on life, and that there is nothing in this life that can not be overcome. It also renewed my faith in my fellow countrymen who refuse let these men and women who have served our country fall into the cracks of obscurity. They range from some of the most successful business men in the world like Mr. Adelson, to actors including Gary Sinise, who performs over 40 concerts a year for our troops and visits them in harms way via the USO, or Clint Black giving a private concerts for our guys to performing artists including Terry Fator, who donates all of his merchandise proceeds to our troops. They are also volunteers at a company like American, where the mechanics, rampers, flight attendants and pilots give up their free time along with everyday citizens and organizations like the USO, Soldiers Angels, among the many support groups that serve our military in uniform daily. They all believe in doing this for the “Right Reason,” our Troops. God bless them all.