Choctaw Nation pilots Al Cherry and John Wesley greet their passengers and the VAC flight coordinator before take off. Pictured, from left, are Spec. Terry Ligman, Tanya Boulgakova, Cherry, Sgt. 1st Class John Faulkenberry, Mark Parker, Wesley, and Maria Miles, the flight coordinator from VAC.
Giving wings to wounded warriors
Choctaw Nation Flight Operations makes 24th volunteer flight by taking wounded service members to Bataan Memorial Death March
By LARISSA COPELAND
Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma
The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma has a philosophy of caring for military veterans, both Native and non-Native. This is accomplished in a variety of ways through numerous tribal departments by providing services and assistance, holding several annual events, giving out mementos to veterans and military members, and more. The list goes on.
More recently though, over the past two years the tribe’s Flight Operations department, which consists of three pilots, Al Cherry, John Wesley and Quentin McLarry, and two aircraft, has stepped in to do its part too.
The team provides an invaluable service to wounded service members and veterans by providing free air transportation for medical or other compassionate purposes. This is done through the Veterans Airlift Command, or VAC, which is a non-profit organization that arranges such flights through a network of volunteer pilots and aircraft.
“I read an article in an aviation magazine about the VAC,” says Cherry, who is also director of flight ops at Choctaw Nation. “I thought it would be a good way for us to show our support for the troops.”
His fellow pilots agreed and are proud to be a part of the program. “These men and women have sacrificed their lives for our country,” says Wesley, “and have paid a heavy price with their injuries. Flying for the VAC is something we can do for them to let them know that we appreciate their service.”
To date, the flight team has made 24 of these volunteer flights, with 116 flight hours and more than 36,000 miles covered in support of the VAC.
“In addition to our primary passenger on each flight,” Cherry adds, “we have flown 36 additional passengers, most being family members riding with the veteran.”
The latest trip they’ve flown was made on March 23 to transport a group of wounded warriors from Fort Sam Houston, Texas, to Las Cruces, N.M., for the annual Bataan Memorial Death March.
A total of 17 wounded soldiers, physical therapists, case workers and support staff were flown by volunteer pilots, including Cherry and Wesley in this case, on four aircraft to take part in the 26.2-mile march honoring the military heroes who suffered through the 80-mile march on the Philippine Islands during World War II.
“This is our first time being part of something this big, with this many people and the other planes involved,” said Cherry. “This one was significant, both in numbers and because of the event (the Bataan Memorial Death March).”
Passengers on the Choctaw flight were two of the wounded soldiers, Sgt. 1st Class John Faulkenberry and Spc. Terry Ligman, along with physical therapist Mark Parker and Tanya Boulgakova, a case manager at the Center for the Intrepid, or CFI.
All the soldiers making this particular voyage are receiving treatment for their injuries at CFI, a branch of the Brooks Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston. CFI provides rehabilitation to those who have sustained amputations, burns, or functional limb loss in combat during Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom. Both Faulkenberry and Ligman have undergone below-the-knee amputations and have been fitted with prosthetic limbs.
In 2007, Faulkenberry, a 29-year-old former Army Ranger from Midland, Texas, was on his third combat tour, having deployed twice to Iraq before going to Afghanistan. It was there, in Northern Afghanistan while his platoon was assisting fellow soldiers who were greatly outnumbered by enemy forces, that he was shot by machine gun fire several times in his right thigh during the fierce firefight.
Faulkenberry lost two friends in that battle.
“We’d been in country about three months when it happened,” he says. “We got a call [on the radio] that another platoon had been ambushed and mine responded. I was shot in my upper leg and twice below the knee. I lost a lot of muscle in my thigh because of it, so, even though I have the same below-the-knee amputation as some guys, I don’t have the same leg strength because I have less muscle mass here,” he says, pointing to his right thigh.
After an unsuccessful three-year effort to salvage the limb, he ultimately chose to have the lower part of his leg amputated in 2010.
“I’ve gone on a VAC flight once before this to do research before I decided to have my amputation,” says Faulkenberry, who had already undergone dozens of surgeries and would most likely have had ongoing pain and a limp for life had he not had the operation. “We tried for a long time on my ‘limb salvage,’ not quite as long as him though,” he says, gesturing towards Ligman.
“Four years,” Ligman responded, referring to his long struggle to save his leg. After an IED blast in Iraq, Ligman, a 28-year-old tanker originally from Fort Gibson, Okla., was left enduring a painful fight to save his seriously injured foot and leg.
“It was my first deployment in 2007,” he says, “and we’d only been there for about a month when it happened. My tank hit a roadside bomb and my left foot got crushed in the explosion,” he says.
He, like Faulkenberry, initially tried “limb salvage” by undergoing numerous surgeries, painful recovery and therapy over a span of years, but eventually he had his leg amputated below the knee in late 2011.
“I had a lot of pain,” said Ligman, “not anymore though, since the amputation.” Both Faulkenberry and Ligman have chosen to medically retire from the military because of their injuries. “Mine was official on March 20th,” says Faulkenberry. Ligman’s medical retirement is still in the works.
Their injuries have not slowed them down though. This year’s Bataan march was a first for both men, who prepared by doing weekly marches and walks with their physical therapists.
The march is a challenge that Parker says is an important step in the injured soldiers’ rehabilitation.
“We want to help make things easier for them but not too easy because this is life,” says Parker, a six-time “Bataan” participant. “Even with their injuries, these guys just keep pushing and pushing, and it’s a huge morale boost for them to make it the entire 26.2 miles in the sand. They don’t give up and there’s no greater satisfaction seeing that.”
According to Ligman, he knew it wouldn’t be an easy task but he wasn’t deterred. “I signed up for the challenge,” he says, “to make it to the end.”
Boulgakova, who was making the march for the first time, says that a special kinship is formed between the caseworkers and physical therapists and the wounded warriors by participating in the march with them. “A bond is created by going through this together,” she says. “We want them all to finish and we’re here to assist them as needed. We don’t do this for our time on the march, we do it to support them.”
Parker states that the flights like the one provided by the Choctaw Nation through the VAC make this undertaking – successfully completing the march – more attainable for these soldiers.
“The flights are such a huge convenience for us,” says Parker. “It makes it easier for us all to get here and for these guys to accomplish their mission. They can focus on the march and not worry about the travel to get here. Being able to just walk out and get on the plane and not have to go through all the normal security procedures is so very helpful. This is a luxury.”
Security procedures at airports, though necessary and mostly just time-consuming to most travelers, prove to be an even more uncomfortable aspect of travel for those wearing prosthetics.
“This is much more convenient [than commercial travel] for us,” adds Ligman, who was on his second VAC flight. “Going through security and having to take off your leg to go through the metal detectors. Or other times we have to go to a separate room to be wanded…” he said, trailing off. “I enjoyed this flight today. It was comfortable and just really nice.”
Parker explains it further, having worked with many wounded warriors through the years, “These guys are dealing with a lot of emotional stuff during their recovery. Having to go through airport security, having to remove their prosthesis to go through the metal detectors and X-rays…it’s not that they forget, but it throws it back into their faces that, ‘hey, I’ve lost my leg,’ or their arm or whatever the case may be. [Security procedures at the airports] are just the way of the world today and we understand that. But by having these flights available, it’s just so helpful and we’re very grateful. It’s all about taking care of our wounded veterans.”
“[The flight] is such a wonderful thing,” adds Boulgakova, “so special and so appreciated. None of these warriors take it for granted.”
“The support we get is amazing,” says Faulkenberry. “I can’t say enough about it.” And those being flown aren’t the only ones who take something away from this flight program…the pilots are just as affected by the experience and feel it’s just a small way to show gratitude for their special passengers’ service.
“Seeing these soldiers and hearing their stories about the hassle and sometimes embarrassment they go through with airline travel makes me proud to be able to help them,” says Wesley.
Cherry agrees with that point of view. “It is a very awe-inspiring time for me,” he adds. “These young men and women have given so much of their time and effort, and it has cost them physically, mentally and emotionally; yet they still maintain a very positive attitude and many are still involved in helping others. I don’t think we can do enough to show them how grateful and appreciative we are.”
Cherry says Chief Pyle and Assistant Chief Batton are both very supportive of the flights, allowing the flight team freedom to schedule the trips when and where their schedule allows. Another wounded warrior flight is already on the books for this month, and according to Cherry, there’s “more to come.”
Volunteer pilots, including those from Choctaw Nation, flew 17 wounded soldiers, physical therapists, case workers and support staff, from Fort Sam Houston, Texas, on four aircraft to Las Cruces, N.M., take part in the Bataan Memorial Death March. The flight was organized by Veterans Airlift Command and was the 24th volunteer flight made by the Choctaw Nation Flight Operations.