He Unites Soldiers and Their Loved Ones
Walt Fricke, 61
Spc. David Silva knew he was lucky to be alive. The bomb that hit his tank in the Logar province of Afghanistan left a smoking 20-ft. crater in the ground. He was flown to a military hospital in Fort Bragg, N.C., for two months of surgeries and physical therapy on his back, leg and shoulder. He was grateful, yes, “but really lonely and depressed.” He hadn’t seen his wife, Jessica, and children since his Army unit deployed eight months earlier. When she heard David, 41, had been wounded, Jessica, 38, says, “We fell apart here.” At home in Somerville, Mass., with their three teens, she was desperate to go to him but says, “I just took on a promotion, and my mom is ill. I couldn’t leave.” Even when David had healed enough to visit, they couldn’t afford the trip.
Walt Fricke understood the Silvas’ situation. As a 19-year-old pilot in the Vietnam War, he nearly lost his left foot when one of his helicopter rockets misfired. He spent seven months in a Kentucky military hospital 500 miles from his fiancée and family. “I wasn’t doing well,” he says. But after his parents and fiancée eventually came in from Traverse City, Mich., “I started to get better,” says Walt, now 61.
The memory of those days gave him the idea for Veterans Airlift Command (veteransairlift.org), a nonprofit organization he founded in November 2006 after retiring from a successful banking career. Since then VAC has provided flights to reunite 1,800 injured servicemen and women with their loved ones. “These guys are heroes,” says Walt. “We’re going to do everything we can to get them home so they can heal.” With his daughter Jen Salvati, 36, he now coordinates more than seven flights a week.
When Jessica learned of VAC, she couldn’t believe it. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me? Do you know how many families out there really need this?'”
On Nov. 3 David boards a 4-seater private plane flown by Alex Wolf, one of VAC’s network of 1,400 volunteer pilots and aircraft owners. Many of the executives Walt contacted to request the use of their planes ask if they can ride along with the veterans. “They see it more as an honor than a charity,” notes Walt. Says Alex, 29, a New York City-based contractor who absorbed the $2,000 in costs incurred in flying David home, “I just want to help anyway I can. I know the sacrifices these guys have made.”
The tiny plane touches down at Hanscom Airforce base outside Boston and, after a 30 minute drive, the normally reserved David cheers, “I’m home! I’m home!” On the porch to meet him are Jessica and kids Amanda, 19, Sarah, 17, and David, 12. He’ll have a 19-day leave to tend the wounds only loved ones can heal. “After all the stuff I’ve been through, I can’t believe I’m back home.”
The couple, who started dating when Jessica was 14, waste no time catching up. “We’re going to cram in as much as we can, all the things families do together,” she says. “Watching movies and just having him with us at breakfast—things we miss so much.” Sarah, who got her driver’s license while David was away, demonstrates her driving for him. Later they shop together for a used car. His son shows off newly honed skateboard tricks. “We’re very close,” says David. Even a world away, “I’m Dad.” Adds Sarah: “I just want him to come home forever.”
But soon Alex comes to fly David back to Fort Bragg, where he’ll stay for a few months until he returns to his home base at Fort Drum, N.Y. And if his doctors permit, he hopes to eventually head back to Afghanistan. David looks back on his trip home with gratitude. “Walt and Alex really came through for me,” he says. “After a combat zone, I don’t feel safe unless I’m with my unit or my family.”
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