Inside Veterans Airlift Command

In his PJTV report on Walt Fricke, Bill Whittle invites viewers to take a ride with volunteers from the Veterans Airlift Command. Fricke founded the VAC; the VAC provides free air transportation to wounded warriors, veterans and their families for medical and other compassionate purposes through a national network of volunteer aircraft owners and pilots. Whittle is a brilliant reporter; he gets right to the heart of VAC’s mission in this excellent report.
Fricke is a retired GMAC residential mortgage lending executive who founded VAC in his retirement. He served as a combat helicopter pilot in Vietnam until he was severely injured in action working on his day off. He fought to save a leg that was about to be amputated below the knee. When he was returned to the United States for treatment, he was hospitalized for a month before his family was able to visit him at Fort Knox. He has obviously thought long and hard about his return and recuperation in the context of the wars in which we are still engaged.
Whittle followed up his report on the VAC with a second PJTV report that he calls “A tale of two Americas.” Here he retraces the story of the VAC, this time broadening the focus before homing in on Mike Schlitz on board one of the VAC flights.
Whittle makes brilliantly clear that Mike has given something beyond the last full measure of devotion. In his closing remarks, Whittle chokes up several times while commenting on the significance of the story he has to tell in his report. It’s powerful stuff.
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In the second of these two videos (above), Fricke makes a fleeting reference to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Minneapolis, located a few miles from where I live. Is it possible, I wondered, that VAC is based in the Twin Cities? It turns out that Fricke is a Michigan native and a Minnesota resident; VAC’s office is located in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.
Calling Fricke to arrange a meeting, I caught up with him in the Finger Lakes region of northern New York. Fricke mentioned that the VAC is busy; last month it flew 150 missions for wounded warriors.
On Monday this week I met with Fricke in his modest St. Louis Park office, located in a building just outside downtown Minneapolis. Spending the better part of the morning with him, I found his office to be disarmingly simple. He runs the operation on a shoestring essentially online via email and a software platform that he had specially created to suit the organization’s needs. He said the software helps him and his daughter coordinate the efforts of the aircraft owners and pilots who contribute their services.
I asked Fricke about the need for the services provided by Veterans Airlift Command. He said that VAC had flown 390 passengers this year to date, while it has flown 983 passengers in the past 12 months.
He concentrated his remarks on the severely wounded warriors such as Mike Schlitz, for whom commercial airline service is a burden. Were it not for VAC, Schlitz probably would not have been reunited with his unit when it returned from combat — an especially important event allowing wounded warriors to close a loop with their fellow soldiers.
Schlitz had just made it out of intensive care when he called VAC and asked for help getting to the return of his 10th Mountain Division unit. Schlitz’s mother and brother had been invited to the unit’s return. Schlitz’s needs were such that it was thought he could not attend. Through the efforts of VAC contributor Phil Tholen of Tulsa, depicted in Whittle’s video, Schlitz was able to attend his unit’s return to the United States. Visiting Schlitz in Texas after the reunion, Schlitz told Fricke: “You saved my life.”
Fricke added that the VAC seeks to honor those whom it serves. “This is payback, not charity,” he explained. His motto is: “We’re long on compassion and short on red tape.” People magazine captured the essence of the VAC mission in a good profile of Fricke and the organization this past January. The organization also has a good site and companion VAC blog. The site includes endorsements from General Myers and Bob Dole as well as a statement of mission priorities.
Among other things, we also talked about fundraising issues. He said that he had started the VAC with a substantial contribution of his own funds, but that he sought support to make the VAC self-sustaining. It needs about $350,000 a year to operate fully staffed (with a staff of three, including himself) at its current levels. Last year was the first it broke even with the help of contributions. Please consider contributing here.

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