Reporting John Lauritsen
ST. LOUIS PARK, Minn. (WCCO) — It was the lack of a homecoming that Walt Fricke remembers most about his return home from Vietnam.
A helicopter pilot during the war, he was badly wounded and sent back to the U.S. to a hospital in Kentucky. It was still far away from his family in Michigan and there was very little support around him.
“I’m in a hospital 700 miles away from home. I’m not sure that I will be able to save my leg or be able to walk again,” said Fricke.
It was an experience that lives with Fricke and one he wouldn’t wish on anyone. So when he retired he decided to do something about it.
“I’m seeing guys like John Kriesel who lost both legs in Iraq. And I’m thinking, ‘I can help. I can help,’” said Fricke.
Fricke decided to create the Veterans Airlift Command. The way it works is simple. More than 2,000 volunteer pilots across the U.S. provide front door service and free flights home to veterans recovering at Walter Reed and other hospitals. No charge and no questions asked.
Fricke said the initiative is high on compassion and low on red tape.
“They are wounded. They are recovering. The last thing they need to do is fill out a bunch of forms. All they want to do is get home to see their family, their friends, and the men and women they served with,” said Fricke.
The Veterans Airlift Command has served 4,500 wounded warriors since it began in 2006, and it served 1,500 in just the past year. Another 80 wounded veterans are waiting in the wings. All they have to do is fill out an online form, letting Fricke and his crew know where they would like to go.
Most of the wounded veterans are amputees and this helps them avoid security and waiting in long lines. It also provides them with a proper homecoming, the kind Fricke never really had.
“That’s healing for us is to see the price we paid had some value. And it did, because of the way guys are being treated today,” said Fricke.
Half of the volunteer pilots are veterans and they develop life-long friendships with the wounded veterans they bring home. Fricke runs the command center with just two other people.
They are always looking for more volunteer pilots who own a plane. If you are interested or would like to make a donation, go to Veterans Airlift Command web site.