Wounded Warriors Take Flight

Ex-fighter pilots join program to help injured vets recover.

May 15, 2010, 6:35 PM

May 16, 2010— -- Maj. Lisa Maddox is a self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie, but nothing could have prepared her for the thrill ride she took in the sky above Frederick, Md., last Wednesday.

"It was phenomenal," she said, "To just be sitting in the plane and realize that you could reach out and touch another plane, it's just so cool."

Maddox was one of a handful of injured veterans to take part in a new partnership between the Wounded Warrior Project, a non-profit organization that seeks to help this generation of injured service members, and Vandy-1, an elite team of former fighter pilots, who put on some of the flashiest air shows in the country.

Maddox, who is a now a doctor at the Veterans Administration, lost her leg to a debilitating nerve injury several years ago. Since then, the 1989 West Point graduate says she has "good days and bad days."

"You get frustrated sometimes when you can't, you know, it takes you extra effort to do certain things," she said. "You always hear the phrase, 'you can do anything you want,' but it depends on the amount of effort that you have to put in to it, and sometimes you just don't feel like doing it."

Army Sgt. Neil Duncan can relate. In December 2005, just two months shy of ending his tour, Duncan was on patrol in Afghanistan when his convoy hit a roadside bomb.

"We rolled over an IED that was in this trail, and detonated directly underneath me," he said, "It kind of sheared the truck, and pushed the dashboard up, hit me in the jaw, knocked out all my teeth and damaged my legs, obviously beyond repair.

After countless surgeries and two years of therapy and recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Duncan said he is now more active than he was before the attack. He skies, runs, sails and even climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

"I can provide the will and the strength, but there has to be opportunity," Duncan said.Capt. Dale "Snort" Snodgrass, a 26-year Navy veteran who with 4,800 hours of F-14 flying time, ranked as the highest time F-14 pilot, was happy to provide the opportunity on that day.

"It's just a blast to give people that joy," he said, "They've sacrificed a lot. And anything I can do, or we can do to bring a little joy and excitement into their life, which hopefully transcends into their next motivation to move forward."

Snodgrass took Maddox aboard, flying barrel rolls and multi-aircraft formations with the rest of the fleet, which included Vandy-1's five aircraft -- a P-51 Mustang, two L-39 Albatrosses, and two MS-760 Paris Jets -- along with a B-25 specially flown in.

Putting together an experience like this isn't cheap. The fuel alone runs upwards of $15,000. Vandy-1 relies on veterans, volunteers and donations to give the wounded warriors the lift of lifetime.

Duncan pulled seven Gs, a feeling that he said was "indescribable."

"It was incredible, the most wild rollercoaster you've ever imagined," he said with a smile.

"It just makes you very humble and appreciative that these people think enough of us to do this for us. And it shows that people care," Maddox said. "That's a dream come true to be a part of something like this.

Vandy-1 has partnered with the Wounded Warrior Project, with team's flagship black L-39 now featuring the Wounded Warrior Project insignia. The plane will be showcased at upcoming air shows and the group will incorporate wounded warrior heritage flight formations to honor injured service members.

Before leaving, Maddox had just one question: "Can we do this every day?"

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