Written by Rachelle Haughn
AMA holds fun, relaxing event for veterans and families
As seen in the March 2017 issue of Model Aviation.
One fall day, 35 people found a way to relax. They put their worries and histories aside and had fun. Instead of having anxiety about the possibility of being startled by a loud noise or worrying that someone might notice their scars, they spent quality time with their spouses and children.
Chances are that some of you have already been to this great escape: AMA’s International Aeromodeling Center (IAC) in Muncie, Indiana.
“You don’t have the distractions of life being out here. You don’t have to worry about doctor’s appointments, explosive devices, terrorists …” Nick Bennett, a Wounded Warrior Project alumnus, said while enjoying AMA’s inaugural Warrior Day on Saturday, October 8, 2016.
“I think that in our economy, families have a very limited [amount of] time to get out and do fun things,” especially free activities such as Warrior Day, stated Emily Gray, Wounded Warrior Project regional engagement manager. “It gives them an opportunity to bond.”
At Warrior Day, Wounded Warrior Project alumni had a chance to try out a flight simulator, fly a trainer aircraft via buddy box, build and fly a balsa Sky Streak, learn about the importance of preserving military artifacts, tour the National Model Aviation Museum, and see how FPV racing works. They also enjoyed demonstrations, a lunch, and took home an event T-shirt and copies of Model Aviation magazine.
The event kicked off at 11 a.m. with Muncie Mayor Dennis Tyler and AMA Executive Director Dave Mathewson welcoming attendees.
(L-R) AMA Executive Director Dave Mathewson, AMA Communications Coordinator and Director of Development for the AMA Foundation Mandee Mikulski, and Muncie IN, Mayor Dennis Tyler during the opening ceremony.
After the national anthem was played, the warriors enjoyed some pizza and an air show featuring jets, scale warbirds, and helicopters, provided by local modelers.
The veterans and their families were then separated into three groups. One group remained at Site 3 to try out the flight simulators and buddy-box flying with help from the Blacksheep R/C Modelers of Danville, Indiana.
Warrior Day attendees enjoyed an air show provided by local modelers.
The second group toured the museum, enjoyed a presentation by Dan Waechter of the Museum of the Soldier, in Portland, Indiana, about military artifacts, and built and flew Sky Streaks with museum employees. The third group watched an FPV racing demonstration by Ready Made RC and had the opportunity to view flight from the cockpit of an aircraft via goggles. The groups were led by AMA employees who volunteered to help with the event.
(L-R) Moriah Monroe, Brandon Monroe, and Johnathon Monroe build Sky Streaks at the National Model Aviation Museum.
While at the flying site, one of the people who tried out the flight simulator and buddy box was Cory Fennig, a Muncie resident who served in the U.S. Air Force in Florida from 2005 to 2009 as an F-22 Raptor crew chief. This was his first time visiting the IAC and also the first time that he encountered a model aircraft. “I didn’t know they had the big airfield out here. I will definitely bring my son out here [again],” he said.
Before attending the event at AMA, Cory’s aircraft experience was limited to full-scale military airplanes. He never had a chance to fly a big fighter jet while serving in the military, but was in charge of maintaining the aircraft and completing preflight and postflight inspections. He decided to sign up to attend the invitation-only event because “It was close and it had to do with airplanes. I have never flown before today, but I want to try,” he commented with excitement in his voice.
Jeffery Simonton (L) and Joe Mitchell check out an aircraft that can be flown via FPV.
Nick also had never visited the IAC. “I’ve lived in Indiana since ’88 and never knew this existed.” He is part of Wounded Warrior Project’s national campaign team. He travels throughout Indiana for check presentations for Wounded Warrior Project, shares his recovery story, and explains how the organization has helped him. He decided to come to Warrior Day because there is an aeromodeling club field near his home and he’s always wondered what activities happen there.
If one couldn’t tell by the smile on his face throughout the event, Nick’s first impression of AMA Headquarters and model flying was positive. “A lot of us who are injured have anxiety with crowds, but this shows us a new way to have family time. I absolutely love it!” he said with a grin.
AMA National Model Aviation Museum Education Specialist Claire Aldenhuysen (L) helps Destiny Martin launch a Sky Streak.
“It’s the type of event that I feel other people should model [their events] after,” stated Emily Gray, Wounded Warrior Project regional engagement manager.
Warrior Day was a collaboration between AMA employees and Wounded Warrior Project officials. National Model Aviation Day celebrations held in 2013, 2014, and 2015 raised more than $268,000 for Wounded Warrior Project. National Model Aviation Day 2016 collected funds for Disabled American Veterans, but a handful of AMA clubs chose to collect donations for Wounded Warrior Project.
Mandee Mikulski, AMA communications coordinator and director of development for the AMA Foundation, said, “We decided to hold Warrior Day after visiting the national [Wounded Warrior Project] headquarters in Jacksonville, Florida, and hearing about the alumni program offered by the organization. Their goal was to encourage activity, stepping out of your comfort zone by trying new things, and finding activities you could enjoy with new friends and your family. Model aviation was perfect for this!
“We worked with the alumni team and Emily Gray and Deven Schei with Warrior Speak to set it up. Our goal was to introduce model flying to alumni in the area,” Mandee concluded.
Bryan Paris (L) of the Blacksheep R/C Modelers club helps Harley Goggan fly via a flight simulator.
The Wounded Warrior Project alumni who attended the gathering in Muncie all had different experiences while in the military. Many suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), some had physical injuries with a range of severity, and others had Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI).
To qualify as a Wounded Warrior Project alumni, a person must have served in the military on or after 9/11. He or she does not need to have suffered any kind of physical injury to join the program, Emily said. Those who served in any branch of the military can apply online at the link listed in the “Sources” to join the program, and must confirm his or her dates of service.
As of late October 2016, Wounded Warrior Project had 92,351 enrolled in its alumni program, which was started in roughly 2005, according to Emily.
The alumni program isn’t merely for warriors; their family members and care givers sometimes also need support. The number of family members and care givers that the program has served tops 100,000, Emily said. “We’ve seen that care givers need just as much support, but in different ways.”
In 2016, Wounded Warrior Project hosted more than 4,000 events for its alumni across the country and in Germany. Those activities included special dinners; fishing; health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition education; scuba diving; hiking; runs; and attending sporting events. A popular event is Soldier Ride, which is four days of cycling.
Wounded Warrior Project alumni also have access to the Warriors Work program, which helps them transition from military to nonmilitary jobs, and Project Odyssey, a combat stress recovery retreat.
Dallas Swathwood and his son, Landon, age 7, shared a pair of binoculars to get the best view of the model aircraft that flew in the air show.
Wounded Warrior Project was founded in 2003 in Roanoke, Virginia, by a group of veterans and friends who wanted to help wounded service men and women. In the beginning, the nonprofit helped wounded military personnel by giving them backpacks filled with items such as clothing and toiletries. In 2004, the first Soldier Ride was held. “It kind of built off of that,” Emily said. “Our growth rate is kind of insane at this point.”
According to Emily, one of the great things about the programs that are offered to Wounded Warrior Project alumni is that it “kind of gets them out of their normal routines, but also allows them to engage with other people who are going through the same thing as they are. Peer support helps to improve their journey to recovery.
“It’s not just about having lunch with somebody—it’s doing something new, learning something new,” she added.
Learning something new was definitely on the agenda for those who attended Warrior Day. Although many of the alumni, their families, and their caregivers had never met, they seemed comfortable with each other and chatted as if they were longtime friends, while having fun and learning about the aeromodeling hobby.
In the days following Warrior Day, Emily received plenty of positive feedback about the inaugural event. She said the great thing about activities such as the one hosted by AMA, is that they are fun for the whole family. “[Kids] can kind of capture that joy that sometimes gets lost.”
Both Cory and Nick brought their young sons to the event. Nick’s wife and Cory’s girlfriend also attended.
“Everybody sees this as us just coming out here and flying planes, but it’s saving families—it’s saving marriages,” Nick said.
Nick Bennett (center by the white chairs) said that events such as Warrior Day can improve family relationships.
“I think it’s neat,” Cory commented. “It’s a good gathering of people that I’m comfortable with.”
Being comfortable in crowds is sometimes a problem for Nick. On November 11, 2004, while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps in Mahmoudiyah, Iraq, he was hit by a rocket. He suffered injuries to his right leg, lower back, left hand, and right shoulder. In addition to his physical injuries, which required 26 surgeries to repair, the blast left him with a TBI and PTSD.
“Not only did that rocket rip away that flesh, it robbed me of being a dad, of being a husband. My kids had to help me get dressed and walk. I felt like a failure,” Nick stated, with tears in his eyes. When he returned from Iraq, his marriage of 16 years crumbled, and his children struggled to understand what their father had left overseas.
But Wounded Warrior Project gave Nick hope. It started in the form of a backpack that the organization brought to him when he was recovering from his physical injuries in the hospital. “It was my first sense of home, of normalcy.”
Another step in his recovery was a fishing trip that he took with his children through Wounded Warrior Project. “To be able to take my son on the water,” Nick said, “and know that he’d be safe,” was a big step.
The Muncie Fire Department brought a fire truck to Warrior Day and displayed the American flag.
During that trip, Nick finally broke down and told his daughter what he’d gone through in Iraq. “[That day] we were able to heal together as a family.
“They’ve given my identity back as a father. They’ve given my identity back as a husband,” he said of Wounded Warrior Project.
Today, Nick is happily remarried, and says that he’s still recovering, sees a psychiatrist, and must take medication for his PTSD. “It’s events like this that are all part of that therapy; it’s all part of that growing,” he said about Warrior Day. Nick now has a service dog that travels with him to help with his anxiety.
Ricky Vermillion, of Lebanon IN, tries out some headphones in a Muncie Fire Department truck.
Emily said that she would like to have Warrior Day again in 2017. “I think it was incredibly successful. If we can do events like this across the country, it would be great.”
Mandee hopes that AMA can host Warrior Day again this year.
Museum of the Soldier
Ready Made RC
Blacksheep R/C Modelers
Wounded Warrior Project Alumni
National Model Aviation Museum