In 2007 Army Sgt. Josh Ben had already spent a year as a cavalry scout with the 82nd Airborne Division, headquartered in Kabul, Afghanistan.
In October of that year his unit was attacked by Taliban fighters and a number of soldiers were wounded.
A rocket-propelled grenade penetrated the armored Humvee on which Ben was serving as gunner, gravely injuring his right leg. He also sustained a bullet wound from an AK-47 but doctors were able to remove the round safely.
However, the attack resulted in the loss of his leg. Now 22, Ben underwent 21 months of rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. As a result of his wounds, he was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
Originally from Columbia, Mo., Ben is leaving the military on July 27 and has relocated to Orlando, Fla., where he will begin studying forensic science at the University of Central Florida this fall, with a view to a career in law enforcement.
The Ben family has a long tradition of military service, and Ben signed up with the 82nd right after leaving school.
“Family members have been in the army for generations,” he said, “and my older brother joined a couple of months before I did. He is now serving his second tour in Iraq.”
In early June Ben had to return to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center for further treatment.
At that point the Veterans Airlift Command (VAC), whose motto is “They’ve Got Heart, They Need Wings,” stepped in — and so did Tom Coble, president of Coble Trench Safety in Greensboro, N.C.
Coble learned about the Command about a year and a half ago at an air show on the Cherry Point Marine Corp airbase in North Carolina. “After checking out the VAC on-line and talking with Walt Fricke, I signed up and became involved,” he recalled.
Fricke founded The Veterans Airlift Command because he was hospitalized for six months while recovering from combat injuries sustained in the Vietnam War. He was undergoing treatment several hundred miles from home, and has stated that his healing began in earnest when his family was able to finally manage to make a trip to see him.
Coble participates in the program for three reasons.
“First, the VAC is a wonderful way to personally thank our military personnel for their service and sacrifice to our country. Second, I believe our country made a huge mistake by not honoring our returning Vietnam vets thirty years ago and hopefully this program shows our vets we appreciate them and we will not make this mistake again,” he said. “And third, my first job out of college flying was for my boss of three-and-a-half years, Dr. Jerry Falwell, who always said ’If we are blessed we should be a blessing to others.’ This is my way of carrying that message. I have been blessed with our business and this aircraft, therefore I should use it to be a blessing to others.”
On this occasion, Coble flew to Washington, D.C., to pick up Ben after treatment at the Army Medical Center and take him home to Orlando, Fla.
Coble praised his employees, who were among those collectively responsible for making certain Ben’s flight went smoothly.
“They assisted Sgt. Ben from pick-up at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland, the journey to Manassas airport, gave him a wonderful reception at Burlington Airport, and got him home to Orlando,” he said.
John Knighten, Coble’s safety specialist and sales representative in Raleigh, N.C., organized the surprise reception for Ben during a stop-over at Burlington, N.C., airport, where Coble dropped off a couple of his employees on the way to Orlando.
“Tom let us know about Sgt. Ben and invited us to come out and meet him and show our appreciation. It’s not every day you get to meet a true hero, so I wanted to let as many people know about it as possible,” Knighten recalled.
Knighten’s church, Friendship United Methodist, had a youth group, the Rappahannock District Youth Choir, visiting from Virginia. They too contributed to Ben’s welcome by singing at the reception.
“The choir is made up of 60 youths from middle school to high school ages. They travel for two weeks each summer to different churches and do mission work and concerts,” Knighten explained.
Originally the welcoming group was formed of about 30 to 35 persons, but word got around and ultimately about a hundred attended the reception. The soft-spoken Ben admitted to being “surprised” when he saw the crowd and the cameras.
Coble’s flight was his second for the VAC. His company has nine locations in four states, so he usually flies his Beechcraft King Air B-200 airplane on business trips. However, in September 2008 he took his maiden flight with the Command, carrying another wounded veteran from Walter Reed Army Medical Center to Myrtle Beach, S.C. His passenger was Christopher Payne, an Army veteran who had lost a leg and suffered severe injuries to an arm from an improvised explosive device in Iraq. Like Ben, Payne also plans to attend school and hopes to pursue a career in law enforcement.
The Federal Aviation Administration has designated Command flights as Hero Flights and in recognition of this honor air traffic controllers give them priority handling and direct routes if at all possible. In addition, airport ramp fees are sometimes waived and fuel may be made available at a discounted cost. In cases involving long distances, the veteran may be flown in a series of planes. While corporations also are involved in the program, the majority of participating pilots use their own or a borrowed plane.
All costs associated with these flights are covered by the aircraft owners in the organization’s national network. As a non-profit organization the VAC receives no tax dollars, although it accepts donations. The VAC is currently concentrating on those who served or still serve in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and their family members, but hopes to expand to provide flights to veterans of other wars. For more information, call or visit http://www.veteransairlift.org. CEG
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