Operation Wounded Warrior Alaska, Part III

Story and photos by David Altom, Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs Office

email:  david.altom@us.army.mil

October 8, 2010

Part three of a three-part series

"I think I won the lottery!" The Kenai Peninsula Experimental Aircraft Association treated Kentucky's wounded warriors to a unique tour over Alaskan glaciers. (Photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs Office)

Gratitude is the other defining characteristic of the warriors.  The most commonly heard phrase – “I think I won the lottery!” – is repeated over and over again when the Kentuckians are invited to fly over some local glaciers.  The Kenai Peninsula Chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association break out a variety of bush planes, float planes and other small aircraft to take them on the tour of a lifetime.  The veterans fly for nearly two hours, winding among mountain tops and through glacial valleys unlike anything they have seen back home.  Beaming faces and excited talk are plentiful as they egress from their rides.

Spc. Henry James gets a world class view of Alaskan glaciers thanks to the Kenai Peninsula Experimental Aircraft Association. (Photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs Office)

 
 
 
 
 

 

Sgt. Casey Cooper takes a glacier tour in an Alaskan bush plane courtesy the Kenai Peninsula Experimental Aircraft Association. (Photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs Office)

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A glacier tour via float plane was just one of several adventures the Kentucky troops enjoyed as part of Operation Wounded Warrior Alaska. (Photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs Office)

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During quiet moments waiting for aircraft, or around the campfire, stories are told and notes are compared.  Anger and frustration with the system are met with compassion and brotherly support.  James, who was in the gunner position when an IED hit his hummer in 2005, talks of the difficulties he has gone through following major surgeries on his face and spine.

Despite his injuries Staff Sgt. Ken Wininger still trains troops for the Kentucky Army National Guard. The Alaska trip allowed him to connect with other wounded warriors. "We only met each other a few days ago, but we are probably one of the tightest crews you'll ever meet." (Photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs Office)

Wininger can identify with his brother Soldier.  Back during his 2007 tour in Afghanistan a double-stacked anti-tank landmine IED crushed his foot.  Now he listens to James, silent at first, then responds.

“You better stop now, brother.  I’m about ready to go back and kick some ass.”

Nightly sessions around the fire pit cemented the bond between the troops. Salmon Catcher Lodge provided accommodations for Operation Wounded Warrior Alaska. (Photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs Office)

Such support prevails throughout the mission.  There are no posers here, no pretenders, no whiners.  Everyone has the proverbial “t-shirt” and mutual respect is the name of the game.  Commiseration evolves into problem solving and long-term planning.  The fishing trip turns into a series of mini-summits on the plight of Kentucky’s wounded warriors.

“At home I’m not able to do a whole lot,” says James.  “This has been great to get outdoors to see the moose and nature, seeing the countryside.  This has been great for me, really wonderful for me.  I miss the guys, above the fishing.  I miss the troops, the people I was with.  I miss talking to them, how they’re doing, how their families are doing.  When you’re hurt you turn to each other.”

Staff Sgt. Ken Wininger and Spc. Henry James, half a world away from the battlefields that changed their lives. (Photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs Office)

Spc. Henry James fighting an Alaskan halibut. James was in the gunner's seat when his hummer was hit by an IED in 2005, severely injuring his face and spine. (Photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs)

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Hightower sees a lot of value in the discussion and wants to keep up the momentum for the wounded troops.

“We believe as a group we have good ideas that can help other wounded Soldiers and future wounded Soldiers,” he says.  “Every individual Soldier is different in their experience. Collectively there is a lot of information, a lot of pointers that we can provide to assist others in their process.”

The trip is not without its challenges, but determination and teamwork can move mountains apparently.  In addition to the Kentucky Army and Air National Guard staffers working out the trip details, the Mississippi Air Guard provides space on a C-17 transport to the 49th state and the Nebraska Air Guard gives up some seats on a KC-135 tanker for the return leg.  Private donations come in from sources as diverse as members of Governor Beshear’s office staff, the Kentucky State Police Professional Association, along with dozens of friends, family and members of the Kentucky Guard who are touched by the Soldiers’ stories.

The members of Operation Wounded Warrior Alaska after a hard day's work. Terry Johnson, owner of Salmon Catcher Lodge, donated accommodations for the mission. "Giving something like this away is a little thing compared to what these guys have gone through. If I could I’d do it for every Soldier in the darned Army," says Johnson. (Photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs Office)

One of the biggest contributors is Terry Johnson, owner of the Salmon Catcher Lodge where the troops stay for most of their Alaskan visit.  Johnson turned the entire lodge over to the team for an entire week.  A retired pilot for UPS and former Louisville resident, he has a habit of contributing to worthy causes.  He has given up rooms at his lodge for several charitable causes, the IPA Children’s Hospital and the Dream Foundation to name a couple.  Stricken by kidney disease himself, he identifies with the troops and their individual struggles with their health.

“I was touched by the sense of duty our troops showed following 911,” Johnson says.  “About eighty percent of the pilots I work with are in the military, so I have great respect for what they do.  I told my family that if I wasn’t a pilot I’d be a Soldier or a cop or a fireman.”

Johnson says he would like to host more trips for Kentucky’s wounded warriors and has invited them to come back next year.

“I came to realize that life isn’t about what’s in it for me.  Giving something like this away is a little thing compared to what these guys have gone through.  I’m in the fortunate position where I can do this for others.  If I could I’d do it for every Soldier in the darned Army.”

Reed echoes the desire for a repeat mission.

“We have about 34 wounded warriors in the Kentucky Guard,” he says.  “I’d like to get every one of those guys involved and get them up here.  “I consider anybody who’s been to Iraq or Afghanistan, who’s been wounded or hurt, they’re national treasures, because they know what it means, they know what dedication is, they know what service is.

“We need to listen to these guys, get their input on a lot of things we do in the Kentucky National Guard and the Department of Defense as a whole.  They know what they’re talking about when it comes to their situation.  They love their country.  They stepped up to the plate and it cost them.”

The members of Operation Wounded Warrior Alaska prepare to board a Nebraska Air National Guard KC-135 headed for "the lower 48." “I consider anybody who’s been to Iraq or Afghanistan, who’s been wounded or hurt, they’re national treasures" says Reed. (Photo by David Altom, KYNG Public Affairs Office)

The return flight on the refueling tanker is quiet and uneventful.  The troops mentally prepare to see their families and reminisce about their adventure.

Wininger talks about the special joy he found in traveling with his team.  “You could do all this by yourself, but it wouldn’t be as much fun.  We only met each other a few days ago, but we are probably one of the tightest crews you’ll ever meet.  In just a week we’ve become really close.”

Austin, the trip’s practical joker and commentator, is especially poignant about leaving his team mates.

“I’m having a hard time thinking about going back home,” he says.  “I’m starting to think I’m gonna get back in this again, and I’m gonna miss it even more.

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