Wounded Utah veterans fly high, but their spirits soar 'Hooah!'
Point of the Mountain • It's about 38 degrees with a stiff breeze blowing yet Robert Davis flings himself into space in the teeth of the wind, shattered spine be hanged.
For one thing, he's harnessed to Damion Mitchell, a certified paragliding instructor sitting in the sling right behind him. For another, Davis woke up four times in the night in anticipation of the Saturday event "It was like Christmas Eve," he says. And now the chute has blossomed and he's yelled "Hooah!" at least three times, so off they go. During the 20-minute flight above and down the south side of the flight park, Davis hollers with joy.
"He didn't want to come down," Mitchell says when the two return to the takeoff zone.
"This is the most elation feeling of my life," says Davis, a Mapleton resident and Air Force veteran.
That's the reaction Mike Semanoff was hoping for when he organized and sponsored what he called Veterans Day at Point of the Mountain at Flight Park State Recreation Area, known as one of the world's best spots for hang gliding and paragliding training.
Semanoff, an Orem resident who comes from a military family and served with the Army's 82nd Airborne from 1998 to 2001, wants to honor and reward wounded and disabled veterans with exhilarating experiences. Through his group, Inspiration RX, he teamed up with the public-relations firm he works for and with Emily Potter, a recreation therapist attached to the Veterans Affairs hospital in Salt Lake City, to round up people for the early-morning tandem rides provided by pilot members of the Utah Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association.
It's essential, he says, for wounded veterans to remember they are extraordinary people and a source of inspiration for the nation.
"A lot of [disabled veterans] are depressed," Semanoff says. "I get them out here to fly around."
Davis was in the service 25 years, flew combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq and had hitched a ride about 22 miles south of Baghdad one day in 2005 when an improvised explosive device blew up the Humvee he was riding in, killing the driver and maiming the passengers. It was his eighth encounter with IEDs, but this one left him so busted up and in pain he normally uses a wheelchair.
Saturday morning, he strapped on braces and wrapped himself in bulky warm clothing until he stood and walked like the Tin Man of Oz. So stoked with endorphins after his flight, he just about jogged to rejoin his sister, Joan Johnson, who whooped along with him every time he passed overhead.
Potter, who keeps more than 200 disabled vets on her email list to let them know of the VA outdoor therapy events, said she hadn't met most of the 10 men and women who showed up Saturday morning, as most of them work and can join her outings only if they're scheduled on weekends.
Potter also organizes horseback rides, river trips and family retreats for veterans who receive VA services.
Phil Arizola, an ex-Navy corpsman, drove down from Pocatello on an hour's sleep to get to the Point by the 8 a.m. start time. He spent 10 years, most of his service, shipboard with Marines. He was recently diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
On Saturday, he glided with pilot Bill Heaner.
"It was just, like, liberating," Arizola says, shimmering. "You don't think, you just fly."
Semanoff figured the volunteer pilots would get a kick out of the day. Heaner certainly did.
"His was the most organic enthusiasm I've ever experienced," Heaner says, declaring Arizola one of his best passengers, ever.
Flights are nonprofit's prescription for disabled veterans
Inspiration RX, founded by Orem veteran Mike Semanoff, provides professional skydiving and paraglider demonstrations, including tandem flights for wounded soldiers. On Saturday, Inspiration RX teamed up with the VA Hospital's recreation therapy program and pilots from the Utah Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association.
For more information about the VA recreation therapy program âº http://bit.ly/sEZ3NX
For more information on Inspiration RX âº http://www.inspirationrx.com