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posted: 7/20/2014 7:40 AM

Local veterans heal with skydiving, land at Cantigny

Local veterans, Gold Star families find ways to heal with sky diving

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  • Video: Veterans skydive into Cantigny

  • Video: Parachuting for others

  • Members of the North Carolina-based All Veteran Parachute Team make a jump Friday into Cantigny Park in Wheaton. The team works with Lisle-based Operation Support Our Troops America to provide tandem sky-dives to veterans and Gold Star families.

       Members of the North Carolina-based All Veteran Parachute Team make a jump Friday into Cantigny Park in Wheaton. The team works with Lisle-based Operation Support Our Troops America to provide tandem sky-dives to veterans and Gold Star families.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Aaron Figel of the All Veteran Parachute Team makes a landing into Cantigny Park.

       Aaron Figel of the All Veteran Parachute Team makes a landing into Cantigny Park.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Mike Elliott, founder and president of the All Veteran Parachute Team, left, signs the flight log for Korean War veteran John Crowden, 81, of Woodstock.

       Mike Elliott, founder and president of the All Veteran Parachute Team, left, signs the flight log for Korean War veteran John Crowden, 81, of Woodstock.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
 

It's not just another jump when Mike Elliott does a tandem sky-dive with a veteran or someone who has lost a loved one in combat.

"It's transformational," he said. "It's all about freedom and changing lives."

Elliott is the founder and president of the North Carolina-based All Veteran Group, which provides activities for veterans and their families -- including sky diving -- to help them heal from the seen and unseen wounds of war.

"It is releasing something they can't release," Elliot said. "It gives them an opportunity to face the true fear and be able to come to grips with whatever they're dealing with internally."

On Friday, Elliott did a tandem jump with 81-year-old Korean War veteran John Crowden of Woodstock, landing at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, where Operation Support Our Troops America was preparing to host Saturday's Rockin' For the Troops concert.

With a bright blue sky and puffy clouds serving as the backdrop, four paratroopers jumped from a plane.

People cheered as they watched the veterans drop in, including one with flags from all the military branches attached to his red and yellow parachute.

Unfortunately, Crowden and Elliott were not part of the group.

Tandem sky divers need to jump from at least 7,000 feet and, with the clouds, the plane was only able to go up about 4,500.

Still, Crowden was all smiles when he met up with his family after the plane ride.

"My last jump was Feb. 14 of 1966," he said shortly after Elliott signed his old jump log.

Crowden served 16 years in the Army, which included time in Georgia, Germany and Denmark.

"I'm a pathfinder," he said, pointing to a badge on his Army green jumpsuit. "We're first in and last out. So we go in first and set the jump area up."

When asked what he enjoyed most about parachuting, Elliot laughed and said the extra $55 he got paid to do it.

"At that time we only made $52 a month," he said.

"But it's an individual thing," he added. "It's an elite force in the military. You don't get qualified by sitting around. And sometimes, you've got to be nuts."

Besides working with veterans like Crowden, Elliott -- who is a past member of the U.S. Army's Golden Knights parachute team -- also had an opportunity to jump with former President George H.W. Bush on two of his birthdays, including his 90th last month.

"His family was really concerned with him jumping again, but we made it happen," Elliott said. "He had this big smile after his jump. ... We just gave him a sense of the ability to continue to live and do great things and not worry about his age."

Operation Support Our Troops America works with Elliott and the All Veteran Group throughout the year to host its three-day Leap of Faith seminar, which teaches families of fallen service members new ways to cope and move forward with their lives.

During the seminar, attendees have the option to take a literal "leap of faith" by participating in a tandem sky-dive with a member of the All Veteran Parachute Team.

Operation Support Our Troops America volunteer Michael O'Connor of Arlington Heights said Leap of Faith helped him cope with the loss of his brother, who died 44 years ago in Vietnam.

"It's a club you don't want to be part of," he said of being a Gold Star family member. "When you're 14,000 feet in the air, you can let it go."

Another volunteer, Deb Wolfe of Naperville, said participating and helping run Leap of Faith is therapeutic because it gives military families a chance to connect.

Her son, Tony Mihalo, was killed in Afghanistan in 2008 during his third tour of duty.

"We had to walk through that grief," she said. "You can't go around it. You've got to walk through it."

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