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It all adds up

Veterans Airlift Command flies 10,000th Hero Flight passenger

  • Ashlee, Brody, and Jesse Murphree with pilots Mark Hogan and Mike Bell.
  • Dual-amputee Sgt. Jesse Murphree uses a wheelchair when he cannot use his prosthetics.
  • The Murphree family prepares to board Mike Bell’s Cessna Citation Mustang. Destination: Home.
  • Six-month-old companion dog, Atticus, waits under Sgt. Jesse Murphree’s wheelchair.
  • Four-year-old Brody helps his dad board the airplane.
  • Jesse, Brody, and Ashlee Murphree in the Mustang’s cabin.
  • Veterans Airlift Command was established in 2002.
  • Sgt. Murphree’s wheelchair’s wheels detach; Mike Bell inserts them in the Mustang’s baggage compartment.
  • Brody Murphree gets ready to fly home to Florida.
  • The Mustang takes off from Gaithersburg Air Park on its Hero Flight to Florida.

The numbers tell the magnitude of this story. Several days after his sixty-second surgery for unimaginable wounds suffered in an explosion in Afghanistan, Army Sgt. Jesse Murphree became the 10,000th veteran flown by volunteer pilots of the Veterans Airlift Command. It was volunteer pilot Mike Bell’s fourteenth mission.

“10,000 is a really big deal,” said Murphree, a soft-spoken young man who lost both of his legs during a patrol in the Korangal Valley, known as the Valley of Death. On Dec. 27, 2007, while he was serving as a gunner on an up-armored Humvee, Murphree’s tank was blown apart by a Russian anti-tank mine. He technically died six times during early surgeries.

“I wish people would recognize how much this helps us,” he said as he and his family prepared to board Bell’s Cessna Citation Mustang for their flight home to Florida. “What these guys are doing for us helps so much. Their hearts are so big, they do anything to help—they need to be recognized.”

Murphree’s wife Ashlee, wrangling their four-year-old son Brody; six-month-old German Shepherd, Atticus; and the luggage and equipment needed to transport this little family and the stuff that keeps them going, said, “You can only imagine what it’s like getting us through an airport! It’s amazing how it helps us out.”

Bell and copilot Mark Hogan said it’s hard to keep a dry eye. “Meeting these kids, seeing what great attitudes they have, it tugs at the heart,” said Bell. “I’ve learned not to complain anymore.”

Bell’s Mustang left the Gaithersburg, Maryland, Montgomery County Airpark for the two-hour flight to Clearwater, Florida, simply to take Murphree and his family home—it was an all-volunteer, contributed flight. Murphree was operated on at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Bell hoped to take the little family to dinner—if they were up to it—when they got home to Florida. Brody and Atticus, after all of the excitement, probably slept all the way home.

Long on compassion, short on red tape

The Veterans Airlift Command Hero Flights provide free air transportation to post-9/11 combat wounded veterans and their families for medical and other compassionate purposes through a national network of volunteer aircraft owners and pilots.

Julie Walker
Julie Summers Walker
AOPA Senior Features Editor
AOPA Senior Features Editor Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.
Topics: Aviation Organizations, Public Benefit Flying, Aviation Industry

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