Never-ending nightmares of tanks and tents, bombs and bullets. Shattered bodies rebuilt with plastic and metal. Mottos of “Leave no man behind” and “No thanks needed, none received” from men and women who left the war zone but the war zone never left them. Soldiers with deep, unseen wounds need long-term ties to one other and support from their communities. The inaugural Mobile AeroFest on March 20-21 at Mobile Aeroplex is a weekend of music, art, sports, exhibitions, and food to build connections between military service members and the public and raise money for agencies that support veterans.
AeroFest weekend is filled with the music of 25 bands including Dawes, Big and Rich, Dumpstaphunk, and Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band. Arts Alive! and Jef Bond’s Arty Party are moving from downtown Mobile and Pensacola to the festival, and the 3rd Annual LA Gumbo Festival brings chefs from Louisiana and Lower Alabama to compete for $5,000.
It is also a weekend of courage and power. The Independence Ride provides custom bicycles for injured veterans with mobility challenges. The distances range from 12.1 miles to the ultra 47.6-mile ride from Bayou La Batre to the festival. Four Titan FC title fights will be nationally broadcast on CBS, and the Hero Games will bring together disabled and able-bodied citizens to participate in a series of competitive activities.
“Veteran-supported events are often attended only by veterans, their families, caregivers, and the event organizers, but often don’t get the attention and participation of the general public,” says Dave Glassman, retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marines and co-founder of AeroFest. “We want to use world-class entertainment to attract the masses and give people many reasons to buy a ticket and come to AeroFest.”
All-Star wheelchair athletes will compete in basketball and softball games and wheelchairs will be available for the public and veterans to join in. “This is an outlet for people who still want to compete in team sports,” says Teddy Alvis, who has played or coached wheelchair basketball and softball teams for 25 years and will be in several sports demonstrations at AeroFest. “When you are on the court or the field, everyone is the same level and you forget about the world and its problems. This provides competition, exercise, achievement, and purpose that disabled veterans need when they come home.”
A meeting between Glassman and Mobile Aeroplex Director Roger Wehner for website services provided by Glassman’s DigiPro Media grew into the idea of a philanthropic festival to introduce the Mobile Aeroplex. Sixty percent of proceeds from AeroFest will be divided among five veterans’ support organizations: the Independence Fund, A HERO Foundation, Gary Sinise Foundation, the Lakeshore Foundation, and the Mobile Airport Authority Foundation. Those organizations move veterans toward mobility, provide outdoor and social experiences such as hunting and fishing trips to heal the physical and psychological wounds of war, and help rehabilitate injured solders. The other 40 percent will go toward next year’s festival.
AeroFest focuses on the mental and physical needs of all veterans with specific programming for those who served in the 13 years of combat operations since September 11, 2001. There are currently 155,717 Alabama veterans who served in the Persian Gulf from 1990 to present (US Department of Veterans Affairs). Nationally, more than half of the 2.6 million Americans who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq struggle with physical or mental health problems from their service and feel disconnected from civilian life, according to a 2014 study by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation. Six hundred thousand of these veterans have become partially or totally disabled from physical or psychological wounds and will receive lifelong financial support from the government. That number is expected to increase as veterans grow older.
“There is an overwhelming sense of dismay and despair felt by people who come back physically or mentally traumatized or both,” Glassman says. “Their sense of self worth, accomplishment, goal orientation and quality of life are greatly affected by their combat experience in theater operations. Many can’t figure out their way forward and 22-30 veterans take their own lives every day–approximately 8,030 per year. That is unbelievable. Small veterans organizations are popping up to take help take care of veterans and we want to help some of these organizations through AeroFest.”
Glassman was a combat helicopter pilot who served in theater operations during the Kosovo crisis and became the executive officer of Marine Aviation Training Support Group 21 that provided support to injured Marines returning to the Gulf Coast region. “The hardest part was putting guys back together with their families,” says Glassman. “The toll on the mom, the sister, the wife and the whole reintegration back to the community is more than you can imagine. That is where organizations like The Independence Fund steps in with mobility support and A HERO Foundation provides outdoor and social events that bring veterans together and give them a chance to heal.”
A HERO (Heroes Enjoying Recreation Outdoors), based in Shorter, AL was founded by Lee Stuckey, company commander within CLB2. Stuckey suffered a brain injury from an Improvised Explosive Device that blew up in a pothole during a regular night mission in 2007. “We switched to a stronger MRAP (mine-resistant ambush protected) the week before and that saved my life,” says Stuckey. “I had vertigo for two years and nightmares about combat stress. It got to the point where I didn’t want to deal with the nightmares or the relationship failures any more. I put a pistol to my head and was ready to pull the trigger when my cell phone rang with the word “Mom.” I broke down. I dropped the gun, answered the phone, and asked my mom for help. I researched suicide and realized how many veterans are taking their lives. I had to speak out and do something to help change the dynamics of the military because we can no longer say ‘Suck it up buttercup’. My Company was attacked 85 times over 13 months. You can’t be unchanged by that.”
Stuckey started A HERO Foundation to give veterans a chance to hunt and spend time on his farm. “The first time we did this in 2010, 65 guys flew in from bases across the country,” he says. “They met people going through some of the same problems and found someone to call at any hour when they needed to talk. We have brought in 460 people over four years and now take them hunting all over the U.S. and South Africa. We are expanding the farm, building a lodge that is wheelchair accessible, and want to be open 365 days a year. We run on volunteers and private donations and every dollar donated goes directly to supporting the veterans. AeroFest is spreading the word about what we do and giving us a chance to work with other organizations so we can help each other.”
Mobile’s Dave Riley, served in the Army and Coast Guard before he lost both arms and legs to a bacterial infection. Support at a veterans’ event saved him from becoming a suicide statistic and he is now Junior Vice Commander of the Disabled American Veterans and was the 2010 Disabled Veteran of the Year. “Healing happens through forming relationships and they are the way to attack suicide,” he says. “I am involved with AeroFest to give other veterans an chance to get together and encourage each other. It can also help the public know what to say to veterans beyond ‘Thank you for your service’.”
AeroFest is a weekend packed with something for everyone, but AeroFest’s mission is to improve the lives of veterans. “Making a difference is a never-ending drive because you can never do enough,” Glassman says. “You can’t undo decisions that were made. No human would do what those guys do if it weren’t for the soldier on his left and the soldier on his right. They put their lives in each other’s hands and work together. It is our responsibility to take care of the men and women who take care of us. We can’t leave them behind.”
AeroFest tickets are $45 for two-day General Admission ticket and $70 for two-day general admission and MMA fight. Titan fight tickets range from $25 for general admission to $800 for a table. Tickets are available at http://aerofest.org/page/Tickets.
AeroFest music lineup: Big & Rich, Robert Randolph & The Family Band, Dawes, Zoogma,Cowboy Troy, Lee Fields & The Expressions, Dumpstaphunk, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Zoogma, The Lost Bayou Ramblers, Jacques Greene, Gary Sinise & The Lt. Dan Band, The Whigs, Soul Rebels, Rosco Bandana, The Honey Island Swamp Band, Matthew Curry, Futurebirds, The Heard, Steve Gunn, Generationalas, 88 Ultra, Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires, Ryley Walker, Nick & The Ovorols, and Horse Thief.