I recently wrote about the heroic efforts of volunteer pilots involved in Mercy Medical Airlift and Air Compassion for Veterans. I met Steve Craven on a shuttle to a Red Cross event with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Steve kindly explained a little bit about what some airlines are doing to contribute to our active duty and veterans’ medical transportation needs. I was soon contacted by American Airlines to help them with awareness efforts of their own veterans initiatives.
I interviewed Captain Steve Blankenship, the Managing Director of Veterans Initiatives at American Airlines. Feel free to listen to the podcast or read a summary of our discussion below.
Dr. Val: Tell me a little bit about yourself, Captain.
Blankenship: Being a veteran myself (20 years with the US Cost Guard) a count it a real privilege to serve our veterans. During my first 8 years with the Coast Guard I was a helicopter rescue crewman doing search and rescue based out of Miami, Florida. I eventually went to navy flight training and retired from the military in 1991 and was hired to fly for American Airlines for the next 14 years. In 2004 I helped to launch their Veterans Initiative.
Dr. Val: Tell me about Operation Iraqi Children and Snowball Express.
Blankenship: There are so many children who have never been in uniform, but who have paid the ultimate price of losing a mom or a dad in war as they defend our freedoms. American Airlines is particularly proud to be supporting childrens’ initiatives. The Snowball Express program involves private flights around the country to pick up kids and their surviving parent to take them on a fun-filled trip during the difficult winter holiday season.
Actor Gary Sinise helped to co-found Operation Iraqi Children where we shipped over 25 tons of toys and educational materials to Iraq. Our troops were able to give out 10,000 individually wrapped gifts to young children in Iraq.
Dr. Val: What about American Airlines’ support of the iBot Mobility System for wounded veterans?
Blankenship: The iBot is a special kind of wheelchair (designed by the guy who created the Segway) that allows its user to sit at an eye level with someone standing next to them. They can also climb stairs. To date we’ve raised over $700,000 to buy these iBot Mobility devices for our wounded warriors.
Dr. Val: What else is American Airlines doing for veterans?
Blankenship: We fly wounded warriors and their families on charter flights from Brooks Army base to Disney World. We have three dedicated “yellow ribbon” airplanes that we use to fly recovering service men and women to events so they can get out of their rehab centers for a period of time and have fun with their families. This kind of charity comes naturally to us because American Airlines was founded by a military veteran and over 10% of our current staff are either active duty military personnel or veterans.
Every day we go to work, we recognize that the right and privilege we have to fly our airplanes and transport our passengers was paid for by the men and women who wear the cloth of our nation. American Airlines is continually looking for ways to thank them and support the efforts of our military.
Dr. Val: How do military and their families find out more about your programs and services?
Blankenship: They can send me an email directly and I’ll make sure they’re referred to the right place.