Saturday, December 26, 2015

Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel flies wounded veterans

Army Sgt. Shane Parsons lost both legs above the knee in Afghanistan. This picture is of Shane, his fiance, Jennifer, and Dick Iversen. They were flown from Iowa to Aberdeen so that Shane could join his warrior buddies on a five-day fishing trip.

Army Sgt. Eric Gerhart, is pictured with his wife Liz, their three children and Dick Iversen, right. Gerhart was severely wounded in 2011 and spent much time in the hospital removing shrapnel from his body. They were transported from Ft. Bragg in Fayetteville, Ark. to Aurora, Ore. for Thanksgiving in 2014 and then back to Ft. Bragg. 

Left to right: Jeff Hendricks (captain and aircraft owner), Lacy Reichenbach, Landon Reichenbach, Navy SEAL Bo Reichenbach (double amputee above the knee), pilot Dick Iversen and pilot Tim Lewis are seen in front of a Lear 40 jet. The Reichenbachs flew from Billings, Mont. to Waterloo, Iowa to attend a wounded warrior friends wedding. 

Central Washington University alum and retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Richard “Dick” Iversen is helping post-9/11 wounded veterans travel easier by piloting free private flights with his longtime friend Jeff Hendricks.

Many of the wounded soldiers Iversen, 72, and Hendricks, fly are missing limbs, which makes travel through traditional airlines difficult. Through the work of Jeff-Air (named after Hendricks) and the Veterans Airlift Command, they are able to give wounded veterans a personal flight that accommodates their disabilities. There is no security to go through, and no one to tell them to rush or that they’re in the wrong seat.

“The biggest benefit is knowing that we are able to help these people that couldn’t do it otherwise,” Iversen said.

Iversen and Hendricks started flying wounded veterans about four years ago when they discovered the Veterans Airlift Command. The command is a nonprofit organization that maintains a database of more than 1,000 pilots and aircraft owners nationally who are willing to fly post 9/11 wounded soldiers for compassionate or health reasons.

Jeff-Air operates out of Bay View. Hendricks and Iversen fly a Learjet 40 XR, which seats seven passengers. Hendricks owns the company and jet, and Iversen is the co-pilot. A third pilot usually accompanies them to assist the veterans in the back.

“We have now flown over 100 soldiers and their wounded families over 100,000 miles,” Iversen said.

Helping out

To be eligible for a flight, all the wounded soldier has to do is fill out a form with the Veterans Airlift Command, indicating where he or she wants to go and why. Sometimes veterans need to go to a hospital, but personal affairs like a family member’s wedding are also eligible.

All pilots have the ability to review requests and if they can take a mission they sign up and give the Veterans Airlift Command the flight plan. Iversen and Hendricks make one or two roundtrip flights a month.

Hendricks pays for the operating expenses of the flight and plane, while Iversen takes care of most of the hotels or rental cars for the families.

“It’s our obligation to step up to this,” Iversen said. “I’ve flown every flight (with Jeff-Air) except two in the last four years.”

Iversen said the government has never asked more of its soldiers than it does today, referring to soldiers having to deploy, come home and then deploy again months later.

“When I was in Vietnam, we would have just died,” he said. “They’re coming home alive and our country never put enough money aside to take care of this. They’re coming back without limbs, with terrible burns and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).”

Special meals

Iversen’s wife, Jan, who is an Anacortes hospital commissioner, is just as invested in the service her husband provides. She takes the time to prepare snacks and meals for everyone on the flight.

Prior to the flight she learns about allergies and favorite foods or foods they don’t like, and then she gets up at about 4 a.m. the morning of to prepare the meals. It takes 2 1/2 to three hours to prepare a meal, she said. Each meal is prepared individually with a favorite salad, sandwich and dessert. She decorates the container with their name and ribbons.

“The meals themselves and the ways they’re prepared and presented, that’s an expression of my respect and feelings toward these wounded young people,” Jan said, adding that she has a soft spot in her heart for their wives who uproot their lives to support and follow their military husbands.

She also creates little packages of lavender products like lotions and oils for the wives or female soldiers because lavender is soothing and has healing power, she said.

Military family

Jan said the Iversen family is a military family, which means they know what it takes to serve.

“We know the sacrifices that the family makes when you’re not wounded,” Jan said. “The sacrifices are great and when you’re wounded on top of it and you have this pain that is with you the rest of your life. … We do not understand PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). No one does, but we listen to our soldiers. They want to talk to somebody who wants to listen and wants to hear it.”

The Iversens’ son is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, and flew a B-2 bomber in three wars. Their daughter enlisted in the Air Force in Turkey during the Gulf War and served for five years.

Their youngest child is 45 years old, so many of the wounded veterans they’re transporting are the age of their grandchildren.

“When you see someone who has had their legs blown off in a war or battle to protect this country and the freedoms in our country, and to see what they’re willing to do for our country, you just can’t do enough for them,” Jan said.

Central ties

Iversen attended Central Washington University from 1962-66, and he completed a double degree program in education and aerospace science. His main focus was air science and he was a member of the Air Force ROTC.

“Back then every male student at Central was marching around in ROTC, it was mandatory,” he said. “You had to take it for two years … I took it all four.”

Iversen lived at the Elwood Manor where he met Roger Gray, a current Ellensburg resident.

Gray recalled that Iversen always was a “likable, happy guy” and an exceptional storyteller. The two were in ROTC together, though Gray was a year older in school.

“He was a patriot when he was in college and he’s a super patriot today, more than 50 years, and he’s still putting a majority of his lifetime into flying and serving wounded warriors and providing the support to get some of the great men and women of our country to family events,” Gray said.

Iversen has flown more than 7,000 hours, and still brags about one statistic, Gray said.

“He still has an equal number of landings and takeoffs,” he said, chuckling.

The Elwood Manor home, which served students in Ellensburg, put an emphasis on financial responsibility and hard work, and all of the men who pledged to be in it were hardworking and motivated, something Iversen has carried with him.

Iversen has also kept up a friendship with former university president Dr. Jim Brooks who arrived at Central in 1961.

“That house brought together a bunch of young, ambitious men,” Brooks said. “They wanted to support the institution and the president and they took us under their wings. All that time we were in the president’s house while Elwood was operating, we were very close. They established the President’s Ball.”

Iversen also was a student teacher to a fourth-grade class that Brooks’ daughter was in, which is why they’ve stayed in touch over the years.


Iversen got interested in flying when he was in the fourth grade. There was a U.S. Navy base “right next door” on Whidbey Island and he’d beg his parents to take him there.

“I had probably 300 little aircraft models by the time I was 14,” he said.

His uncle had an airplane, and when Iversen was 15 he started to learn to fly.

“Once it hits you, it’s just something you fall in love with or you don’t,” he said about flying.

The ROTC program at Central was mostly an academic program to prepare students for life in the Air Force, but students who qualified were sent to Bowers Field north of Ellensburg for hands-on learning.

Iversen earned his private pilot license and then attended an undergraduate pilot school. He spent a career of over 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, which included flying in Vietnam and serving at the Pentagon.

After the military, he worked for Boeing and his first job there was a delivery pilot for 737s. He moved up into sales, then the military department and finally the business development side. He still does consultant work for Boeing to this day, in addition to flying wounded veterans.

Anacortes work

Iversen’s passion for veterans stretches into his own community. He volunteers on a steering committee for the Anacortes High School modernization project, named the Veterans Memorial Committee.

“We recently passed — our city — a nearly $100 million bond issue to modernize the school that included a sizable $250,000 donation for a memorial at the new athletic field,” Dick said.

The committee’s purpose is to propose a design to the school board for a memorial at the school’s new Rice Athletic Field.

“I just think it’s so important because so few of us now serve in the military,” Iversen said. “Men and women in uniforms have kind of become strangers to most Americans. We really hardly know their true measure. That’s what we’re trying to do is bring back their history and the importance of it to our school.”

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