More Than the Sum of Its Jumps
By Annette O’Neil
Iveta “Murv” Muravyeva, D-33208, started sport jumping just after finishing Airborne school. She never stopped. To date, she has been flying and jumping for more than 16 years. For the past six, she has been helping combat-wounded veterans take to the skies … and take back their lives in the process.
It started in 2012, when Muravyeva was posted at Holloman Air Force Base—out in New Mexico’s desert wilderness between Las Cruces and El Paso, Texas—for training. Her stay coincided with the grueling Bataan Memorial Death March, a 26-mile ruck in honor of veterans. (For the unfamiliar: A “ruck” is a fast-moving walk-jog performed while wearing a rucksack weighing 40-50 pounds. It is the farthest thing from easy.) Always up for a challenge, she decided to join in.
When Muravyeva arrived, she saw a group of fellow ruckers who stood out from the group. They were dressed in camouflage and wearing gas masks, first of all, but the masks weren’t the group’s only eyebrow-raising feature: One of them was missing his left arm and left leg. (As it turns out, that was Noah Galloway, a former soldier and motivational speaker who took third place on TV’s “Dancing With the Stars.”) They called themselves Team X-T.R.E.M.E. They certainly were.
“I didn’t know what they were all about,” Muravyeva recalled. “They were just doing their thing. But I spoke with them after the event. They were focusing on rehabilitating wounded vets by encouraging them to undergo really tough, really physical challenges.” And it was working.
Getting With the Program
She was intrigued. After the ruck, Muravyeva visited the Team X-T.R.E.M.E. website to check them out. She saw that they had made a couple of tandem jumps. She thought that tandem jumps were nice but that it would be even better to teach wounded vets to become solo skydivers.
She instantly thought of a great example: Al Hodgson. At age 21, the British paratrooper had lost both legs when he’d triggered an Irish Republican Army booby trap. Instead of crumbling, Hodgson had channeled his energy into skydiving. A decade or so later, he was a British national freestyle skydiving champion. Competing on a team with his wife, Pixie, he racked up six consecutive gold medals from 2007-2012. Hodgson’s story was highly dramatic, but Muravyeva believed it to be highly repeatable, too.
“You don’t have the same limitations in the air,” she said. “And I knew personally how therapeutic skydiving could be. The best way to help rehabilitate is to get these guys doing things that are active and challenging.”
Inspired, she reached out. It wasn’t long before she had a call back from Jeremy Soles, who was at the time the president of Team X-T.R.E.M.E. Soles said that the team had discussed the idea of facilitating initial skydiving training for combat-wounded veterans. They even had a top-choice athlete for the program: Todd Love, an adventure-sports enthusiast who lost an arm and both legs when he triggered an improvised explosive device in Iraq at the age of 22. But no one at Team X-T.R.E.M.E. was a sport skydiver, and they just didn’t know of a drop zone that would really work, so they’d shelved the idea. Soles invited Muravyeva to join the team and to become the director of a skydiving program. Perhaps, he thought, she had some connections that could finally make a Team X-T.R.E.M.E. skydiving program a reality.
As a matter of fact, she did. Some veteran friends of Muravyeva’s were purchasing Skydive Suffolk in Virginia. The DZ’s proximity to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where many wounded veterans reside, lit it up as a perfect fit. Confident, Muravyeva stepped up as program director of the newly minted Operation X-Wing program (which, along with Team X-T.R.E.M.E., later changed its name to Operation Enduring Warrior).
In the spring of 2013, four remarkable students—Josh Burnette, Aaron Causey, Erik Feild and Love—joined the first OXW class. Burnette and Causey’s combat injuries had resulted in above-the-knee amputations of both legs, as well as several finger amputations. Feild had sustained a gunshot wound to the knee in combat, resulting in various mobility issues.
Burnette, Feild and Love had undergone military static-line training. Even so, they were walking into the X-Wing program with no freefall experience whatsoever, so Muravyeva worked some connections with Paraclete XP Indoor Skydiving to cover the gap. Tunnel instructors James Flaherty and Ray Kubiak volunteered their time, parsing over the unique aerodynamic challenges of each adaptive athlete’s unique prosthetic situation: for Burnette, full-length prosthetic legs with articulated, lockable knees; for Causey, a specialized set of short prosthetics; for Love, a prosthetic arm but no prosthetics on the lower extremities.
As the tunnel training got underway, United Parachute Technologies put engineer Louie Palomares on the task of designing a container for Love. When complete, it was a home run: The rig’s wraparound design enclosed Love’s hips in a snug envelope, while a single-operation system allowed Love to use his single remaining hand to deploy his main, cut away and activate his reserve. He needed a little more time in a controlled environment to learn how to fly it, however, so he headed to Eloy, Arizona. SkyVenture Arizona donated two hours of tunnel time to the effort, and Niklas Daniel and Brianne Thompson of AXIS Flight School at Skydive Arizona stepped in as Love’s tunnel instructors.
In a week, Love proved himself proficient in the tunnel. He was ready to take it to the sky—and since neither he nor the AXIS Flight School team were able to make it out to Virginia, Skydive Arizona’s offer to fully sponsor getting him to an A license compounded the good news. Love made his first jump in short order.
As Love sweated it out in the Arizona summer, the other three athletes faced rainy days on the East Coast. Muravyeva’s friends at Skydive Suffolk had made all the arrangements—they’d covered all the slots, and the drop zone’s instructional staff had very generously donated their training services—but the weather refused to cooperate. Undeterred, the instructors spent the time dialing in optimal exits, keeping the energy strong until the clouds finally opened up. A week or so later, all three athletes had stamps in their logbooks.
From there, the program took off. While the student attrition rates for Operation Enduring Warrior pretty much keep pace with the rest of the skydiving world, the numbers are good: Of the program’s 75 participants, about 15 went on to earn their A licenses. Among those, the success stories are no-holds-barred incredible.
Take Ruben Gomez, who lost a leg below the knee and sustained extensive damage to one of his hands, for example: He did all his training at Skydive Suffolk and now jumps at Skydive Cross Keys in Williamstown, New Jersey, where he rocks a solid sit-fly. Tyler Anderson, Bryce Cobb and Chuck Yerry all earned A licenses through the program after suffering similar injuries. Jesse Murphree—who lost both legs above the knee—has logged 19 jumps after working extensively with AXIS at Skydive Arizona. Donna Bachler entered the program with crippling post-traumatic-stress disorder, but now she’s engrossed in training for 4-way formation skydiving. Andrew Einstein, B.J. Frederick and Christina Tobin dealt with similar problems. Einstein and Frederick now co-run the Operation Enduring Warrior program and Tobin jumps regularly at Skydive Orange in Virginia. Bobby Hamlin, who came into the program with severe burns and missing one hand, earned his A license. Though he no longer jumps regularly, he gained a lot of confidence and does public speaking and stand-up comedy.
Then there’s Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal Specialist Stephen Value: A sniper shot him in the spine, which caused paraplegia. Daniel and Thompson at AXIS started training him as OEW’s first (and, thus far, only) instructor-assisted deployment student. First, he began making tandems with Ben Lowe, who helped him work on canopy control. From there, he linked up with Start Skydiving and Team Fastrax in Middletown, Ohio, to progress to IAD. Along the way, the team did a lot of experimentation and engineering to come up with different management contraptions for his legs. Value has made more than 20 jumps so far.
Since its inception, the program has covered a lot of ground and seen a lot of changes. Most noticeably, there was a name change: In 2013, Team X-T.R.E.M.E. transitioned into Operation Enduring Warrior, a 100-percent-volunteer-run 501(c)(3) non-profit.
The program’s current goal is to develop as many OEW skydivers as possible, keep new classes coming through, continue to support license-holders to the point where they’re competing and to help the athletes achieve PRO ratings so they can make demos into the various events in which Operation Enduring Warrior participates. There’s a matching program in the works through which OEW will match each licensed athlete’s expenditures, jump for jump, to move those goals forward.
Even though she has passed the baton of directorship to OEW skydiving athletes Einstein and Frederick (who head up the program), Muravyeva remains an active consultant. Her fond hope is to see the program continue to make skydiving accessible to wounded veterans throughout the U.S. “When we take someone through training and give them their A license,” Muravyeva said, “we give them the ability to self-medicate. We give them freedom at 13,000 feet, and it’s not just a one-time experience, it’s a literal license to live your life to the fullest, and I want to see that continue to happen.”
About the Author
Annette O’Neil, D-33263, is a frequent contributor to Parachutist. She and Joel Strickland, D-37056, are undertaking a self-funded 50-state skydiving road trip to raise awareness and donations for Operation Enduring Warrior. The project is called Down for 50. Jumpers can follow the adventure (and learn how to help) at downfor50.org.