On Valor—Skydivers Work Together to Help a Hero
Features | Nov 01, 2018
On Valor—Skydivers Work Together to Help a Hero

Annette O'Neil

When it happened, Chief Petty Officer Kenton Stacy, a Navy explosive ordnance disposal operator, had already been serving his country for a dozen years. Those years had been good, full, strong years. On the day in question, the mission at hand was most certainly not Stacy’s first. All the way back in 2010, the USO presented its Service Member of the Year award to CPO Stacy for his key role in more than 50 combat missions while he’d been deployed to Afghanistan. Over the course of that decade-plus, Stacy had destroyed improvised bombs, trained both Afghan forces and U.S. Special Forces members on delicate clearing techniques and helped ensure the zero-casualty rate in the province where he was doing the good work.

It was November 9, 2017. Stacy and his team were near Raqqa, Syria, as part of the Operation Inherent Resolve campaign. Raqqa used to be a city of opulent stone architecture, date palms, golden minarets and markets bustling under colorful fabric shades. Raqqa is now a blackened pile of rubble. That day, Stacy and his team were deep in the embrace of that rubble, working to clear a hospital that ISIS had potentially armed with IEDs. What he was doing was significantly more dangerous than most normal people can imagine, never mind do. That said, it was a pretty normal day for a guy like him.

Several people heard the blast, but nobody really knows the details of what happened. Perhaps the IED triggered because the room was entered too many times; perhaps the local security guy working alongside Stacy moved something that seemed harmless at the time. At any rate, all hell broke loose, and Stacy was in hell’s immediate blast radius.

The explosion damn near decapitated him. It dug deep enough to take out about six inches of his trachea and also resulted in massive trauma to Stacy’s neck, spine, eyes, legs and lungs. When the medics reached him, they did not at all expect him to be alive. In no small part due to the prime physical condition he kept himself in as a matter of discipline and habit, he was. He was clearly determined to stay that way. On the flight from Syria to the first hospital in Baghdad, Stacy went through 42 pints of blood, but he doggedly managed not to die.

The Baghdad hospital was far out of its depth to treat the soldier’s injuries, so the call went out for help. Cue the Burn Flight Team, based out of the Army's Institute of Surgical Research at Brooke Army Medical Center, which deployed a team to Iraq within minutes to bring Stacy home. They carried more than a dozen cases of equipment (including a heart-lung bypass machine to keep him stable for the 31-hour flight back to the States).

When that flight landed in Texas, the soldier’s high school sweetheart, Lindsey—his wife of 13 years and the mother of his four children, two of whom have special needs—was there to meet it. She stood by through all 49 hours of first-round surgeries. She’s standing by still.

To say the next weeks were a trial grievously miscalculates the realities the Stacy family was facing. First, the challenge is nowhere near over. Kenton will require lifelong care. He’s paralyzed from the neck down, he’s blind in one eye, his lungs have been severely compromised and his voice has been reduced to a whisper by the damage to his vocal chords. That said: He’s alive, and he is fiercely loved. Lindsey and the kids travel back and forth between Kenton’s hospital in Texas and the family home in San Diego to be with him, and the rest of the extended Stacy family is on a constant support rotation.

Stacy received the Purple Heart for his service (and even got a shout-out from Donald Trump in a State of the Union speech). However, Stacy—D-34634 and an AFF instructor—also had a sky family, and they wanted to do more for him. Chris Derbak, for instance.

Derbak runs Kua Sky jumpsuits and apparel. He also heads up the SOF Group, a small team of federal contracting and consulting professionals that brings more than 75 years of combined active-duty military experience (as well as a heaping side helping of veteran outreach) to the table. Derbak himself has almost two decades of special operations military experience, as well as an aerospace engineering background.

When Derbak heard about the Stacy family’s situation, he didn’t hesitate. He engaged Brian Casserly—the big-hearted founder of Puss Foot, a group of extreme sports enthusiasts—and the pair geared up to rally the troops. Working with Derbak’s wife, Wendy (a high-powered marketing specialist), the little team contacted Delaware’s Skydive Delmarva and started to engineer an exemplary event in the Stacy family’s service.

Skydive Delmarva, ever military-friendly, gave an enthusiastic yes from its side. The plan: Active and retired military service members were to be welcomed with half-price tandems and $20 full-altitude sport jumps. A solid chunk of boogie registration fees (and $1 from every slot), as well as the full proceeds from the raffle, headed straight to the #StacyStrong Fund. As a nod to the Stacys’ indomitable heart, they called it Jump for Valor.

The morning of August 10 felt more like the kickoff of a barnraising than a fundraising, and the feel was decidedly military. The Patriot Guard opened the event with a flag ceremony, and local jumper Joe Manlove jumped in the American flag to officially start the event. Once each registrant had wriggled into a shiny new Kua Sky jersey, Jump for Valor was off and running.

The Jump for Valor schedule kept everybody fully engaged. Flight-1 hosted 101- and 102-level canopy courses all weekend long. Meghan and Derek Evilsizor flew in from Mile-Hi Skydiving Center in Longmont, Colorado, to organize belly, angle and hybrid shenanigans. Photography legend Clancy Ewald hosted a videography clinic. The event raffle stocked a shiny new full-face helmet from Bonehead Helmets, a solid discount from Mirage Systems and several pairs of HandUp Gloves. When the sun went down, the live music went up, as well as a lip-smackin’ dinner (thanks to the enormously pro-veteran Mission BBQ) and some rollicking yard games.

By sunset on the final day, the event had logged 41 loads with 681 slots. (For perspective: That’s just about one load for every pint of blood Stacy went through on that first evac flight.) Eighty attendees and 10 dedicated staffers made it possible.

Today, Stacy is getting ever-so-slowly but ever-so-steadily better. Derbak, Casserly and the rest of the Jump for Valor team intend to help keep that uphill trend. How? Another event: this one, even bigger.

It’s called Battle for ’Merica. It’s taking place over Veteran’s Day Weekend (November 9-12) at Skydive Phoenix in Maricopa, Arizona. They’re calling it a “boogie extravaganza,” and man oh man do they mean it. All the Jump for Valor sponsors are reprising their contributions, a Caravan will be on hand to take the party higher, and Skydive Phoenix is donating all its profits to the #StacyStrong Fund. There will be organizing, barbecue, bonfires, competitions, heroes, hugs and probably tears of all kinds.

Let’s hope we can all prove ourselves #StacyStrong.

About the Author

Annette O'Neil, D-33263, is a multidisciplinary air sports athlete: skydiver, BASE jumper, paraglider and speed-wing pilot. Location-independent, she travels the world full-time as a freelance writer and producer. In her spare time, she loves flopping around on a yoga mat and carpetbombing Facebook from Instagram.

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