On Saturday, August 15, more than 40 military veterans around the country took to the air on tandem skydives during the 6th Annual Freedom Freefall event. Seven Hills Skydivers of Madison, WI in York Center; Skydive Freefall Adventure in Pulaski, Wisconsin; Skydive Panama City in Blountstown, Florida; Skydive Spaceland–San Marcos in Fentress, Texas; Skydive Tennessee in Tullahoma; and Skydive Twin Cities in Baldwin, Wisconsin, hosted the veterans. Helping Out Our American Heroes, Inc. (HOOAH), an all-volunteer organization dedicated to honoring servicemembers by providing customized support and services, sponsored the event. HOOAH is headquartered in Florida but has many chapters, including 1st HOOAH (Minnesota), 4th HOOAH (Wisconsin), 9th HOOAH (Texas) and 10th HOOAH (Tennessee), which participated in Freedom Freefall this year.
Charity Menning—who lost her fiancé, a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, to suicide—founded Freedom Freefall along with Will Kocken and Andy VanHandel. They held the first event in 2015 in Omro, Wisconsin. The overarching aim was to provide veterans with a method of coping with physical and emotional injuries through skydiving and help reduce the number of veterans who lose their battles with PTSD and commit suicide (currently averaging 20 a day). To date, Freedom Freefall has taken more than 160 veterans on tandem skydives and made a difference in their lives. Some participants have told the organizers that since their skydives, dealing with their personal demons has become much easier. Many also say this event fills the need for adrenaline, something they have lacked since serving in the military.
The crew at Skydive Spaceland–Dallas ride to altitude. Photo courtesy 9th HOOAH Texas.
In recent years, Seven Hills Skydivers has been the primary host of the event, which it holds in conjunction with its June Head To The Hills Boogie. Unfortunately, the club needed to cancel this year’s boogie due to COVID-19. After much discussion, the Freedom Freefall organizers—Kocken, VanHandel, 4th HOOAH President Tammy Hardwick and Greg Porter—moved the event to August and even added a second drop zone, Skydive Freefall Adventure. A few weeks later, Hardwick met with Bob Sebastian, the founder and national president of HOOAH, and they decided to make it a national event. Why not, since it had always been so successful at Seven Hills?
Since its inception in 2011, HOOAH has donated more than $1 million to active military members, veterans and their families. In keeping with that tradition, it funded 100 percent of the costs of the 2020 Freedom Freefall events at the six participating drop zones. Hardwick, Sebastian, the participating veterans and the drop zones were so pleased with the success of this year’s events that they have already started planning for next year’s. In fact, they are hoping that Freedom Freefall will continue to grow, both in the size of each event and the number of drop zones participating.
More information about Freedom Freefall and how to participate in upcoming events is available at hooahinc.org.
About the Author
Andy VanHandel, D-24545, started skydiving in November of 1999 in Wisconsin. He has now made 3,400 jumps, 1,700 of them as a tandem instructor. VanHandel has a passion for helping military veterans through skydiving and is a member of the board of directors of Veterans Skydive 4 Life, an organization that brings awareness to the problem of veteran suicide.