POLSON – Brandon Bryant has done most of his flying from the inside of trailers.
The U.S. Air Force veteran piloted drones over Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya during his seven years on active duty. He steered the unmanned combat air vehicles with his feet firmly planted on a floor and his eyes not on the skies so much as on banks of computer screens.
So this was a little different, last weekend, when Bryant slipped on a helmet and took off from the Polson Airport on the back of what amounts to an open-air two-seat tricycle with a wing attached, and a motor capable of propelling it all through the sky at speeds up to 90 mph.
Pilot Todd Ware of Bigfork took the special light-sport aircraft soaring more than 1,000 feet above Flathead Lake, then turned the controls over to Bryant, who rode above and behind him.
Latching onto two bars underneath the wing and within reach of the backseat passenger, Bryant could push to his left and send the trike banking to the right, or force the bars to the right and bank to the left.
Bryant flew himself over the lake, over islands, over the river, over town, over fields, with Ware – a certified trainer – ever ready to grab hold of the single bar in front of him to correct any mistake.
“I didn’t have to take the wing from him once,” Ware announced when the two landed after more than a half hour in the skies. “We were getting kicked around quite a bit up there, but he had amazing control for a first-time flier.”
“I’ll be telling my grandkids about this,” Bryant said. “It’s a different experience. When you’re flying drones, you can see the horizon and you’re in control, but you don’t feel the turbulence. This was awesome – this was freedom.”
It was also the perfect choice of words. Many military veterans who fought for your freedom now fight for their own – a freedom from symptoms of the post-traumatic stress disorder that threatens to take over their lives and relationships.
Indeed, this perfect October afternoon – when half a dozen veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan flew with Ware – was born of suicide.
The exhilarating flights are part of the activities offered by XSports4Vets, the Missoula-based organization of current-conflict vets whose goal is to help all combat veterans succeed in civilian life.
Co-founder Janna Kuntz created it to honor her stepbrother, Chris Dana of Helena, who survived Iraq, only to come home and, in the throes of PTSD, kill himself at the age of 23.
Ware – owner of Air Therapy Aviation of Bigfork – got involved with XSports4Vets in part because the veteran-brother of a good friend also committed suicide.
Sadly, suicide is not an uncommon escape for those with PTSD. Jesse Roods, director and chairman of XSports4Vets – as well as a wildland firefighter who served as a Marine in Iraq – says an average of 17 veterans commit suicide every day in America.
His group seeks ways to help veterans “take the edge out of civilian life.”
The “X” in the title stands for “extreme,” and while not everything they do falls into that category – there’s yoga, for instance – most of it does.
They challenge whitewater rapids in rafts and on river boards. Climb rocks. Skydive.
And soar a thousand feet above Flathead Lake on the back of a trike.
“What combat vets are geared to is a fast-paced environment,” says Jesse Scollin, an Army combat medic who was involved in the first push in Iraq when the war was starting in 2003.
Scollin, who suffers from PTSD, co-founded XSports4Vets with Kuntz.
“When you’re flying, you can detach yourself from everything holding you down here on the ground,” Scollin says. “For a few minutes, it’s all gone, and you try to make that resonate as long as you can.”
As Scollin awaits his turn flying the trike, he and other vets talk about what they’ve faced since returning to civilian life.
It’s not a pretty picture – but then, neither was what they witnessed in war.
“I was drinking enough to kill myself” after he returned home, says Scollin, who is from Great Falls. “A gallon of whiskey a day. You drink to numb yourself, but it gets to the point you black out, and that’s when (stuff) happens. I was missing work, getting in trouble, fighting people. You can’t sleep, your mind’s always going 150 mph, it’s hard to slow down.”
A brother gave him a river board, “and it helped in so many ways you can’t believe it,” Scollin says. “I was pretty banged up and heading in a bad way, and it changed my life. It gave me something to look forward to.”
Now river boarding is one of XSports4Vets’ primary activities.
“It’s what got me away from drinking,” Scollin says. “Did you know that 30 percent of our prison (population) is veterans? We are a public safety issue. We’ve been exposed to stuff that no one should be exposed to, and then we come home and try to be normal.”
But after war, Scollin says, anything normal “just doesn’t even sound fun.”
Their adrenaline-pumping adventures – in water, in the skies, on walls of rock – are just part of the healing process.
“It brings the camaraderie back, and that’s what I miss the most,” says Rick Ramirez, a University of Montana student from Wallace, Idaho, who served in the Army in Afghanistan, where a half dozen of his friends died.
Only veterans, Roods says, can fully appreciate the value of being able to talk openly about what they experienced overseas, and what they face back home, with other veterans.
XSports4Vets provides that, not in a roomful of chairs, but under mountains, alongside rivers and, now, next to airport runways.
“We’re trying to heal a lot of wounds,” Scollin says. “Mental, physical and spiritual.”
On this October afternoon, the vets are climbing onto an Apollo Monsoon – and registering log-able hours toward a private sports pilot license, although it would take 40 to 50 half-hour sessions to get there.
“Even if they don’t, every moment behind a wing is therapeutic,” says Ware, who promotes flights to the general public for their ability to “lift your spirits, clear your mind, heighten your presence and alter your perspective.”
Scollin’s reaction after his first flight last weekend was typical.
“I wanted to buy one – except I can’t afford it,” he says.
A new Apollo Monsoon today, outfitted like this one with computerized aviation electronics, would cost $62,000, according to Ware.
“The engine alone is $18,000,” he says, nodding toward the 100 horsepower four-stroke Rotax. The wing has been tested to the point, he says, that you can hang two Ford Ranger pickups from it and it will not collapse.
It is not an ultralight aircraft, and it’s not experimental, nor was it made from a kit.
“I’d be real scared if I had built it,” Ware says with a smile.
Not a veteran himself, Ware still believes in the therapeutic value of flying one. He took it up 14 years ago in Hawaii while going through some personal issues.
“Initiated by a woman, not war,” he allows, “but it helped me out of a funk. When I heard how much trouble some of these vets face” – a fact hammered home by the suicide of his friend’s brother – Ware got involved with XSports4Vets this summer.
Roods says Air Therapy Aviation cuts his organization a sweet deal so that the vets can fly, and Ware – who flies the aircraft to and from Bigfork as well as taking everyone up one at a time – spends several hours in the air over the course of a day to give them the chance.
Scollin, who heads up the river boarding outings, says flying a trike fits in perfectly for the group, which currently serves approximately 130 veterans.
In addition to the aforementioned yoga, XSports4Vets members spend days cleaning up riverbanks to give back to the community, and earlier this fall tailgated together and took in a Grizzly football game, courtesy of 100 tickets donated by Summit Beverage and Outback Steakhouse.
So it’s not all extreme, but most of it is.
“Let’s not limit it,” Scollin says. “We’ll expand wherever we can, when we can.”
That gives Roods an idea for next summer – combining a day of river boarding on the nearby Flathead River’s Buffalo Rapids with a day of flight with Ware, so vets can take on a whitewater challenge, as well as check out the same rapids by piloting a flying trike over them.
Sound a bit more exciting than, say, a picnic?
That’s what they’re after.
Bryant, the Air Force vet who flew drones, says he had to be prodded into taking part in XSports4Vets activities.
“When I came back from active duty I had a tough time,” says Bryant, who also attended high school in Stevensville and Frenchtown before graduating from Missoula Big Sky. “It’s just how all these stories go.”
He joined the Air Force Reserve, but a traumatic brain injury cut that short after a year.
A fellow veteran encouraged Bryant to check out XSports4Vets.
“That’s how I met Jesse (Roods),” he says, “and he pestered me – ‘Come do this, come do that.’ Finally I did a veterans’ retreat they had, and from then on, whatever I could do, I did.”
His first sports outing was river boarding, and Bryant says as soon as he did it once, he kept going back.
“It was awesome,” Bryant says. “And I never would have done it if Jesse hadn’t kept pestering me. He kept telling me, ‘Don’t wallow in your own brain. Come have fun with other veterans.’ ”
The river is a great place “to let it all wash away, and let the river work its magic,” Scollin says. “It really helps you deal with day-to-day life.”
Now, in the skies over Polson, they also blow the things that haunt them away for a bit, on a tricycle that cruises through the air at 70 mph.
“We’re trying to find stuff like this all the time, for guys who have been blown up and banged up,” Scollin says. “We’re trying to make sure they’re not going to jail when they get home, or taking their own lives.”
That the help comes from other veterans who have been in the same shoes – well, it may not seem that way when they climb out of a river, or when Ware brings them back to earth after an incredible ride through the skies.
But the time spent with other vets, many agree, may be the best thing at play here.