By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun
7:04 PM CST, December 21, 2011
Like any prospective son-in-law, Sgt. Michael Frazier admitted to jitters about meeting his fiancee's father for the first time. Unlike most, the 29-year-old Marine flew to Miami Wednesday on a private jet with his own cheering section.
"Not to worry about anything," Stephanie Greenberg assured Frazier, whom she met for the first time shortly before takeoff from the Signature Aviation terminal at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. "We are here for you, and we'll pull this dad aside and let him know how great you are."
Stephanie and Erwin Greenberg volunteered to fly Frazier and his fiance, Monica Montes, home for the holidays on their company plane to spare Frazier the hassles he would have encountered on a commercial flight. Frazier lost both legs last spring in Afghanistan, when he stepped on an improvised explosive device.
Wounded veterans can face many obstacles when flying. Metal splints and shrapnel can set off security alarms. Larger-framed soldiers do not always fit in the narrow airport wheelchairs and have difficulties getting down the plane's aisle, especially if they don't have full use of their hands and arms.
For Frazier, Erwin Greenberg and a few other men were able to hoist the Marine in his wheelchair up a short set of steps to the plane. Inside, Frazier had a front-row plush seat and the company of the Greenbergs and their two Dalmatians.
Veterans Airlift Command arranges free air transportation for wounded veterans and their families. It posts flight requests on the command's website and relies on a network of about 2,000 aircraft owners and pilots nationwide to provide the transportation. The Greenbergs, who are Glyndon residents, spotted Frazier's flight request and signed up to help.
"Every time we get one of these flights I feel like I have won the lottery," Stephanie Greenberg said. "We truly are awarded a mission."
Frazier said he didn't have adequate words to express his gratitude but said such volunteer missions prove patriotism endures.
"Offers like this just prove that not everybody in this country is worried about reality TV stars. Some people know there really is a war in Afghanistan," he said. "I went over there for my fellow Marines and for people like the ones here today. … People like the Greenbergs are showing me the true meaning of patriotism."
At the time of his injury, Frazier was serving his fourth tour of duty — the first three in Iraq and the last in Afghanistan — during six years of military service. His recovery involves intensive rehabilitation therapy at Walter Reed National Military Center in Bethesda.
"I was doing my job," he said. "I have no regrets about anything I have gone through for my country."
When he and Monica Montes, a Navy corpsman, became engaged a few weeks ago, she was eager to introduce him to her family in Florida. But the idea of commercial flight posed seemingly insurmountable problems, he said.
"The airlines just can't accommodate people with severe injuries," he said.
Veterans Airlift Command understands the plight of a wounded warrior.
"For some of these warriors, it would be a nightmare to fly commercially," said Jennifer Salvati, operations manager for the command. "We know that home visits are a really big deal, and we have 2,000 volunteer pilots who can make it happen."
In the five years since its founding, the Minnesota-based organization has flown more than 4,700 wounded warriors and their families, including 1,400 of them this year. Founder Walt Fricke was himself on a mission Wednesday flying another Marine, a triple-amputee, home to Minneapolis.
"Our Marine can skip the cost and the time-consuming process of a commercial flight," Stephanie Greenberg said. "The flight will be direct, shorter and much more comfortable. And, he can leave any time he wants. That's the beauty of this system."
Walt Gould, a former Army helicopter pilot who volunteers at the military hospital in Bethesda, drove Frazier and Montes to the terminal near BWI. "These trips home are so important," he said. "They really help with a warrior's recovery. This trip will be a big leg up for this Marine."
For Thanksgiving the couple drove to Pittsburgh to spend the holiday with Frazier's parents. He said his mother suggested Florida — with its sunshine and warm weather — for the Christmas holiday, even though he's an only child.
"Recovery has been a hard road, but I have had a lot of support from family and from these beautiful people," Frazier said of the Greenbergs. "I am looking forward to getting some color in my face and to some nice, warm weather."
Montes and Frazier met when he arrived in the intensive care unit of the Bethesda hospital. She nursed him there and agreed to accompany him to the operating room for surgery shortly after he arrived.
"Those beautiful blue eyes just got to me," she said. "He couldn't talk, but his eyes said it all for me. I stayed with him all that first night. I knew he didn't want to be alone. I went to the OR with him the next day. I knew right away he was someone special."
Frazier is facing more months of recovery. He hopes to leave the hospital early next year, maybe with a service dog. He has no plans to leave the Marines.
"After rehab, I think I will be fit for some kind of duty," he said.
Montes is looking forward to showing off her Marine to her family. They were to fly 813 nautical miles in about two hours and 20 minutes on a Citation 3 jet, the Greenbergs' company plane. Fuel cost is estimated to be about $6,000; the Greenbergs pick up that cost. Although both Greenbergs are licensed pilots, they left the flying to another and socialized with their guests.
"We are going to get you to the sunshine," Stephanie Greenberg promised them.
The two couples shared the nine comfortable seats with the two Dalmatians, both trained therapy dogs who have logged nearly as many flight hours as their owners.
"We brought cupcakes," Frazier said to his hosts.
"We are in trouble," said Stephanie Greenberg. "The dogs love cupcakes."
Veterans Airlift Command has already arranged for a return trip for Frazier and Montes to Maryland early next month on another plane, but the Greenbergs said they would remain on standby, if needed.
"You get to the point in your life when you think that you better start doing some good things," said Erwin Greenberg, a shopping center developer. "It doesn't get better than this."