"Wings of Appreciation" flies disabled veterans over Smith Mountain Lake

Volunteer pilots took veterans with PTSD on a flight

BEDFORD COUNTY, Va. – A new program in the Roanoke Valley takes veteran appreciation to new heights.

Volunteer pilots donated their time to disabled veterans Saturday through the Wings of Appreciation program, which teaches them about aviation from more than 2,000 feet up.

Thirteen pilots started their engines Saturday morning, flying from Roanoke to Smith Mountain Lake to give a group of 17 veterans the rides of their lives. It's something veteran squadron leader Marvin Johnson has never done before.

"Just a great appreciation coming from a veteran going to the pilots that take their time out to give an opportunity to us veterans," Johnson said.

Like many of his fellow veterans, Johnson is still suffering the lasting effects of combat.

"I had a problem with being able to be around people due to PTSD, and I had a friend who also actually suffers from PTSD who got me involved in Project Healing Waters," Johnson said.

Project Healing Waters is a nonprofit that hosts fishing events for veterans, but on Saturday the group partnered with Wings of Appreciation to go from spending time on the lake, to above it.

"It gets them out of the hospital, it gets them out of their treatment facility. They get to see life from a totally different perspective from a couple thousand feet in the air. They get to experience aviation. A lot of them have never been in a small plane," Wings of Appreciation founder Wiley Loughran said.

"We came out, got on top of the clouds, and it was just absolutely beautiful," World War II veteran pilot John Billings said.

But Johnson said even more important than the view are the connections he's built.

"You get to network with other soldiers who suffer just like you do," Johnson said.

A network that despite his condition, Johnson says helps him live life to the fullest.

Project Healing Waters is a local organization for veterans that helps them connect with others who have seen combat, while participating in a multitude of events. For more information on how to sign up, click here.