Wounded warriors sky-dive, drive race cars at Texas Motor Speedway
The Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram
FORT WORTH -- Terry Valenzuela stared into the blue sky over Texas Motor Speedway and waited for his son.
He finally spotted him -- a tiny dot plunging from an airplane, parachute billowing open and gently carrying Marine Cpl. Jesse Fletcher onto a grassy patch on the infield.
Fletcher unstrapped himself from the chute, rose on two prosthetic legs and greeted his dad with a firm hug. Valenzuela, who lives in Arlington, had not seen his son for months. Fletcher lives in North Carolina.
"He called me last night and said, 'Hey, I'm in town tomorrow. And I'm going to be jumping out of an airplane,'" Valenzuela said. "I was quite surprised."
Fletcher was among several dozen wounded warriors at the speedway Friday morning to sky-dive, drive race cars and listen to music -- the start of a weekend of events honoring their service.
The HALO for Freedom Warrior Foundation and Ride 2 Recovery designed the events to offer wounded veterans a fun weekend, as well as raise money and awareness to combat the challenges they face in the transition to civilian life.
Fletcher, a 24-year-old scout sniper with the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, lost his legs and several fingers Oct. 17, 2011, to an improvised explosive device during combat operations in Afghanistan. He spent more than a year recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.
Fletcher described the sensation of falling from the sky as "weightless."
"It's as close as you can do to flying," Fletcher said. "Texas Motor Speedway is so big. It's just mind-blowing to be able to come and land in it."
Friday's opening ceremony included music by country music artist Aaron Tippin and a choreographed sky dive by Team Fastrax, a professional jumping team. That jump featured a 15,000-square-foot U.S. flag, the largest ever incorporated into a sky-diving event, organizers said.
Dana Bowman, a retired sergeant first class in the Army and a double amputee, was among the veterans who jumped. Bowman was a member of the Army's elite parachute team, the Golden Knights, and he lost his legs in a 1994 midair collision while training with a teammate in Arizona. He is now a member of the Halo Foundation.
"When I lost my legs, I didn't lose my spirit," Bowman said.
Sky diving was not the only event that attracted thrill-seekers. Many wounded veterans signed up to drive race cars. Mike Starr of Team Texas High Performance Driving School hosted a pre-race briefing, explaining the track and how to get in and out of the cars.