‘A gnarly journey’: Skydivers jump in all 50 states to raise awareness for veterans
By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 18, 2018
FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii — Sandwiched between the blue of Hawaii’s sky and sea, a pair of skydivers completed their quest Tuesday to parachute in all 50 states during a single cross-country trek.
Annette O’Neil, 37, and Joel Strickland, 38, parachuted over Dillingham Airfield on the North Shore of Oahu, completing their Down for 50 journey that began May 1 in Arizona.
The jumps were intended to raise awareness of Operation Enduring Warrior, a veteran-founded nonprofit organization with programs to aid wounded military and law enforcement veterans with physical and emotional rehabilitation.
“With this stop in Hawaii, we will have done that,” O’Neil told Stars and Stripes shortly before the final jump out of Oahu Parachute Center.
So how does it feel to come to the end of a journey that has consumed almost a half-year?
“Dude, you have no idea how stoked we are to be logging the 50th jump for the books,” O’Neil said. “It has been a gnarly journey.”
She ticked off a litany of hurdles they met along the way, including dodging a hurricane, a $7,000 transmission repair job on the RV they used to wend through the bottom 48 states and a bad jump landing that hospitalized Strickland for three weeks.
In Missouri, state number 20 in the sequence, Strickland took a very hard landing in a body of water that left him dazed and listless. Nevertheless, the pair drove to the next state.
“I do the Iowa jump when we get there, Joel being unable to move from the couch,” O’Neil blogged of the experience. “By the next morning, he’s starting to smell like a corpse. I tell him we’re driving to a hospital. He’s too weak to argue.”
A surgeon at the University of Wisconsin Medical Center told them Strickland had punctured his bowel with the impact on the water and was within hours of death.
Once Strickland was out of surgery and out danger, the two decided O’Neil would continue the journey as he recuperated in the hospital, after which he made the decision to rejoin the effort.
His return went to the heart of why they were making the jumps.
“We’re doing this for the benefit of guys who have suffered much more serious injuries,” she said of wounded veterans, some of whom must adjust to life with multiple limbs amputed. “It really inspired him to come out of surgery and to give it a solid three weeks of recovery and then say, ‘You know what? I’m back in it. I’m getting on the plane.’”
O’Neil is the daughter of a 27-year Air Force veteran, who then went on to a second career with the Department of Veterans Affairs as associate chief of staff for ambulatory care services at Quillen VA Medical Center in Tennessee.
“I met a lot of people while my dad worked at the VA who really could have used a sport like skydiving and, more importantly, a community like skydiving,” she said.
While parachuting at Skydive Arizona in Eloy between Phoenix and Tucson, she met a group of people involved with Operation Enduring Warrior, which operates a skydiving program for wounded veterans out of that location.
The program offers “an unparalleled sense of freedom of flight and endless mental, physical, and emotional rehabilitative solutions in what can feel like a completely new dimension in their lives, often becoming a lifelong hobby,” OEW explains on its website.
“I got really stoked about that,” O’Neil said. “So, I came up with this idea to skydive in all 50 states and to be the first to do it all in one trip.”
“Even in a niche as small as skydiving, there are a lot of folks who didn’t know that Operation Enduring Warrior did skydiving,” she said. “Even a lot of military and veteran skydivers didn’t know Operation Enduring Warrior exists.”
A final batch of jumps at the end of September were a mad dash, with the pair making jumps in six states in a single week. The haste was driven by depleting funds, earlier delays caused by uncooperative weather and the looming expiration of the U.S. travel visa for Strickland, a citizen of Great Britain.
“My ardent wish was to stay awhile at each dropzone; to get to know the people there, more than just an itty-bitty little bit,” O’Neil blogged recently. “To tell stories; to stand together, staring at campfires; to jump; to play; to eventually snuggle good-byes like dear friends. In my head, we’d only ever be pulling up anchor after a few luxurious days at port.
“The reality is that this trip looks like a quarterback running down the field, slapping a couple dozen lined-up high-fives.”