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100,000 Angels Is Milestone Celebration

100,000 Angels. That was the name of a special celebration held on April 18 at the Army Navy Country Club in Arlington, Virginia, to commemorate the 100,000 angel trips provided by Mercy Medical Airlift (MMA) since its first patient flight in 1972. MMA is the parent nonprofit organization that runs Air Compassion for Veterans. Sixty percent of all missions are for veterans, and the armed forces were well represented at the event. The audience of over 250 included distinguished members of the military, most notably Brian Thacker, recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic service in Vietnam; Ezra Hill, legendary Tuskegee Airman and professional singer; retired high-ranking officers, and active duty service members. Several nonprofit groups supporting the military also attended, such as Paws for Vets, Wounded Warrior Family Support, AMVETS and others. Other special guests included Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Rep. Stephen Stockman of Texas, and Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina. In addition, several volunteer pilots attended. Five were named “Pilots of the Year” for their states and received their awards at the event. These pilots transport ill or injured veterans and other patients in their own private aircraft, assuming all costs associated with flight, including fuel, landing fees, and repair and maintenance.

Following a reception with drinks and heavy hors d’ouevres, the formal program began. Mercy Medical’s CEO and President Edward Boyer gave the keynote speech, saying, “Without MMA programs, many cannot afford the long distance travel often necessary to access a medical specialist for evaluation, diagnosis or treatment.” He invited the audience “to find a special way” to complete the “medical access mosaic in the United States…” and told everyone to “Mark your calendar for a celebration of the one millionth patient transport. It will happen sooner than you think!”

The most compelling moments of the evening were testimonials from two patients served by MMA programs. The first was Astrid, the mother of a child born with a severe heart condition whose life was saved by a pioneering surgeon at Stanford and for whom MMA provided free airline tickets. Eliana is now a thriving four-year-old. To express her appreciation, Astrid, a professional harpist, played a beautiful song she had written, “Angel’s Wings,” moving many people to tears.

The other patient was Richard Norris, victim of a shooting accident 15 years ago that destroyed most of his face. He flew 100 times with Angel Flight pilots from his home in rural southwest Virginia for treatment, surgery, and follow-up therapy at the Shock and Trauma Center of the University of Maryland Medical Center. The 37-year-old man had lived behind a mask and as a recluse before undergoing surgery in March 2012, receiving the most comprehensive face transplant in history. The operation gave him a new face and a new life, and his brief remarks of appreciation represented his first public appearance since the accident.

The West Point Alumni Glee Club added fun to the evening, singing songs from the different military branches. The audience joined in with gusto.

The program ended with Ezra Hill briefly describing the struggles and triumphs of the Tuskegee Airmen, then singing “God Bless America” in his big baritone voice as the audience rose to its feet in tribute.