Wounded warriors skydive, drive race cars at Texas Motor Speedway

Posted Saturday, Mar. 02, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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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 U.S. 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 airplane,' " Valenzuela said. "I was quite surprised."

Fletcher was among the several dozen wounded warriors Friday morning at the speedway -- skydiving, driving race cars and listening to music -- the start to a weekend of events honoring their service. HALO for Freedom's 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 transitioning back 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.

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 skydiving jump by Team Fastrax, a professional jumping team. That jump featured a 15,000 square-foot U.S. flag, the largest ever incorporated into a skydiving event, organizers said.

Dana Bowman, a retired Sergeant First Class in the U.S. Army and double amputee, was among the veterans who jumped. Bowman was a member of the U.S. Army's elite parachute team, the Golden Knights, and he lost his legs in a 1994 mid-air 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. "And there are a lot of people out there who helped me along the way. We're here today to give back to all our wounded warriors and show them that we're here to support them."

Skydiving was not the only event that attracted thrill seekers. Many wounded veterans signed up to drive race cars. Mike Starr, owner 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.

Jacob Pope, a 27-year-old Marine with a prosthetic leg below the knee, said he traveled to Fort Worth from North Carolina with about 10 other wounded veterans because he could not pass up the chance to drive a stock car.

"I wasn't really planning on skydiving but now I don't think I'll hear the end of it if I don't," he said. "But driving is what I looked forward to the most. It's a good time."

Injured by an explosive during a mission in 2011, Pope called himself lucky.

"I got what we call a paper cut," Pope said. "I can pretty much still do anything. Some of my friends here have it much worse."

As the injured veterans gathered for Starr's briefing, Fletcher hung behind with family. Asked what else he planned to do with the rest of the day, he said he was not too focused on the organized activities.

"I'm going to spend the rest of my day with my father," he said. "That's the best gift anyone could give me."

Alex Branch, 817-390-7689

Twitter: @albranch1

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