KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — The veteran skydiver who made a tandem jump with former President George H.W. Bush on his 90th birthday has made it his mission to help veterans overcome grief, anxiety, and war injuries by taking a literal leap of faith.
Retired Sergeant First Class Mike Elliott started a private skydiving team five years ago with a dream — and a single parachute — after retiring from the USArmy Golden Knights.
‘‘I thought, ‘I’m still young enough to do this. I still love doing what I’m doing,’ ’’ the 45-year-old from Fayetteville, N.C. said.
These days, the All Veteran Group consists of 15 members, mostly combat veterans. They travel in a leased King Air 90 airplane and perform across the country to show support for veterans. Unlike other high-profile skydiving groups, the veterans prefer smaller events to make connections with individuals.
Elliott and the nation’s 41st president have a long relationship and had made two jumps together before Thursday’s leap from a helicopter at 6,300 feet.
Jumping together from an aircraft, it turns out, tends to create a life-changing connection. Elliott said the group is using that experience to help veterans.
Some of the most rewarding work, he said, has been helping veterans with injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder and participating in ‘‘leap of faith’’ weekends with gold star families, those who have lost loved ones during war.
The group has taken injured veterans from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and demonstrated that those missing limbs can still do plenty of things, including experience the thrill of hurtling from the sky at 120 miles per hour.
‘‘I’ve seen a guy who’s looking sad, and at the end of a jump, he’s smiling and high-fiving,’’ Elliott said. ‘‘To be able to give back is one of the biggest things.’’
Military families who have experienced a loss carry their own wounds.
For them, the group encourages participants in quarterly events to write down their troubles on a slip of paper. ‘‘Once the parachute opens up, they say whatever they want to say and they let it go. They let go of whatever they’re grieving over. To be able to see that transformation is amazing,’’ Elliott said.
The pain is real, both for veterans and families.
Elliott knows firsthand. The veteran who intended to serve as the group’s logistics coordinator took his life, and Elliott wants to try to prevent that from happening to other veterans.
Bush is a veteran, too.
He escaped major injury during World War II when he bailed out of an airplane. He now uses a wheelchair because of a form of Parkinsonism that has robbed him of the use of his legs.
Elliott said skydiving gives the disabled a charge of adrenaline.
‘‘People thought he couldn’t do it because of his health. So I think he made a statement, ‘Don’t take no for an answer.’ If you want to do something and have the passion and desire to do, then by all means do it,’’ he said.