TAMKO Marks 10 Years in Veterans Airlift Command Program

Article and photos by Savanah Mandeville

The motto of the Veterans Airlift Command “Hero Flights” Program is: “They’ve got heart, they need wings.”

TAMKO Building Products Inc., a Joplin-based manufacturer, has been bringing the wings for 10 years.

The Hero Flights program works to bring injured American soldiers, sailors, airmen and their families together by providing free air transportation through a national network of volunteer aircraft owners and pilots.

This May marked 10 years TAMKO has donated its planes, fuel and corporate pilots to transport wounded veterans and their families.

Chief Pilot Jim Burnside, who has been with TAMKO since 2000, said when wounded veterans or their families have a travel need, Veterans Airlift Command (VAC) sends out mass communications to find open plane seats, and when possible, TAMKO answers the call. Since 2008, TAMKO has participated in 15 flights.

Burnside and pilot Mike Bentley, who has been with TAMKO since 2009, have flown multiple Hero Flights each.

“It’s always an honor to be able to do it,” Bentley said. “We get to meet the person, learn their story and a lot of times meet a family member that is traveling with them. When you get the whole story of what happened and realize the sacrifice that they made for us, it’s very humbling that we get to give back to them.”

Burnside said one particularly memorable flight was when he transported Rob O’Neill and his children across the country. Rob O’Neill is the former Navy Seal who played a key role in the mission where Osama bin Laden was assassinated.

“He was an interesting guy,” Burnside said. “He sat up front with me and told me stories for two hours.”

TAMKO’s first-ever VAC flight was in May 2008 for an Afghanistan veteran who lost his leg when his vehicle hit an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). Transportation was provided from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to his home in Kansas.

Other TAMKO Hero Flight passengers have included a soldier’s wife in Missouri who was transported to visit her wounded husband at Walter Reed; a recovering soldier who was flown to Walter Reed hospital to be with his friend and fellow soldier when he passed away from his injuries; an Afghanistan veteran who was flown from Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. He was severely injured when his vehicle was hit by an IED in 2012.

The most recent passenger was a U.S. Marine Corps corporal who has been transported numerous times. He became the second surviving quadruple amputee after he stepped onto an IED in 2010 while crossing a crude bamboo bridge in Afghanistan.

Burnside and Bentley agreed every Hero Flight is memorable and an honor.

“I remember every one of my Hero Flights,” Bentley said. “Everyone we’ve transported is such a good person. You see what they’ve given and sacrificed, and what we do seems like a small part that we can play to give back to these heroes.”