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Sky Warriors Give CNM Vets New Way to Cope

July 30, 2015 -- Shawn Armijo was a Hospital Corpsman in the Navy under the Operation Iraqi Freedom Operation/Operation Enduring Freedom (OIF/OEE) conflict. David Walker was a Naval aircraft electrician second class during the Vietnam War. Different wars, different men, different generations. But both CNM students share some of the same post-war transitioning issues that many veterans experience when they come home.
Sky Warriors Give CNM Vets New Way to Cope

Jul 30, 2015

To ease the transition from soldier to civilian, CNM Dean of Students Rudy Garcia devised an innovative program, called Sky Warriors, which pairs veterans with hot air ballooning, giving them new ways to cope with the changes in their lives. Ten hand-picked veterans, who are CNM students, meet every Saturday morning for ten weeks to learn how to be part of a hot air balloon chase crew.

"When the dean asked me to participate, I wasn't sure if I wanted to," Walker said. "There was a big difference in ages – the youngest was 22 and the oldest in his 60s. They came from different branches of the military and served in different wars, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Desert Storm and Vietnam."

But it worked. Not only have the ten veterans learned the skills of a chase crew, they've become a team and rediscovered the camaraderie that they had in the military.

"In the military you have no choice but to work together," Armijo said. "On the outside all are civilians, and there is no structure. Ballooning has brought us together."

He added that one crew member was shy during the first few weeks of the program. He didn't' want to participate. The veteran soon came out of his shell and is now a full contributing crew member.

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More than the camaraderie and having the opportunity to share their war recollections with people who have gone through similar experiences, the ballooning is helping the veterans better deal with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and other physical consequences of war.

"PTSD vets are scared of certain surroundings because of what they experienced in war – like gunfire and bombs blowing up," Armijo said. "For example, when someone with PTSD pulls into a parking lot, the first thing he sees are obstacles. He sees people walking around with cell phones and unattended cars with open trunks. He's on guard because he once saw a car blow up in Afghanistan or Iraq that was set off by a cell phone. People with cell phones strike fear within the veteran's inner readiness. That kind of thing stays with you."

Ballooning helps the veterans once again get used to loud noises and fire, which otherwise might take years to overcome.

"This is so different than traditional therapy where you go into a room and talk about your war experiences," Armijo added. "That's really difficult. Sometimes it freaks you out when you go into detail with a therapist. In ballooning you can revisit the war, but it is done in a whole different way that doesn't make you relive the trauma."