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This SC nonprofit helps veterans cope with PTSD by repairing helicopters and teaching kids

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Lori Wicker talks about an AH-1F Cobra in Celebrate Freedom Foundation’s hangar at Columbia Metropolitan Airport. John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

WEST COLUMBIA — Sitting on the tarmac of a small hangar near the Columbia Metropolitan Airport is a row of faded green military helicopters that at first glance appear to have been left for scrap. 

There are three Bell AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters used in combat during Vietnam and Desert Storm but missing various propellers, rotors and engines. There is a small, dilapidated Cessna O-1 Bird Dog, used extensively for spying post-World War II, that's been gutted. There is a bright yellow Beechcraft T-34 Mentor, once used to train Navy pilots, that is parked nearby.

There's also a near-pristine Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter, otherwise known as the "Huey," which flew soldiers in and out of combat during the bloody jungle fighting in Vietnam. 

None of these are used by the military anymore, but they've found a new mission. 

The Celebrate Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit based near the airport, takes old military helicopters and planes and gives them new life. A little more than 200 veteran-volunteers, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, refurbish, paint, repair and mend the aircraft as a way to cope with their experiences during war.

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Tom Robbins operations manager paints an AH-1F Cobra in Celebrate Freedom Foundation’s hangar at Columbia Metropolitan Airport. John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

Once the helicopters are back in working order, Celebrate Freedom Foundation flies or cargoes them for tours at schools around South Carolina. Sometimes they'll fly the equipment around the state to teach kids about the military and possible careers in engineering. 

So far, the Celebrate Freedom Foundation has brought one Cobra helicopter and a Huey back to flying condition. Many of the other aircraft are well on their way to being restored but still dependent on donations to fully repair them.

Others, such as a second Cobra helicopter painted with a bright orange Bengal tiger by high school students from Camden, aren't flyable. But the aircraft is still transported to schools on a trailer, giving kids the chance to sit in the cockpit and see what it's like inside one of the military's most prolific attack choppers.

Lori Wicker helms the day-to-day operations of the nonprofit. As executive vice president of the Celebrate Freedom Foundation, she helps recruit veterans into the program and said the hangar on Airport Boulevard has become a safe space for retired service members healing from the mental and emotional wounds of war, especially during the pandemic. 

"Because of COVID, a lot of places have been closed and some of these veterans were returning to dark places," Wicker said. "This gets them out of the house and around other service members and is a safe space for them."

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Various military hats hang above a desk at the Celebrate Freedom Foundation. John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

Working with these men isn't always easy. Wicker recalled one Purple Heart recipient who'd resented that she hadn't served in the military but had a role with the group, and pulled a knife on her. She talked to him, let him know he was loved and he ended up becoming one of the nonprofits' most diligent workers before moving on to a full-time job in the private sector. 

Wicker never served, but her father was a veteran. At 17 years old, her dad was paralyzed during the Korean War. After seeing his struggles, she's always felt called to honor America's service members. 

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"It's a vocation," Wicker said. "I've always felt a deep love for our military and I wanted to give back."

The Celebrate Freedom Foundation started in 1999 by a group of retired military service members mainly as a way to organize a parade honoring veterans in Columbia. But after some helicopters were donated to the nonprofit, the mission expanded. 

By 2007, the program reached a handful of schools. By 2013, Battery Creek High School in Beaufort became the first landing pad for "Maggie," one of the Cobra helicopters.

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Boyd Davis a volunteer at the Celebrate Freedom Foundation, moves a piece of a Bell UH-1A “Huey.” John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

Fast forward to 2021, and there's already 131 requests from schools for the veterans and their helicopters to make an appearance.

The pandemic has put a damper on donations, which are about $85,000 below that from last year. At least 22 schools this school year didn't sign up for helicopter visits like they did in 2020.The reason is two-fold: the move to home-learning by schools and that the group charges $5,000 to make an appearance.

Many companies, such as Dominion Energy and PPG Aerospace, and even the Army have provided donations and grants to the group. But COVID-19 slashed some of that funding from outside sources. 

"It's a struggle," said Missy Robbins, the office manager for the nonprofit. "A lot of companies we get grants from have cut back, too. But we're staying optimistic."

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has been tough on donations, they're still trying to connect with as many school-aged groups as possible. 

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A working Beechcraft T-34 Mentor outside the hangar at the Celebrate Freedom Foundation. John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

“Reaching students in their early years is critical to inspire them to become anything they want to be," Board Chairman John Lenti said. "It is our job to put all of the potential opportunities in front of them."

There have been other setbacks than the pandemic throughout the years. 

In December 2019, a motorist from North Carolina hit "Annie," one of the operational Cobra helicopters in the early morning. It had survived combat tours in both Vietnam and Desert Storm but had to be permanently grounded because of the extensive damage the crash caused. 

Since then, Wicker said the nonprofit has been given other vehicles, including a gyrocopter and two Cessna O-1 Bird Dogs. They also received another Huey from a private owner in Virginia who has paid the foundation to restore it to the craft's original condition. 

Wicker is glad the veterans still have projects to work on during the pandemic. She knows how crucial the hangar has been to many of the former soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines this year. 

"This gives a lot of them a reason to keep going," Wicker said. "They could be out there drinking in the bars. But they're here helping the youth and helping each other and it gives them some peace of mind."

Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5713. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

Thomas Novelly is a political reporter based in Charleston. He also covers the military community and veterans throughout South Carolina. Previously, he wrote for the Courier Journal in Kentucky. He is a fan of Southern rock, bourbon and horse racing.

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