Soaring to Recovery: Veterans try paragliding to find inspiration in La Jolla

Army Veteran Damien Burch came back from Iraq and Afghanistan unscathed physically, but mentally and emotionally, his struggles are as real as any other. He battles anxiety and alcoholism on a daily basis. However, in collaboration with the non-profit group Warrior Passion, he organized a paragliding tandem experience for himself and other veterans to help them stay engaged and find an activity that might become their life motivation.

“I stayed at the Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital in La Jolla for a month, and used to come (to Torrey Pines Gliderport) to relax. It was so therapeutic for me to just watch the guys fly around. I thought, why not ask if I could get some Vets up in the air? Helping others helps me,” Burch said.

On Thursday, Aug. 25 his group met at the Torrey Pines Gliderport for a taste of paragliding in La Jolla. Warrior Passion provides veterans with exhilarating experiences that help them find motivation. As founder and president Joseph Porrazzo explained, “We give them good adrenaline-based sports and hobbies they can enjoy, and the idea is for them to have something they can be passionate about.”

Porrazzo, who served in the Marine Corps for 22 years, said the seed for Warrior Passion was planted when he lost two close friends in a mid-air collision during a mission in Iraq. “I learned very quickly that the way we get through this is, we rely on each other. Fast forward 10 years, I came up with the idea to start this non-profit because there are so many veterans out there hurting. Not only injured and disabled from the wars, but also mentally, and in their hearts. I want to get them that connection (to other veterans) back, and serve them in the process.”

Warrior Passion also takes veterans SCUBA diving, camping, hunting, fishing, hiking and more often than not, Porrazzo flies them around in his acrobatic airplane. He pointed out, “I leave it up to them to see what their passion is. When they find it, we go from there.”

Flying around in his airplane is how Porrazzo met Joshua Elliot (pictured), one of the veterans who enjoyed the paragliding experience. “I was spared from depression after military service, but I can see how (paragliding) would be a reason to keep you going because you get to see so much support (from the community),” he said.

Elliot, a former Marine Corps sergeant and combat engineer, stepped on an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in Afghanistan and lost his legs and half of his right hand. He said his faith kept him going through recovery, and eight months after getting injured, he went back to his passion, “snow.” However, instead of snowboarding, Elliot found a new sport, mono-skiing. He’s part of the Disabled Sports USA Team and a member of the Aspen Valley Ski-Snowboard Club.

“When mono-skiing off that single ski, I sit in a bucket and strap myself in, and then I have mechanics and a shock underneath me that actuates so it acts like a knee. I have two riggers on my hands that I use for balance, and then I just rip down the mountain. It’s really fun,” Elliot explained.

After paragliding for an hour, Elliot proclaimed the experience “amazing!”

“Once you’re out there in this seated position, relaxing, floating around in the sky ... it becomes more relaxing and peaceful than extreme.” But he added that the best part — and his favorite thing about living in San Diego — was to feel the community support, “knowing that America supports us and people are out there excited to see us and get us doing this kind of thing.”

Torrey Pines Gliderport instructor Gabriel Jebb said that the company gives veterans free tandem flights twice a year. He explained that the flight the veterans went on could go on for hours on a good day. The tandem experience, he pointed out, can be repeated solo with adequate training. “We are the largest training operation in North America,” Jebb said. “It takes about 25 days to get your certification, and after that, it’s a real portable sport; you can take it anywhere.”

Porrazzo hopes that with these experiences veterans will find a passion to fill their days. “If I take somebody flying, and they love it, I provide them the resources and the path to go get their private pilot’s license. If they love paragliding, I put them on the path to learn, get the equipment and do it themselves,” he said.

What to know more? Visit warriorpassion.org

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