Wounded take to the sky

Published 10:17 pm Monday, August 15, 2011

Matias Ferreira entertains friends and family by attempting to swing into a handstand while he waited for other wounded warriors to take their turns skydiving on Sunday.

Matias Ferreira entertained his friends and family on Sunday by pressing up on his hands and swinging into a handstand.

His brother, father and several fellow Marines gasped as he fell from his handstand onto his artificial legs perched beside him, then started laughing as he swung back around to a sitting position, clearly unhurt.

But that wasn’t even the craziest thing the double-amputee did this weekend.

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Earlier, he had gone skydiving as part of the “Jumping for a Purpose” event, which brought dozens of wounded warriors to Skydive Suffolk to let them skydive for free.

The event raised funds for charities that support wounded warriors through donations from attendees, refreshment sales and more. It was sponsored by TroopSwap.com and Skydive Suffolk.

Jim Day, left, a skydiving instructor with Skydive Suffolk, helps U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Colin Pascik get into his tandem harness before his skydive on Sunday. More than 40 wounded military service members and veterans took the plunge for free during the “Jumping for a Purpose” event, which raised money for several charities that assist wounded warriors.

“It was outstanding,” said 22-year-old Justin Gaertner. “I wasn’t really nervous until we jumped. It was nice once the parachute opened. It was a real relaxing ride.”

Gaertner and Ferreira are best friends. The Marines met in Walter Reed Army Medical Center after getting their legs blown off in separate attacks in Afghanistan.

Gaertner is part of a team that detects and defuses explosive devices. He was riding in a convoy near Marjah, Afghanistan, on Nov. 26, 2010, when the vehicle in front of his was hit.

When Gaertner and others got out of their vehicle to rescue their comrades, they discovered there were other explosive devices nearby. Gaertner and another Marine stepped on two of them. Both later had both their legs amputated. Another Marine died in the attack.

Ferreira had a bad feeling when he woke up on Jan. 21, 2011.

“I knew something bad was going to happen,” he said. “I just didn’t know it was going to happen to me.”

He was helping to set up machine guns on platforms that day when he jumped from one platform to another, not knowing there was an improvised explosive device under that platform. The blast took off his legs, shattered his femur, broke his pelvis and sent embedded bullets flying, one of them into his shoulder.

“I would never take it back,” he said.

Both are now walking with their prostheses. They plan on running marathons and going on bicycling adventures together.

After all they’ve been through since their injuries, skydiving was a walk in the park.

“I’ve done more since I got hit than I did before I got hit,” Gaertner said. He’s also been surfing and water-skiing.

Across the hangar, 21-year-old Colin Pascik sat uncomfortably in his tandem harness, resting his hands on a cane and tapping a foot at the end of his artificial leg to the music from the band outside. He was on deck for the next trip into the sky.

“We wanted to do it before we deployed, but none of my buddies had the money,” he said.

Pascik was injured Aug. 22, 2010, when he also stepped on an explosive device in Afghanistan.

“It’s cool,” he said of the event. “As long as everything goes smoothly in my jump.”

Larry Pennington, owner of Skydive Suffolk, said 42 wounded veterans of every conflict from Korea to Iraq had shown up to jump.

“Some of them said it was the best experience of their life,” he said.

Ferreira said many of the wounded veterans jump at any chance to get away from the grind of physical therapy and rehabilitation.

“If they tell you you have an opportunity to do it, why not?” he said. “You don’t really have anything to lose.”