The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
January/February 2006
FEATURE
 
 

Freedom Flight's
POW / MIA Message From Above

 

BY JIM BELSHAW

Jim Tuorila’s most memorable hot air balloon flight comes with a small bit of irony attached to one of its more prominent elements—altitude. The veteran balloon pilot and co-founder of Freedom Flight, Inc., a non-profit organization that raises awareness as well as hot air balloons, had flown hundreds of times. But when one of his passengers requested that he take his distinctive black balloon with the easily recognizable POW/MIA logo to 5,000 feet, Tuorila acquiesced with little enthusiasm.

“I don’t like to fly high,” he said, laughing. “I’m afraid of heights. I can’t lean over the side of a tall building and feel comfortable. I probably wouldn’t be flying this balloon if it weren’t for the issue.”

But the POW/MIA issue and the balloon are inseparable. The striking black craft with its three 30-foot high POW/MIA logos is like no other and is easily spotted even in a sky like Albuquerque’s in October, when mass ascensions at the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta might number more than a thousand colorful balloons in all shapes and sizes gliding over the city.

Tuorila’s three guests that day came with special significance. So he opened up the balloon’s gas burners and the black craft rose into the air. His passengers were women married to men still listed as MIA from the Vietnam War. He doesn’t remember which one asked that he fly to 5,000 feet, but Tuorila has been a psychologist at a VA Medical Center in Minnesota for 20 years; he was curious to see what would happen when they reached that altitude. Balloon flights generally skim the earth, the better to see and be seen. At 5,000 feet, people on the ground are barely able to see the balloon. He couldn’t imagine why his passenger wanted to climb that high.

He said that the moment they reached the requested altitude will stay with him forever.

“We get up there and she says this is the altitude the military said her husband was at when he ejected from his plane over Vietnam,” he said. “She wanted to see what the world looked like when he ejected. It touched me so deeply that I’ll never forget that flight with those women.”


Freedom Flight, the POW/MIA Hot Air Balloon Team, has flown in more than seven hundred events since its first flight in November 1989. The non-profit now has three balloons that attend 35 to 45 events a year, staffed entirely by volunteers. The organization grew out of Tuorila’s vocation—psychology—and his avocation—hot air balloons.

In 1981, while attending graduate school at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, he worked with a group of World War II ex-POWs called the “Lost Battalion,” all of them survivors of more than three years in Japanese prison camps. That work inspired Tuorila to write his doctoral dissertation on the effects of captivity, especially regarding the work of Victor Frankl and his famous writings following his own imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps.

While doing his doctoral internship at the Topeka, Kansas, VA Medical Center, Tuorila and his wife volunteered to crew for a hot air balloon. When he went to work in Minnesota, they saw a balloon in flight one day and decided to volunteer again.

In 1987, he appeared on a local TV program to talk about the emotional difficulties families face when a loved one returns after years of captivity. On the program he met the daughter of a Navy pilot shot down and declared MIA. The daughter told him that the government story of her father’s disappearance was very much at odds with the story told by her father’s wingman, who made a point of finding the pilot’s family to tell them the true story of the incident.

By then, Tuorila and his wife were crewing on a balloon flown by a Vietnam veteran who had been encouraging him to set up a non-profit with an eye toward calling attention to the POW/MIA issue.

Then one day at work, his professional life and his weekend life coalesced.

“I told my co-therapist, ‘You know, I’ve been flying and working with balloons for five years now. What about a black POW/MIA balloon? What kind of attention would that get?’ “

The co-therapist and co-founder of Freedom Flight, Vietnam veteran Bill Nohner, thought it was a great idea. A year later, Freedom Flight, Inc., obtained status as a non-profit educational organization.

In 1989, the first flight went up. Its first passenger was Henry Sha, a World War II veteran and ex-POW who happened to stop his car when the balloon landed nearby.  Invited onboard, he didn’t hesitate.


Now in its sixteenth year, Freedom Flight continues to attract attention, sometimes through a little luck. At the 2005 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, Tuorila volunteered to give rides to the media. A Voice of America camera crew making a documentary on the balloon fiesta accepted his offer. When the crew members found out who they were flying with, a new angle for the documentary emerged.

“When they found out what we were doing with the balloon, I think the program changed to include Freedom Flight and everything we were doing,” Tuorila said.

The change was in keeping with how Tuorila describes the past sixteen years.  “The reception we’ve gotten over the years make the hair on the back of my neck stand up,” Tuorila said. “It’s been incredible. I’ve had what I assume to be a Vietnam veteran come up, put $100 in my pocket and say, ‘Keep it up,’ then walk away. I’ve had family members of the missing come up to me with tears in their eyes. I’ve had ex-POWs come up and thank us. Everywhere we go, the reception has been positive and  overwhelming, and that keeps us flying.”

For more information on Freedom Flight go to www.freedomflight.org or call Jim Tuorila at 320-252-7208.

   

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