ASHBURN, Va. — “I was just kind of figuring out how I was going to commit suicide.”
Like many who have confronted the physical and existential pain associated with a life-changing injury, Andrew Einstein doesn’t see the point in mincing words. Five years ago, he was a civil affairs marine, a sergeant serving as a sort of counselor in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. At just 23 years old, he helped broker deals with local tribes after the Taliban had been chased out of the area and was an expert in the challenges the tribes faced in one of the foremost poppy growing regions in the world.
Then a grenade exploded in front of him, leaving him as one of the more than 350,000 American military members diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury since 2000. He was back at home in New Jersey, looking for purpose and finding none. He was drinking.
“When I got back, I did everything they tell you not to do,” Einstein said. “I was days from taking my own life. I got Gunner, my service dog, and he gave me purpose again.”
The silver Labrador retriever sits stoically by his side as he recalls his journey. Gunner was step one, but Einstein still didn’t feel like he had agency over his life. In Afghanistan, he was in charge of carrying around as much as $50,000 on assignments, of briefing generals of the situation on the ground. Now he was living back at his parents’ house in Westampton Township, New Jersey.
“I come back home to working part-time, making $8 an hour,” he said. “As a part-time police officer, I had to lock my gun up. It felt like no one trusted me. I had no purpose.”
He volunteered with the fire department, running into burning buildings. He bought a motorcycle. Then, his first partner transferred and became a state trooper and died in the line of duty.
That’s when he found Operation Enduring Warrior (OEW), a nonprofit with a mission to empower, honor and motivate wounded veterans through communal activities. He found emotional support from fellow veterans who had been through the same experience he had. Specifically, he found skydiving.
“It’s what I was looking for, for four years,” Einstein said. “It’s helped me get through some dark times since then.”
And it’s why he’s sitting here, stroking Gunner’s head, in front of a large, clear plastic tube on something called All Abilities Night.
A vertical wind tunnel along a suburban Virginia highway may not be the first place many people would look for absolution from their pain. But there’s something democratizing about floating in the air — a place humans don’t naturally belong, and yet where, no matter your terrestrial mobility, all can exist equally.
Just across the parking lot from the new Topgolf, along the south side of Harry Byrd Highway in Ashburn, Virginia, sits iFly, an indoor skydiving center. Open since March, it is one of 37 locations around the world that offers clients the opportunity to skydive without actually jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. A protected fan atop the 14-foot-wide cylinder pulls air through the tube, lifting those inside as they create resistance, simulating free fall conditions.
It’s also surprisingly accessible: iFly touts itself as “fun, safe and thrilling for ages 3 to 103.” But its location in Portland, Oregon, started thinking about how the experience might open other doors to those who may not have ever considered skydiving a possibility.
The result was All Abilities Night. It was enough of a success that it was replicated at iFly’s Austin and Oklahoma City locations, and now in Loudoun County. On a recent fall evening, members of OEW were joined by Determined2Heal, a nonprofit devoted to simplifying life with a spinal cord injury, and Best Buddies, a volunteer program creating friendship and employment for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“The biggest thing with people with spinal injuries is they get scared to get outside the comfortable walls of their home,” said Josh Basile, founder of Determined2Heal. “Doing adventures like this helps people to kind of get outside their comfort zone, so that the next challenge that comes their way, they’re like, ‘You know, I could do this. I’m not afraid to try something new.’”
Basile, 31, was vacationing at Bethany Beach with his family as a teenager in 2004 when a wave picked him up and dropped him on his head, rendering him a paraplegic. After 10 months of recovery, the Bethesda, Maryland, resident was tired of feeling like a victim, the recipient of everyone else’s efforts.
“Everybody was kind of doing everything for me and I was ready to try to contribute myself,” he said of starting his nonprofit.
While Basile has gone on to graduate from college and law school, Determined2Heal has expanded into different activities, including adaptive surfing.
“I’m always on the lookout for something new, and I’m always looking for an excuse to get out of my wheelchair and get others out of their wheelchair,” said Basile.
But indoor skydiving doesn’t simply break someone out of the restrictions of their chair. It helps them shatter the painful limitations that gravity exerts on their body.
“It’s just such a unique way to experience the world,” said Basile. “We’re in our chairs all day long. And to get out and hover, to fly, like, how often do people get to do that?”
Sharon Drennan wasn’t so sure this was all a good idea. As the executive director of United Spinal Association of Richmond, Virginia, she is well-versed in the challenges that paraplegics and quadriplegics face. She is, even more so, because her son Rob has been in a wheelchair since he was 14.
“When Josh started talking about this to my son — who is 21, and has every right to come up here and do it on his own — I was a little hesitant,” she admitted. “I didn’t have a good feel of what it was all about.”
But Basile had brought Rob along for the adaptive surfing outing and had already been to iFly himself. That was enough to persuade the Drennans to make the two-hour trek north for All Abilities Night.
“I would never have thought that it was a possibility,” said Rob. “Me being me, I’m always up for something new, something exciting.”
The challenge is greater for the instructors when helping those with spinal injuries fly. Instead of simple one-on-one instruction, they go two or three at a time in the tube, securing they flyer’s legs together to keep them from moving too much. It’s crucial to have the most experienced instructors flying, who know how to keep everything steady. Otherwise, the flyer could suffer an injury like a dislocation and perhaps not even realize it until much later, if it became infected. Safety is always the first priority, but it takes on an added weight for events like these.
By the time Rob is up and floating, the smile on his face fills the room.
“You’re flying all around, the air’s rushing through your hair, past your skin — it just feels amazing,” he said. “Free. It just feels free.”
Amir Williams, 21, is an employment consultant with Best Buddies Jobs Capitol Region. But helping those with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs) is not only his vocation, it’s also his life. Several of his roommates have IDDs, so he knows the challenges they face in all facets of their lives.
“For our participants, who already have limitations in everyday life and go through a lot of adversity, we want to be able to give them the most comprehensive experience ever,” Williams said.
That means throwing on a jumpsuit and goggles like everyone else. It also means leveling the playing field in a different way. Wind tunnels are loud. So loud, in fact, that you can’t hear one another, so all communication between instructor and student takes place via hand signals, which you learn in a quick tutorial before flying. For those with autism or other IDDs, this simplifies and breaks down another potential communication barrier.
That puts them one step closer to equal footing with everyone else.
“I think honestly, living with guys with disabilities, it’s just feeling normal,” said Williams. “That’s what they tell me. Normal has a different bell curve for everyone, but they feel good, they feel fine.”
That’s another reason for All Abilities Night — to not only help each of these groups individually, but to help them see the challenges everyone faces.
“My stuff is invisible,” said Einstein of his brain injury. “But to see them is really inspiring. If they can do it, I absolutely can do it.”
It’s also a basic principal of OEW. Walter Romano is the program manager for the OEW skydiving program, where he has helped veterans suffering from a wide range of injuries take flight.
“Now that we’ve got so many people coming back from the service who have these kind of physical limitations, I think everybody’s eyes are kind of opening up a little bit more to other people of ‘all abilities,’ to quote the iFly term,” he said.
Bonnie Hoppa, a retired Navy Petty Officer First Class who served for nearly 10 years, understands. Like Einstein, her injuries are not readily apparent.
“When you become chronically ill in any category, you lose a chunk of your life you had before, all the things you used to do,” she said.
But she takes pride not just in OEW’s mission, but its attitude toward everyone who participates. Just like All Abilities Night, it’s not about what’s wrong with anyone, but rather about the fact that everyone is there with a common purpose.
“With OEW, we kind of have this standing rule that it’s never a competition of who is more broken, or who has been through more stuff,” she said. “It’s always positive; it’s always uplifting.”
Really, that’s the goal for everyone, no matter the circumstance that brought them here — to lift themselves up a little higher than yesterday and to afford themselves a brighter view of life beyond the horizon.