Veteran Parachute Team visits Naperville after jumping with ex-president

Not everyone gets to take a former U.S. president for a ride. But when you’re the former leader of the free world and celebrating your 90th birthday, you have to do more than blow out the candles.

Monday afternoon at the VFW post at 908 W. Jackson St. in Naperville, veterans and family members greeted the All Veteran Parachute Team and its members, led by Mike Elliott, who made his third jump with former president George Bush last week in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Elliott, 45, who is stationed at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, also jumped with Bush when the former president was 83 to celebrate the reopening of his presidential library, and again on his 85th birthday. He and his men rode in vans led by a police escort, whose sirens announced their arrival.

Deb Wolfe of Naperville, who has jumped with Elliott before, remembered the first time she jumped, which was on the anniversary of her son Cpl. Anthony Mihalo’s death.

“I was terrified but I thought of all the people who put the uniform on and I thought, how could I not do this?” she said. “I’ve always been glad I did that.”

Wearing sunglasses and looking extremely fit, Elliott welcomed well-wishers and said his 26-year career in the U.S. Army was mostly spent as a member of the jump unit.

“I retired and have worked as an ambassador for the Army but in 2011, I started the Veteran Parachute Team in an effort to still serve and give something back,” he said. “We have a total of 15 volunteers and 95 percent of them are combat veterans.”

The Parachute Team was also greeted by the Operation Support Our Troops-America group, led by Deborah Rickert, who was named Chicago Woman of the Year Tuesday by the Chicago Rotary. Rickert said she has jumped a total of six times herself including her last jump with Elliott, and that the experience allows you to face virtually anything.

“We work in partnership with the Parachute Team in a program we call ‘Leap of Faith’ where those who have lost a loved one while serving in the military are invited to take a symbolic ‘leap’ with the parachute team in an effort to try and bring some closure to the loss and the fear they have,” Rickert said. “We teach a seminar about dealing with the loss three times a year at Ft. Bragg and we allow people to parachute jump with the team.”

Joe Caruso of Naperville, who stood with other supporters holding an American flag as Elliott and his entourage arrived, said he has participated in nine of the seminars.

“I think the most important outcome of these seminars is that we give people hope,” he said. “We give them the tools to move forward. You can’t move on because that means you’ve forgotten. But by the end of the third day, you can really see a difference.”

Elliott later spoke about his experiences with the 41st president and said “it was hard to describe the feeling of meeting a president face-to-face.”

“I jumped with the president on his 85th birthday and he said to me ‘We’ll do this again on my 90th’ but we didn’t know if that would happen,” Elliott said. “His wife Barbara didn’t want him to jump on his birthday, because she had a party planned for the next day and she was afraid he wouldn’t feel good and have to miss it. The president actually sent me in to talk to her about it, and I didn’t want to do the jump the next day either, it would have been Friday, the 13th.”

Rickert said the president’s third jump with Elliott was significant on a number of levels.

“First, it shows the confidence and faith the president has in this incredibly well-trained man,” she said. “The fact that the president has approached Mike about this three times says a lot. It’s also significant in that some people wondered if this day would ever come, given the president’s age and the fact he doesn’t have much use of his legs anymore.”

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