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Wounded warriors find thrills parachuting in Zephyrhills

ZEPHYRHILLS — As a U.S. Army helicopter mechanic, R.J. Anderson had been looking forward to attending Airborne School.

The three-week course for paratroopers at Fort Benning, Ga., would teach him to parachute from an airplane and land safely on his own.

But, before he was scheduled to go, Anderson was injured. A motorcycle crash paralyzed him from the chest down.

Jumping from an airplane seemed out of the question.

On Saturday, about a year and a half after his accident, that changed.

Anderson, of Chicago, was one of 14 wounded military members to tandem parachute jump at Skydive City in Zephyrhills as part of the Wounded Warrior Athletic Reconditioning Program of U.S. Special Operations Command Care Coalition at MacDill Air Force Base.

"It was awesome," Anderson, 31, said after landing. "I just always wanted to jump and it was everything I thought it would be."

The event marked the end of a week filled with sports training at MacDill for 54 wounded warriors from across the country attempting to qualify for a spot to represent SOCom at the Warrior Games in Colorado later this year.

Troops from all military branches injured while serving under SOCom participated in archery, shooting, cycling, track and field, volleyball and swimming. On Saturday, those not parachuting went to Busch Gardens or hunting.

Many who elected to jump Saturday had done so before their injuries, said Anthony Gonzalez, manager of the reconditioning program. "To be able to do it with the SOCom Para-Commando team, that's an amazing introduction back to recreational jumping," Gonzalez said. "And this probably won't be their last jump."

Those with injuries that restrict movement jumped in tandem with specially trained Skydive City crew members.

For 35-year-old Chuck Wesson, an Army Unmanned Aerial Vehicle operator who served for 15 years, the opportunity to jump again was exciting. He was paralyzed in a car accident in 2012. "The experience can't be put into words," Wesson, of Charlotte, N.C., said upon landing. "Just the act of getting up there and jumping out again, the feeling of the free fall, it was all amazing."

James Macrellis, an Army veteran from Chattanooga, Tenn., jumped with one of the Para-Commandos. It was his first time doing so since he suffered spinal and brain injuries from an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan a few years ago. "At first it was very nerve-wracking," Macrellis, 43, said. "But, I had a smile on my face the whole way down."

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401.

Wounded warriors find thrills parachuting in Zephyrhills 03/08/14 [Last modified: Saturday, March 8, 2014 8:36pm]

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