“We are still here, we are still warriors, and we are still fighting.”
That was the message organizer Rob McNeill had for the gathered first and second ‘rotos’ of this year’s Operation Pegasus Jump at the Campbell River Airport on July 13.
McNeill was speaking as part of the ceremony celebrating the accomplishments of the first roto (rotation) of jumpers to complete this year’s program. The jumpers had done five jumps, and spent the week building a sense of camaraderie and support for post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues.
“Today’s very unique in respect that this is the overlap day of the two (rotos). Because we always have the last day of the first roto be the first day of the second roto. All the vets are on the ground together and widens the net,” McNeill said.
For veteran Brendon McKenna, parachuting from an airplane has been a goal driving him since he was a young man.
Thanks to Operation Pegasus Jump, he was finally able to earn his wings.
McKenna joined the Army Cadets when he was young living in Hamilton, Ont. Through that, he was introduced to the Third Royal Canadian Regiment’s paratroopers.
“Growing up through all my teen years, I wanted to be the best cadet that I could,” he said. “To do that, I had to try and embody the best of what those paratroopers brought to the table.”
Through the cadet system, he trained hard to be able to take parachute training. However, with that first opportunity he was unable to pass the course.
“It wasn’t again till I joined the Royal Canadian regimen itself as an adult that I specifically asked to be put to my company so I could get another chance of being a paratrooper,” he said. “Working in the light infantry is probably one of the best and hardest things I’ve ever done. I wouldn’t trade it for anything but it is hard on the body.
“I ended up with a shoulder and neck injury before I was able to complete my parachute training the second time. So that’s been something stuck in my side,” he said. “When I left the military many years later still not have completing my parachute training, it was a resentment that I carried around with me. I was trying to find my place in society and measure myself as a person. I had made up my own standard of what it meant, and I hadn’t achieved it.”
That’s where the annual Operation Pegasus Jump comes in.
“Operation Pegasus Jump is a PTSD mental health event for veterans and first responders serving military people and the purpose of it is to try and curb the suicide rate amongst people with operational stresses,” said McNeill. “It’s like a grassroots movements where veterans are starting different things like Pegasus to try and help. It’s becoming the veterans helping the veterans now.”
The organization and event is not just for armed services veterans. Recently it was expanded to include first responders. Participants spend the week on site, sharing camaraderie. They learn how to properly jump from airplanes, with the goal of completing five jumps by the end of the week. Skydiving is not all they get, however.
“We have a mental health professional … that comes in and he talks about mental health and pdsd and how to not really how how to deal it but how how to help start the healing process because everybody’s different right?” McNeill said.
“The key to this whole thing that we’re doing is we’re trying to create basically a safety net. We have a lot of veterans that are so tired of trying to deal with the government and VA to get benefits or just to get the help they need … These people here actually care about each other …. they know each other. They’ve shared that and bonded over that experience, which for us is skydiving.”
“This was a lifelong journey for me to to be part of this brotherhood. The airborne brotherhood,” said McKenna. “Once you’re in, you’re in.
“I’ve been out here for a month backpacking and traveling around before this experience and kind of deciding why why is a veteran now that I’m retired and I’ve overcome obstacles and injuries. Why am I going to jump out of this perfectly good airplane again, and I knew exactly why because it’s been in my heart my whole life,” he said.
“A lot of us veterans are carrying these demons that nobody else can see or understand … I just encourage anyone who’s in a similar position struggling with being a homeless veteran, or with substance abuse to get out here and try it.”
On Thursday, the landing zone was designated DZ Remembrance.
“When we sat down to give a name to our landing area, there’s a military tradition that we always name a landing area after a fallen person. We sat in here with the military guys and there were so many names we had. How do you pick?” McNeill said. “What we decided to do is call It Drop Zone Remembrance in remembrance of everybody.”
At the beginning of the ceremony, the two rotos marched out to the landing zone, parade style. Four flags, the Canadian Flag, the Indigenous Canadian Flag, the Operation Pegasus Flag and the Afghan Fallen Flag were jumped into the ceremony by Jen Mackinnon, Mike “Macko” Cyr, Darryl Cattell and Adam Hanna respectively. After that, the rotos closed ranks around the landing zone, which Shawn Decaire blessed with eagle down and Bob Rhett said a prayer.
The culmination of the evening was when the pipe band played Amazing Grace and those gathered spoke the names of their fallen comrades aloud.
The evening also included speeches from dignitaries, sponsors as well as a barbecue afterwards.
“That’s what we’re here. We’re healing we’re opening doors, and we’re helping people,” Mcneill said. “The beauty of it is there’s no politics and it’s just it’s just a place of healing.”