Services like the Aero Club are now open to certain veterans.
Purple Heart recipients, former prisoners of war and veterans with service-connected disabilities can now visit Dover Air Force Base and bring guests to use services like the commissary, base exchange, and Morale, Welfare and Recreation facilities, including the arts and crafts center and the Aero Club.
Since the Purple Heart and Disabled Veterans Equal Access Act went into effect Jan. 1, certain veterans can get a Veterans Health Information Card from the Department of Veterans Affairs. This is only for veterans with a service-connected disability, former prisoners of war or a Purple Heart medal.
Thomas Beenick III, a Navy veteran from Milford, was medically discharged from active duty in 2005 after multiple back injuries.
“Being able to use these services, I just think it’s great for the community,” Beenick said. “We felt like we were disconnected from the military even though we had a disability rating. Now, we feel like we’re still part of the military.”
Before the Equal Access Act went into effect, Beenick could only go to the Aero Club, an organization on base for flying and pilot training. He works there as a flight instructor. Now, he can take advantage of services like the commissary, a big grocery store on base.
“I’m learning something new every day,” he said. “The best thing is if I want to go to the Aero Club, I can take my wife. I can go out to the Aero Club and take my family and take them flying.” Veterans and caregivers with access can bring up to five guests. All must undergo background checks and follow base rules.
Marcella Vaught, a veteran and clerk at the Aero Club, was planning a lifelong career with the Air Force, but she was medically separated in 2016. While she stayed busy raising three children and remained connected to the base through her active duty husband, she said she was not prepared for the difficult transition.
“I really, really, really struggled with depression and anxiety because I didn’t feel like I had a purpose other than being a mom,” Vaught said. “I didn’t really feel like I had much of a purpose careerwise.”
Knowing these challenges, Vaught believes the Equal Access Act could help others transitioning from military life.
“I think it opens up a lot of opportunities for veterans in the community to be able to feel like they have a sense of purpose or a sense of community because I wouldn’t feel comfortable, I guess, just ... being dumped into the civilian life. I wouldn’t feel like I am a part of that community,” she said.
She found her way back to the military in 2018 as a clerk with the Aero Club, and she thinks the Equal Access Act could offer others the same type of community.
“It’s really a place where I feel like veterans who, even if they’re not flying, they’re going to want to come out here and be a part of the community,” she said. “It just opens up the door for them to be able to get back into that environment of military life.”
Only 17 Air Force installations worldwide have an aero club. Military and Civil Air Patrol members, and veterans eligible under the Equal Access Act can join.
William Boswell, veteran and Aero Club manager, said,“I think it will give us a lot more foot traffic,” he said. “It will actually help a lot of the people who were prior military who weren’t able to gain access to continue their level of aviation,” since pilots need to refresh their skills to keep their license current.
Any member with a pilot’s license can rent the club’s airplanes, which they often use to take trips with family and friends. Boswell recalled one member who took his family to New York for a wedding. “So, instead of driving the five or six hours’ worth of tolls, they just rented an airplane, grabbed a suitcase, took their kids, and they flew to New York,” he said.
The Aero Club proctors exams for the Federal Aviation Administration and offers training for people who want to pursue their private, commercial or instrument pilot’s license.
If veterans under the Equal Access Act fall under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, they can get their commercial and instrument license for free.
While Boswell said flight training is less expensive at the Aero Club than off base, “this isn’t a cheap hobby,” he said. Many younger pilots see it as a necessary investment if they want to become airline pilots.
For those who want to try some time in the sky first, the Aero Club offers half-hour discovery flights with a licensed pilot. The passenger can take control of the plane, and he or she can log it as a first flight if they continue training.
This will likely be a big hit among the veterans who now can use the club, Vaught said. “We’ve had several phone calls, and they make comments, [like] ‘This is so awesome. I’ve been waiting to come do a discovery flight, but I don’t have access to the base,’” she said.