His friends call former Navy SEAL Ryan Parrott “Birdman,” but not for the obvious reason. Parrott served multiple tours of duty in Iraq, and during his first deployment he went momentarily airborne.
“We were driving back from a mission, and my Hummer hit a roadside bomb, and blew me straight out of the turret. So I went flying in the sky and, ever since I took that flight, the guys just started calling me ‘Birdman.'” The self-deprecating Parrott notes that when you’re in the military, you tend to get nicknamed either for doing something heroic, or for finding yourself in a situation in which you look far less than heroic. “Birdman,” he says, is definitely the latter.
But since leaving the military, the “Birdman” has become the leader in a cause for thousands of burn victims inside and outside the military. Parrott founded Sons of the Flag Burn Foundation, a charity that does one thing: It raises money for burn research to advance treatments for burn victims.
Parrott started Sons of the Flag after meeting fellow military man Sam Brown.
“Sam Brown moved to Texas because he was in the rehabilitation center at down at Brooke Army Medical Center,” Parrott says. “He hit an IED as well, only his bomb went what you call ‘high order.’ So, it exploded pretty hard.”
Brown was burned over 30% of his body with third degree burns, including burning his hands and his face.
When Parrott met Brown, the latter had already undergone 30 surgeries and was awaiting his next one. From that conversation, Parrott became curious about burn surgery and learned that few doctors specialize in it, for several reasons. For one, they can make more money performing simpler cosmetic procedures.
Burn surgery, it turns out, is one of the most difficult surgeries to perform.
“Once the skin gets burned,” Parrott says, “it manipulates itself all the time. It changes.”
Parrott says frankly that he was not happy with the care that Brown was getting. “I just wasn’t happy, and I thought there could be more done.”
He searched online for information about burn treatment, and looked for organizations that raise money for research on burns, and came up nearly empty.
“I couldn’t find anything on organizations that were actually doing stuff for burns. I found a couple here and there, but nothing on that national scale that really covers burns” or raises national awareness about treating them. Parrott also realized that the technology for triage and treating burns is lagging far behind other medical research.
So the following day he called Brown and asked him to be a part of an organization to raise money to pursue focused burn research.
“‘I’d be honored,'” Parrott says Brown responded.
Sons of the Flag Burn Foundation was born from Parrott’s knowledge of history, of the veterans of both sides of the Civil War later coming together as sons of the American flag. Wounded veterans have been key members and voices of SOTF since its official inception in January 2012. Its mission is to bring the best burn technology from around the world to the United States, and to raise awareness for treating burns when they happen and over the course of longer term treatment. SOTF also works with hospitals to get the most advanced burn treatment tech FDA-approved as quickly as possible so it can reach burn victims as quickly as possible.
Sons of the Flag pursues help for all burn victims, not just members of the military. Parrott says that while about 800 military members have been burn victims since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, roughly 10,000 firefighters have been burned. Add to that, about 400,000 Americans were burned badly enough just last year that they needed medical attention for their burns. Of those, 40,000 suffered lifelong debilitation and scarring. Parrott also says that he learned that there just aren’t enough doctors specializing in burns to help the number of burn victims every year. Sons also will sponsor a fellowship starting in 2014 that will help plastic surgeons become true burn surgeons. SOTF also hopes to improve triage tactics during the “golden hour,” the hour after a victim is burned and during which new technology and treatments have the chance to do the most good.
These effort take money, and “Birdman” leads the Sons in a high-concept, high-flying way to raise awareness and funds for the cause.
“When I designed Sons of the Flag skydive originally, my idea was to get a bunch of veterans together, just for a fun day for us,” Parrott says. But it grew, so Parrott decided to see how the group could make the skydive demonstrate how Sons will “go above and beyond in everything we do.”
The Legacy Skydive quickly took up an ambitious goal: Get a veteran from every war that America has fought in, and from which there remain living veterans, and skydive together. Parrott also wanted to incorporate firefighters from the Twin Towers in New York on 9-11: “Because firefighters never forget. Military members never forget. We’re a brotherhood, it doesn’t matter what you do, military, firefighters, police, first responder, EMS, anything that’s in service to our country, you’re our brotherhood.”
Last year’s jump, which took place November 17 outside Dallas, included veterans from World War II onward, firefighters and others. Yes, an 80-year-old WWII vet skydived after Parrott found him through an American Legion outpost in Michigan. And will do it again this year. Such a jump had never been done before.
The Sons of the Flag Legacy Skydive is set for November 9 at the Collin County Regional Airport in McKinney, Texas. The all-day event will center on the mid-day Legacy Skydive and will again feature jumpers from every war from which there remain living veterans, jumping alongside the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights. The 2013 Legacy Skydive, Parrott says, will be the last one. It had never been done before last year’s, and after this November, will never be done again.
The event is open to everyone, and will include a live concert, a 5k run in the morning, patriotic displays to explain the meaning of the American flag, the national anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance, and a ground display of historical aircraft. The event will raise money for the foundation’s cause, to advance burn research, triage and treatment and create a generation of burn surgery specialists.