By Erika Webb
Bob Balzer said any day he gets up breathing is a good day.
The 86-year-old veteran of two wars has 156 parachute jumps. Mr. Balzer works eight hours a day, seven days a week for monetary compensation, but not his own. He spends four hours each day visiting his wife at The Alliance Center for Healthcare. She's been there for more than a year after suffering a stroke. He has a complete woodworking shop where he creates custom frames and other works of art, most of which he donates.
It's a wonder Mr. Balzer has time to breathe.
For the past seven years he has lived, and breathed, to serve wounded veterans. He and others are preparing for the seventh annual CPS Defending Freedom Warrior Weekend -- April 18-20. The local event is open to wounded veterans from "all over," Mr. Balzer said.
The weekend kicks off at the home of Bill Booth, the owner and president of United Parachute Technologies -- one of three companies that comprise Complete Parachute Solutions in DeLand. CPS is the world's leading provider of ram-air military parachuting equipment and training solutions, according to its website.
Mr. Booth holds 12 patents for skydiving safety equipment, developed tandem jumping in 1982 and was inducted into the Skydive Hall of Fame in 2011.
"Since we sell to the military we decided we needed to support a military-themed charity," Mr. Booth said in a phone interview. "We want to give them a heroes' welcome and treat them well in our town. Money is one thing but support from a community, thanking them for their service, is even better."
Mr. Balzer said a group of volunteers keep their visitors busy while they're in town.
"We pick (the veterans) up from the Clarion Hotel and take them to Bill's home on Lake Winnemissett. It's one of the most beautiful homes you've ever seen," Mr. Balzer said. "There are bands, food ... we introduce ourselves to the kids ... I call them kids ... 18, 19, 20."
The Clarion provides the rooms to visiting veterans at no charge, but they don't spend much time there.
From the time they arrive until the time they leave, they are skydiving, golfing, eating, drinking, sightseeing, attending the downtown block party and this year, Mr. Balzer said, they'll be bowling.
"They can sit on their butt with no legs and push the ball, we don't care, just so they have fun," he said.
The warrior weekend has grown from two or three attendees the first year and six the second year to 42 last year. This year 50 veterans are expected to participate.
"It's grown every year. There've been so many hurt and killed over there," Mr. Balzer said, shaking his head. "There have been 37,000 wounded in Afghanistan."
The first full day is spent at Skydive DeLand where Mr. Balzer said those with the physical capabilities to skydive, do. He said all 42 in attendance last year jumped.
"Bill Booth designed a special harness last year for one young man who lost an arm, a leg and was shot through the face. It took five of us to load him into the plane," Mr. Balzer said. "He said it was one of the best days of his life."
Local businesses, individuals and organizations, in numbers too great to list them all here, make the weekend possible.
With 237 donation boxes, which he fabricated, and 3,300 coin-collecting cups distributed throughout Volusia County, Mr. Balzer keeps very busy retrieving and depositing funds. The retired traveling salesman likely never will quit selling. He's never met a stranger and just a smile from him brought people bearing cash over to a table where he sat for the interview with one of his donation boxes.
Since June 1, the fundraising effort has yielded $28,000 and Mr. Balzer said he expected to collect at least $2,000 more at the March gun show at the Volusia County Fairgrounds.
"I stand in front of my booth without stopping for two days straight," Mr. Balzer said. "You have to get out amongst (people) and talk. That's the only way you can do this."
Mr. Balzer said money raised goes first to fund the Defending Freedom Warrior Weekend. The remaining proceeds are sent to the Wounded Warrior Project in Jacksonville.
"Last year we sent them a check for $51,000," Mr. Balzer said.
As a boiler tender, First Class, in the Navy, Mr. Balzer served in WWII and Korea. He's no stranger to the perils, during and after, of war.
"In talking to these men with no legs, no arms, burned ... none of them had any regrets. They'd go back in a minute if they could," Mr. Balzer said. "In seven years, we've never heard a complaint (from them)."
Juliana Bansley, a representative for the Wounded Warrior Project in Jacksonville, is thrilled with the successful, ongoing effort in DeLand.
"They've done it for years. They're amazing people and the warriors enjoy going to DeLand for the event," she said.
For more information about Defending Freedrom Warrior Weekend, or to buy tickets for its Friday, April 19, block party, email firstname.lastname@example.org.