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A Soldier’s Journey Into RC

This article was originally published in Fly RC’s February 2016 issue.
By Steve Mills

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Todd was awarded the Purple Heart for his injuries sustained in Iraq.

We all have a story of how we got into flying RC aircraft . For many of us it started as a child-hood love for toy airplanes. Others jumped into it with our fathers, mothers or grand-parents. Most of us enjoy the hobby as something to do in our free time to relax, but for others, it’s been a less common journey. For some it’s more than just a relaxing hobby to distract us from the chaos of life. For some it’s the thing that helped them recover and refocus after facing the terrors of war.

A few years ago while attending SEFF I had the chance to meet First Sergeant Todd Landen of the United States Army. Todd joined the Army in October of 1992 aft er reading stories of infantrymen in Vietnam and being inspired by the bravery, perseverance and brotherhood of those men in battle.

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Todd and his family were surprised by the gifts given to them at SEFF 2012.

Aft er basic training Todd quickly started pushing himself to learn it all. He went to as many specialized schools as he could. He went through Ranger school and eventually ended up with the 101st Airborne Division as a First Sergeant leading over 150 men. While part of the 101st airborne he was deployed multiple times including Bosnia, Afghanistan and twice to Iraq.

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Todd was part of an Airborne unit so during his service he saw many helicopters as he did on this trip.
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Todd’s unit toward the end of their first deployment to Iraq.

While deployed Todd had his first taste of RC aircraft using Raven drones to scout areas ahead of and around his unit. At this point in his life, radio controlled aircraft were nothing more than a tool to help see the immediate area around his unit to keep them safe and gain an advantage on any enemies looking to ambush them.

Todd was always proud to serve and even though he had a young family at home, he always felt his place in life was serving in the Army. However, on July 7, 2006 his life would take a drastic turn. He was traveling in a Humvee when his unit was hit by an IED. Todd was knocked unconscious by the initial blast and the Humvee caught on fire. He was locked in the vehicle while his unit was under fire. Todd came to and was able to unlock the doors allowing his men to pull him from the burning vehicle.

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Todd was given a turn flying Tim Johnson’s scale Piper Cub at the NAMFI event.
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Todd and Aprel Landen with author at the Northern Alliance Military Fly-In selling raffle tickets to raise money for the Veterans Airlift Command.
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Author hand launches a warmliner glider for Todd at his home field in Iowa.

Todd and his unit continued the fight until they could be extracted … where the extent of his injuries were realized. Todd had broken ribs, both lungs were collapsed and he had suffered a traumatic brain injury. He didn’t choose to leave the fight, but his injuries brought him back to the US and into Walter Reed medical center outside Washington D.C.

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Author spots for Todd to enjoy some flying at his home fi eld.

Todd’s recovery was long and arduous, involving many surgeries to deal with the brain injuries, broken ribs and nerve pain. It was a tough time at Walter Reed, being away from both his family and his unit. The doctors had to deal with both the physical pain and recovery, but also had to help Todd start to recover mentally as well. His days of being on the front lines with the Airborne Rangers were over as well as his love of competition running and mixed martial arts. He needed to find something new to focus his time and energy on. The doctors told him to think of a new hobby.

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Todd and his daughter in one of the many hospital rooms he’s endured.

That’s when Todd recalled flying the Raven drones while deployed and mentioned that he thought that was pretty cool. His doctors brought him a basic three channel ARF and told him if he could get this put together and ready to fly, they could move him to a facility where he could be with his family. This was all Todd needed for motivation and within a couple days that plane was built. The doctors got him connected with a flight instructor and Todd’s recovery with RC began.

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Todd with his wife Aprel who is very supportive of his new obsession with everything RC.

In April of 2012 Todd was still in the Army and stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia. He was still working with RC and had heard about SEFF going on not too far away so he arranged to visit the event. He ended up connecting with my friend Laine Stahr who was also active Army at the time. This is how I happened to meet Todd for the first time. His family was great and he really enjoyed the event. We all could see how his injuries were testing his endurance as he oft en had to take a break to rest. What we also saw was his love of the hobby and how it was making him feel great. His wife Aprel commented that this was the happiest she had seen him since he had sustained the injuries from the IED attack. Todd had to return to Fort Benning mid week, but planned on returning for the weekend part of SEFF. While he and his family were away, the SEFF organizers and a few people got together to see how they could help encourage Todd with his recovery and thank him for his service.

They wanted to gather up a plane with all the gear to help him continue in the hobby. The generosity of all the pilots and sponsors left the Landens speechless … and with many airplanes, radios and gear to keep him going for quite some time. Todd would not forget the welcoming and helpful people in the RC hobby.

Todd remained in the Army as long as he could, but after 21 years of service his injuries forced him into a medical retirement. On February 20 2014 he was honorably discharged from the Army, but his struggles with his injuries continued. They searched for a good place to settle that would have him near VA resources to continue his medical treatments. He had already endured numerous surgeries and would likely need more.

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Todd loves to share the RC hobby with his daughter.

They ended up sett ling in Sioux City Iowa to be near family with a VA hospital about an hour away. This also put him just a few hours away from my home field where we host the WATTS over Owatonna fly-in. Todd had continued with the hobby, but missed the camaraderie that he found at SEFF. He found my information as the contest director and gave me a call about attending WATTS. He had some concerns about being able to bring his camper in and have power so that he could rest when needed. The club was more than happy to host Todd and we made sure he could take part in WATTS. His family had a great time and I got to know him better. We talked about his service and how he had been doing with his injuries. He explained that he has great days where he can get out and enjoy a day with his family and hobbies and then there are the bad days. We also talked about his service and how he felt torn away from the fight before he was ready to leave.

Todd still had fight in him, but he felt like there was not much he could do. He told me about some of the organizations that had helped him in the past and continue to help him today. One organization that is very special to him is the Veterans Airlift Command. The VAC was formed by Walt Fricke, a Vietnam veteran who flew helicopters in the war and was wounded himself. He saw firsthand how tough it was for combat wounded military men and women to be stuck in a military hospital, often away from their families. The military will only pay for one person to travel along with a service member for medical procedures. This can leave families torn apart without the resources to travel to be with the soldier. The VAC steps in and will fly the combat wounded soldier and his family from private airports to and from needed appointments. The Landens have used the service of the VAC on a number of occasions. Todd wanted to do something to give back to the VAC so my club decided to commit our annual Northern Alliance Military Fly-In to raising money for the VAC in Todd’s honor. He was ecstatic and we started working on organizing a raffe. Todd pulled in many of his connections from various wounded veterans organizations and I helped him with contacts in the RC industry. We pulled together a raffle and the first year we raised over $2000 to send to the VAC. This past year we increased that to bring the two year total to over $5000 sent to the VAC. Todd was finally feeling like he was back in the fight, using the RC hobby to help to support organizations caring for wounded veterans like himself.

I’ve become good friends with Todd over the past few years and I can tell you he is fully hooked on the RC hobby. He enjoys flying everything from Sig Four Stars to his large 1/4 scale Cub as well as multirotor aircraft . He’s often asking me about the latest releases and his hangar is quickly filling with aircraft of all types. The VA has been looking into how they can continue to help his recovery and therapy through use of the hobby as well as using Todd’s story as hope for other wounded soldiers recovering from life altering injuries. It’s great to see how a hobby that most of us only think of as something fun has been helping Todd recover and how he’s now using it to help other soldiers as well.