Photo credit: Danny Fulgencio

RYAN “BIRDMAN” PARROTT IS FLYING HIGH. He’s founder, president, and CEO of Sons of the Flag, an organization whose mission is to revolutionize burn care and quality of life for veterans, first responders and families. Parrott recently presented a $100,000 burn fellowship grant to UT Southwestern. Parrott lives near Boedeker with wife, Vlada, and sons Kaston and Maksim. The children are named after the couple’s grandfathers who served in the military.

What inspired you to go into the military? I had a teacher in Detroit who was a Marine in Vietnam. He was so proud of the American flag, his country and his service. Both my grandfathers served in World War II. I always understood that our country was worth fighting for. My father threatened me with military school because I was failing, but he told me that the one thing better than the Marines is the U.S. Navy SEALs. My teacher said, “You’re not even passing my class, and it’s an elective. How are you going to pass one of the toughest military programs ever?” The next day I found a Reader’s Digest magazine on my school desk, and it talked about the making of an American warrior. I read it, and I was hooked. After 9/11, I enlisted.

How did you get the nickname “Birdman”? I’ve always been a nickname guy. In hockey when I was a kid, I was “PRP” or “Perp” because I was the fast guy on the ice. In the service, I was “Soup,” and my friend was “Sandwich.” In 2005 on our first deployment, our vehicle was struck by an IED. It blew the front of our Hummer off, lifted us up in the air and shrapnel exploded throughout the car. A fireball shot me straight out of the turret into the sky. I was the least injured. My face and hands were burned. I saw the devastation around me — my teammates lying on the ground. At the hospital, someone said, “I heard you were flying. You’re the ‘Birdman.’” The name stuck.

Why did you start a nonprofit? I was lost in life. “Who was Ryan Parrott after the service?” I was sitting with a group of veterans, and one guy was quiet. He had severe burns on his face and hands. I asked him, “What are they doing for you?” I felt like God was asking me to step up. I went home that night and studied. The next day I called him and said, “Man, I stayed up all night. I couldn’t find anything tangible to give you. If I were to start something on your behalf, would you join me?” And he said, “Brother, I’d be honored.” Seven years later, I feel like I’m doing more for our soldiers and for our Ameri- cans than I did in the service.

What were your next steps? I traveled the country and talked to surgeons and nurses in different burn units to find out where the gaps were. I found out that nothing has changed since the Vietnam War. There’s not a lot of money going into it. It’s an expensive, lifelong injury without a lot of doctors. In 2012, we called ourselves the resource for burn survivors. Seven years later, we have answers. We have surgical teams in place. We are hiring doctors to become burn surgeons. We are revolutionizing burn care. We take care of everybody from veterans, first responders, civilians and children to adults.

What are the facts? There are 300 burn surgeons nationwide, and you have about 480,000 people that get burned in the U.S. ev- ery year. There are not a lot of doctors going into this community. Sons of the Flag funds 25% of new burn surgeons in the U.S. How do we add to that? How do we inspire doctors?

What’s next? We’re focusing on patients. Our program is called Mission Reconstruct Freedom. These wonderful doctors are on a team. Instead of the patient getting out of the hospital saying, “I’m done with surgery. I’ve had 30. I can’t take it anymore,” we’ve gathered the most elite doctors in the country to ask, “What do you want?”

Photography by Danny Fulgencio.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
My first platoon chief said, “Try everything.” I wondered why he said that, but I understand now. If you do it, you might find out that you love it. If you don’t try it, you’ll never even know. I try everything I can.

What advice would you give to your younger self? Michael J. Fox said it best. He said, “Be a good person, and do the right thing.” My grandfathers instilled that in me, and my parents instill that in me. I wasn’t a horrible kid, but I would have started earlier in considering how to help people.

How do you relax? I do extreme sports. They’re my meditation. When I’m standing on the edge of a cliff getting ready to jump off it or I’m jumping out of an airplane, I don’t focus on anything external. I love going to sleep. I love reading about history. I like hitting the gym and lifting weights.

How can people help? Funding is key. See sonsoftheflag.org. Also, please share our information on social media — @sonsoftheflag. People are struggling right now.

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