Members of Congress drop into Sumter occasionally, but the representative visiting the Salute Our Troops event Friday took that phrase a little too literally.
Rep. Joe Wilson jumped from an airplane high above the Sumter fairgrounds and went into free fall at 120 miles per hour, before landing in tandem with the All-Veteran Parachute Team in the middle of Family Fun Night.
The jump and the event were part of a national tour giving back to military families and raising money for veteran-related causes, sponsored by Kangaroo Express.
Sumter falls in the middle of the Salute Our Troops tour, which runs from the Fourth of July through Labor Day in tandem with a fundraiser at Kangaroo stations around the country. Through Sept. 3, customers can support local military organizations by adding $1 to their Kangaroo Express purchase or donating spare change at the register.
Also part of the tour, military families were able to get into the event free with a military ID, enjoying an evening of food, music, games and of course, parachutes.
Spc. Adam Hathaway came with his children to enjoy the free event after he recently joined the Third Army at Shaw Air Force Base, shortly after a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan. "We're just enjoying spending time together," Hathaway said. "It just feels great to be here and nobody's deployed. You really don't know how you'll feel until you're gone for a long time."
Emily Casarona, the media representative with the tour, said Sumter had one of the strongest responses to the tour of the nearly 80 stops they've made around the country. Many Kangaroo employees prepared their own food for an earlier bake sale outside the station on Broad Street and Alice Drive. "This is one of the biggest examples of community outreach we've seen," Casarona said. "It's great to see the community getting involved. This is one community that really supports the troops." The highlight of the evening was the parachute jump, when a team of veteran paratroopers including the congressman landed in the middle of the crowded fairgrounds. Wilson jumped in tandem with Mike Elliott, who has experience guiding political leaders to the ground; he also jumped with George H.W. Bush on the former president's 85th birthday.
"Without him, I wouldn't be here," Wilson said of Elliott. "In so many ways."
Speaking after he reached solid ground, Wilson praised the work of the tour raising money for the USO of South Carolina, the South Carolina Military Family Care Association and the Fisher House Foundation, which operate "comfort homes" for veterans and their families during treatment at Veterans Administration hospitals.
"I appreciate what Kangaroo has done. They've raised over $5 million in nickels and dimes at a time," he said.
In particular, the congressman noted the USO's presence in the Columbia Metropolitan Airport, where it's often the first thing new arrivals to the state's military bases see. "As soon as they arrive, they know how important they are in the Midlands," he said.