FORT KENT, Maine — In the end, she didn’t have to be pushed out of the plane as she had predicted, but Maine’s first lady Ann LePage admitted to some hesitation before her first parachute jump on Saturday.
“When we were up in the plane and they said ‘go,’ I said ‘no,’” she said, once safely on the ground. “I couldn’t open my eyes for the first little bit after leaving the plane.”
LePage skidded into her landing at the Fort Kent airport during Freedom Fest 2014, an all day concert at the Fort Kent Municipal Airport to raise funds for a northern Maine veterans museum and community center.
She made the jump in tandem with retired Master Sgt. Tony Mouzon, a veteran with more than 9,600 career jumps.
“I’ve never jumped with a first lady before,” Mouzon said after landing. “This was pressure moment here.”
LePage, a staunch advocate of veterans’ issues, had agreed to make the jump several months ago when quadruple amputee retired Staff Sergeant Travis Mills made his own Freedom Fest jump conditional on her doing it with him.
“I accepted right away before thinking the whole thing through,” LePage said a few hours before the jump. “Last night the reality set in.”
LePage stopped by Freedom Fest earlier in the day riding with the Patriot Guard Riders in a motorcycle parade that started in Caribou.
“I can’t stay too long,” she said after her ride. “I have to go get my skydiving lesson.”
Admitting she was “scared to death,” LePage took off in a vintage military plane from the Northern Aroostook Regional Airport in Frenchville and climbed to an altitude of about two miles over the Freedom Fest landing zone roughly 15 miles away as the crow flies.
Down on the ground, her husband, Gov. Paul LePage; their son, Paul LePage Jr.; and her mother, Rita DeRosby, scanned the skies and listened for the drone of the plane.
“There you go, great job guys, sweet,” LePage Jr. said as his mother’s red, white and blue parachute opened and they began a 10 minute gentle descent to the ground. “Look at that, it’s amazing.”
Looking skyward through binoculars, Gov. LePage said, “She’s not trying to get away.”
“He’s doing it nice and slow for mom,” said their son, who completed his own tandem jump his senior year in college.
“I am unbelievably proud of her and her dedication,” the younger LePage said.
The governor agreed.
“Her actions always speak louder than words,” he said. “That is just who she is as a wife, a mother and a first lady.”
When her husband was elected, Ann LePage decided she would make the issues of the state’s veterans her own and said that supporting Freedom Fest is part of that commitment.
“I’m petrified of heights, but I am a firm believer that it’s more than talking the talk of supporting our veterans, it’s walking the walk,” she said. “Or perhaps in this case, falling from the sky.”
Mills gave LePage high marks for her participation.
“She had a big smile all the way down,” Mills said.
“Not all the way,” LePage said with a laugh.
Freedom Fest organizer Duane Belanger on Saturday said the event not only raises funds for the museum, it also offers residents the opportunity to honor those who have served.
“It’s good to see the people coming out for this today,” he said. “It shows this cause is just and people are standing behind our veterans.”
There were plenty of veterans on hand listening to the music, dancing and hanging out in the sun on Saturday.
“They fought for us,” Paula Charette said as she and her husband, Roland Charette, settled in for they daylong event. “Everything we do [and] everything we have is based on the sacrifices of these men and women.”
An area museum, she said, would show veterans those sacrifices have not been forgotten.
“Ignoring [the veterans] is the worst,” Charette said. “If we treat our veterans poorly, that is a poor example for our future veterans.”
Two of those future veterans Air Force Junior ROTC members Tylon Meyers, 17, and Jonathan Gilchrist, 18, drove up from Lewiston to volunteer in the Freedom Fest security detail.
“It’s important to show we care and that we are thankful for what they do for our country,” said Gilchrist, who leaves for U.S. Air Force basic training in two weeks. “What they did needs to be honored.”
Meyer said he had anticipated talking to area veterans and hearing stories of their days in combat.
“I was really surprised [because] I expected to hear war stories,” he said. “But what we are hearing is ‘thank you for what you will do for this country,’ and that’s really awesome.”
After shedding her skydiving gear, LePage said she would certainly participate in a second Freedom Fest next year, and said she is up for anything — within limits.
“I’m not bungee jumping, never, no way,” she said. “I don’t care if Travis goes or not.”