Gary and Mari Linfoot

Mari and Gary Linfoot Recognized as 2019 Fred Russell Distinguished Americans Award Honorees

By Bob Hyde, Middle Tennessee Chapter Board Member


The Middle Tennessee Chapter of the NFF first awarded the Fred Russell Distinguished American Award in 1969. At 15 of these annual banquets, we recognized co-honorees with the two most recent two occasions coming in 1994 honoring Tennessee Governors Winfield Dunn and Ned Ray McWhorter and in 1995 the co-honorees were Tennessee U.S. Senators Bill Frist and Fred Thompson.

At tonight’s 53rd annual banquet, we are very proud to again have co-honorees for our Fred Russell Distinguished Americans Award and for the first time in our history recognize a husband-wife couple, Mari and Gary Linfoot,

“Following high school, I had made plans to play at Santa Monica Junior College, but honestly, my heart was not in attending school any further. My aspirations were in pursuing a career in the Army as a helicopter pilot,” Linfoot said. “I left my football days behind me (he was a Los Angeles All City selection as an offensive and defensive lineman his senior year), but my love for competitive sports never left me, and to this day, I love football, hockey and motorsports.”

Chief Warrant Officer 5 Gary Linfoot – US Army (Ret) met Mari Skogen in 1990 at Fort Ord, California when he was on his first duty assignment following flight school. Gary had been in the army for about three years when they met on a blind date. Things obviously went miraculously well right away as they were engaged two months after meeting and married after only six months.

Gary’s prowess as a helicopter aviator was recognized by his superiors, and he was assigned to the 160th SOAR(A), the Army’s only Special Operations Aviation Regiment, following a rigorous assessment process.

“The 160th (also known as the Night Stalkers) provides aviation support to our nation’s Special Operations Forces (SOF) to include Delta Force, SEAL Team 6, Army Rangers and Special Forces, Air Force Special Operations and our Allies,” said Linfoot.

Linfoot advanced through various levels of training with the Night Stalkers until reaching the highest level of aviators in the 160th known as Flight Lead Qualified in January of 2004. Roughly 10% of initially assessed aviators in this special operations unit make it to this position and it can take three years or more to achieve.

“I became Flight Lead Qualified in January of 2004,” Linfoot continued. “My combat deployments with the Night Stalkers included one rotation to Afghanistan in 2001 following the attacks on 9-11 and 20 combat deployments to Iraq from 2003 to 2008. My deployments ended with a helicopter crash on the night of 31 May 2008 when I was paralyzed as a result of injuries sustained in that crash. After three months of recovery at three different hospitals, I returned home to Tennessee and completed my career in the Army as the Officer in Charge of the 160th Aquatics Facility (at Fort Campbell).”

Gary’s military awards and decorations include the Combat Action Badge, Master Aviator Badge, Parachutist Badge, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters, Meritorious Service Medal and the Air Medal with Numeral 17 and “V” device.

“Gary and Mari Linfoot are one of the most inspirational couples I know, and I’m proud to call them friends,” said MG Clayton Hutmacher – US Army (Ret) and former regiment commander of the Night Stalkers at Fort Campbell.

“Gary Linfoot was hands down the finest attack helicopter flight lead in the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment,” Hutmacher stated in response to questions for this article. “This distinction is especially significant due to the fact that all of the pilots are hand selected for service in the Regiment from among the finest pilots in the army.  His unwavering commitment to the mission, his fellow soldiers and his family are what impressed me the most. Gary personifies the term selfless patriot.”

“Your tactical and technical prowess goes without question but your true gift is your character,” MG Hutmacher said at Linfoot’s retirement ceremony. “You have shown nothing but the greatest character and courage through some of the most difficult times that anyone could go through.”

“I didn’t know Mari well before Gary was injured, but I quickly came to the conclusion that the Linfoot family was blessed with two parents of exceptional character,” MG Hutmacher said recently. “Mari has never waivered in her support of Gary through some exceptionally difficult times, consistently displaying a level of courage and commitment I have rarely encountered. Gary and Mari are clearly deserving of the title Distinguished Americans!”

Thanks to grants from the Infinite Hero Foundation and the Airpower Foundation, Gary was the first veteran presented with the EKSO Bionics exoskeleton for home use.

“It is very difficult to put into words what it meant to me and my family to receive the EKSO exoskeleton for home use,” said Gary. “To say it changed our lives would be an understatement.”

“The exoskeleton was a godsend and it has enhanced our lives in so many ways,” Gary added. “It has given back a portion of what was taken in a terrible helicopter crash. The EKSO has helped return some dignity by giving me the ability to once again stand on my own two feet, walk in some form and look someone in the eye at six feet tall. Using the EKSO, we have helped in a successful FDA study to make this device available to other veterans, inspire others and plant the seeds of creativity in the minds of children.”

“Personally, it helped me achieve what I thought was impossible,” continued Gary. “That which had been lost forever, the ability to walk my daughters down the aisle when they married. With the EKSO, I did just that on October 29, 2016.”

The Linfoots will be moving into their new home in Adams, Tenn, in May thanks to the generosity of the Gary Sinese Foundation’s R.I.S.E. program – Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment. Each home is mortgage-free and fully customized to the unique needs of the hero and their loved ones.

“This home will be lifechanging and will do so much to improve the quality of life by eliminating barriers as I grow older,” Gary stated.

Added Mari, “Gary, with my help, walked an hour a day, five days a week at our home in Tennessee as part of a (recent) FDA trail.”

“It was a big commitment, but also very rewarding to be able to participate,” Mari added. “Gary continues to walk in the EKSO at home and uses it for speaking engagements at schools, public and private events. When he gets up and walks, it sends several messages that words could never replace. We feel honored he was the first veteran to have an exoskeleton for home use. I feel he has risen the that responsibility as well. We’re looking forward to our new home where he will be able to walk into all rooms of our house, the large outdoor patio and more.”

“Being chosen as co-honorees of the Distinguished Americans Award is incredibly humbling and we are so thankful and honored to receive this recognition,” the Linfoots stated.

We think everyone will agree that the Linfoots are incredibly deserving of this recognition!