Fort Benning, GA 19 APR 02. I graduated from Infantry OSUT and 15 minutes after graduation was headed across post to the United States Army Airborne School. I had just spent 14 weeks learning the basics of my job. I had stood on a parade ground with a couple hundred of my battle buddies and been granted the title of “Infantryman.” Those of us that were heading on to Airborne School were told that we had 15 minutes with our families before we had to be on a Blue Bird bus to head over to the 1st Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment to report for inprocessing and training.
It was rather warm that day. Those of us that had just graduated showed up wearing our Class Bs (dress uniform pants, short sleeve button up shirt, with “Pyle” Cap). There were 200 soldiers who showed up that day to begin their training as US Army Paratroopers. We stood around, waiting as they took us through the paperwork and drawing equipment and room assignments. We were finally released for the day a few hours later and told to be back on Monday morning. This was the first time since I had left for Fort Benning that I had actually had time to call my own.
I had one set of “civvies” in my bag from when I left Tampa four months earlier. My mom and sister came and got me and took me to the Peachtree Mall so I could buy some clothes to wear. They had to go home the next morning and I spent the rest of the weekend enjoying the peace and quiet of the hotel room before taking a cab back to the barracks. I spent Sunday night in the barracks, sharing a room with 3 other potential paratroopers. We didn’t quite know what to expect of the next day.
Bright and early Monday morning the fun started with an Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT). I was barely 18 years old and probably in the best shape of my life. After having spend the last four months in C Co 2-19 walking or running everywhere we went, it was a breeze. We lost 1/3 of our class on the APFT alone. I guess they weren’t kidding about if you failed an event or fell out of a run, you were gone. Good bye, better luck next time. We lost a lot of people that way.
The first week of Airborne School is Ground Week. During Ground Week, Soldiers must pass the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT). The Ground Week Airborne instruction begins with an intensive program of instruction to build individual Airborne skills. These skills prepare the Soldier to make a parachute jump and land safely. Students train on the mock door, the 34-foot tower and the lateral drift apparatus. With all of that said, you learn how to fall down. You run to different places to learn how to fall down for a week. I don’t think my abs or my neck had ever been that sore in my life.
At the end of that week, I was looking forward to catching some sleep. Once again, I had another weekend to do with as I pleased. I explored Fort Benning and Columbus, GA a bit. I got “Hey, you!”ed into being a practice dummy for some of the Black Hats who were preparing to go to Jumpmaster School. There went half a Saturday.
The second week of Airborne School is Tower Week. Tower Week completes the Soldier’s individual skill training and further builds team effort skills. To go forward to Jump Week, Soldiers must qualify on the Swing Lander Trainer (SLT), master the mass exit procedures from the 34-foot tower, gain canopy confidence and learn how to manipulate the parachute from the 250-foot tower, and pass all physical training requirements.
I didn’t get a chance to be dropped from the Tower. I was in the harness, getting hooked up to the lift cable when it was decided that the winds were out of tolerance. Basically, the jumper they had dropped before me had drifted almost all the way to a street intersection almost 300m away. This was an interesting week. I think my favorite part had to be jumping out of the 34-foot Mock Door.
After surviving more bumps and bruises from Tower Week, we finally made it to Week 3, Jump Week. Successful completion of the previous weeks of training prepares Soldiers for Jump Week. During Jump Week, Soldiers must successfully complete five jumps at 1,250 feet from a C-130 or C-17 aircraft. Paratroopers who successfully meet course requirements are granted an additional skill identifier and are authorized to wear the coveted “Silver Wing” on their uniform.
Okay, that is all the very methodical, straight from Army PAO description. Here’s something you may not have known about me. The first time I jumped out of an aircraft over Fryer DZ was the first time I had ever been on an airplane. It was a long time before I got on an airplane and stayed on it until it landed. That was a rather nerve racking experience.
The Jump. I did the goofy little skip like “Airborne Shuffle” as I headed to the door. I was probably midway through the stick, the 15th or 16th jumper. It was dark, hot and loud inside that C-130 as it made turns over the drop zone, putting soldiers out into the breeze. I finally reached the door, handed my static line off to the safety and turned into the door. I was on the left door, looking out I could see the Chattahoochee River. It was a shock to look out and see that I was 1200 feet above ground. The jumpmaster tapped me on the leg and yelled, “Go!” I did what I was trained to do. I didn’t hesitate, I trusted my equipment and I jumped. The 150 knot winds tore at me as I tumbled. I can say that my exit wasn’t graceful and looking back, wasn’t a very good one. My right foot got tangled up in my risers as the shoot opened and I fell most of the way upside down. About 50 feet above the ground, I finally got my feet loose and swung them down in time to make an actual PLF (feet, ass, head) about 10 meters from a stand of trees. I had survived and I was flooded with adrenaline. I just threw myself from a high performance aircraft and survived. What a rush! I get to do this 4 more times to graduate!
The next few days were spent in the Pax Shed. We made our jumps, culminating with a night time, combat equipment jump. A Marine Major who was in my class had a rough landing that night. He landed wrong and ended up breaking his leg. I found him as I was moving back to the assembly area. Young Private C had just learned all sorts of interesting buddy aid tricks not too long ago in basic training. I took my 2×4 from my M-1950 weapons case, snapped it in half and used 550 cord to secure it to his leg, effectively making a splint. I picked him up in a fireman’s carry, grabbed our parachutes in my free hand and made my way to where Sergeant Airborne’s truck sat. I passed the Major off to the medics and then jogged back to the assembly area to turn in our parachutes. If you were wondering, they allowed him to graduate because he had, in fact, made his 5th and final jump. He just didn’t get to stand in the formation with us.
May 10th, 2002 was another proud day. Mom, sis and bro were all there to see me get wings pinned upon my chest. I honestly had tears in my eyes. I had just completed two of the hardest events of my life. There is a reason that they say we [Paratroopers] are arrogant. Out of the million or so in uniform in the Army, about half a percent were willing to step out the door of an aircraft while in flight.
As I said before, I write these stories so you have an idea of what to expect. I want to be there the day that you earn your wings. If you’ll allow me, I’ll even pin them on your chest for you. It’s cool to have a family member do it, but it’s better if they have been there and gone before you. Keep me up to date. DR, Paratroopers are funny creatures. You’ll fit in well.
My job isn’t always awesome, rarely is it glamorous, but it definitely has its perks at times. Sometimes you go along with something, not expecting much and it turns out to be surprisingly cool.
I pulled a safety duty on an airborne operation in Nevada on Friday. It was, for the most part, a very standard operation. We had paratroopers, a C-17, and a whole lot of drop zone. Keep in mind, in our realm, the whole world is a drop zone. My bird only had 18 jumpers, with 9 of them on my door.
Our pilots decided they needed to do some tactical flying to and away from the drop zone. It wasn’t too bad on the way there. The flight from the DZ to Nellis AFB, just outside of Las Vegas, NV was another story. I must be getting old or I need to get out of the office and on a bird more often. As our bird was skimming the mountains, hills and desert floors at only 500 feet, my stomach may have lost the battle to nausea. Oh well, at least it didn’t happen with my jumpers on board. As is common in the airborne community, everyone knows already and my balls have been thoroughly busted by my fellow paratroopers. It’s okay, they weren’t there for the second part of the roller coaster ride.
Well, we landed at Nellis and proceeded to wait for someone to come get us (us being myself, the other safety, the cameraman, the parachute rigger, chute detail NCO and the radio operator), along with our equipment. When we finally did get picked up, the cameraman and I got wrangled into assisting with parachute recovery as the jumpers returned via C-17.
Our accommodations for the night was an empty aircraft hangar with cots in it. We had a port-a-john outside and had to drive to the gym in order to shower. I get a clearer picture of how the Air Force views the Army every time I have to deal with them. (Side note: A member of the Air Force who is forced to live on an Army instillation due to their job, gets an increased cost of living allowance because of the Army’s “substandard living conditions.” Or, at least that’s how the story goes.) Oh well, us being the paratroopers that we are, chided our leaders about our transient quarters while we made preparations to get showers (at the gym), get food (PX/BX, fast food or dining facility) or use the facilities (hot, smelly port-a-john).
The plan for last night was, according to the brigade commander, for all of our roughly 40 brigade personnel to have dinner together at the Bellagio Casino and Resort in downtown Las Vegas. 8-/ Together was apparently a relative term. We only had two 15-pax vans to transport 40 individuals from the hangar to the Bellagio. Due to it being a Friday night, the trip was roughly 30 minutes from point A to point B. Everyone picked their LGOPs (little group of paratroopers) so as to not be flapping alone in the breeze. We dropped $41 on a meal at a buffet style restaurant in the Bellagio aptly named “The Buffet.”
I am going to go off on a tangent for a few minutes right here. Everyone I know who has spent time in Vegas swear that even the buffets are stocked with the most delicious treats and the most amazingly prepared gourmet foods. Sweet baby Jesus, have I become a foodie who is also a food snob/critic?!? I tried several dishes and nothing stood out to me as amazing. I would pick it apart from my own limited culinary knowledge. This turkey is too dry, those spare ribs are over cooked, this clam chowder is too sweet, this jasmine rice is undercooked, the sushi looks like it came from the grocery store, these udon noodles are way too spicy, and the list continues. I hate to say it, but the items I enjoyed in this restaurant the most was the tiny little piece of tiramisu and vanilla ice cream. As we sat down at our table, there was a bottle of 14 Hands Merlot. All I could think of was how my lovely new bride did not give that merlot the best rating. So, moral of the story, when paying for dinner at The Buffet in the Bellagio, you’re only paying for the variety of food, not for the culinary experience. Don’t get your hopes up and maybe you’ll be pleasantly surprised by a dish. I found it to be a let down, unfortunately.
So, back to the night. After eating, my buddy Marc and I decided to try our hand at a little gambling. Upon arriving at the casino, I pulled out $80 from the ATM. (Another side note: ATMs in this casino are also a giant rip off. Get cash before you arrive! $5 “convenience” charges on cash withdrawals.) After paying for dinner, that left me with $40. I am good about setting a limit on how much I spend in a casino. I know that I rarely have any luck on games of chance, having used all of mine in combat, divorce proceedings and finding “Alice.”
Marc and I played quarter slots for a bit, and I quickly went from the $20 I put in to $80. Lol. I should have stopped then. We had a drink and then decided to go roam the strip a bit. Neither of us had been to Las Vegas before, but we’re both experienced infantrymen, so we figured we would do a little urban land navigation up and down the strip.
To be continued….