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.
Infantrymen have a pride and arrogance that most Americans don’t understand and don’t like. Even soldiers who aren’t infantrymen don’t understand. The pride doesn’t exist because we have a job that’s physically impressive. It certainly doesn’t exist because it takes a higher level of intelligence to perform our duties. It’s sad and I hate to admit it, but any college student or high school grad can physically do what we do. It’s not THAT demanding and doesn’t take a physical anomaly. Nobody will ever be able to compare us to professional athletes or fitness models. And it doesn’t take a very high IQ to read off serial numbers, pack bags according to a packing list, or know that incoming bullets have the right of way.
The pride of the infantryman comes not from knowing that he’s doing a job that others can’t, but that he’s doing a job that others simply won’t. Many infantrymen haven’t seen a lot of combat. While that may sound ideal to the civilian or non-infantry soldier, it pains the grunt. We signed up to spit in the face of danger. To walk the line between life and death and live to do it again – or not. To come to terms with our own mortality and let others try to take our life instead of yours. We have raised our hands and said, “Take me, America. I am willing to kill for you. I am willing to sacrifice my limbs for you. I will come back to America scarred and disfigured for you. I will be the first to die for you.” [Most of you will hate me anyway.]
That’s why the infantryman carries himself with pride and arrogance. He’s aware that America has lost respect for him. To many he’s a bloodthirsty animal. To others he’s too uneducated and stupid to get a regular job or go to college. Only he knows the truth. While there are few in America who claim to have respect for him, the infantryman returns from war with less fanfare than a first down in a high school football game. Yes, people hang up their “Support Our Troops” ribbons and on occasion thank us for our service. But in their eyes the infantryman can detect pity and shame; not respect. Consider this: How excited would you be to meet the average infantryman? Now compare that with how excited you’d be to meet a famous actor or professional sports player and you will find that you, too, are guilty of placing the wrong people on a pedestal. You wouldn’t be able to tell me how many soldiers died in the war last month, but you’d damn sure be able to tell me if one of the actors from Twilight died.
Yet the infantryman doesn’t complain about that. He continues to do his job; to volunteer his life for you, all while being paid less in four years than Tom Brady makes in one game.
It’s a job most Americans don’t understand, don’t envy, and don’t respect. That is why we have pride for the infantry.
On 04 JAN 02, I left the Tampa, FL Military Entrance & Processing Station for Fort Benning, GA in a 15-pack van with 11 other future soldiers. We were headed for the 30th AG Reception Station before being pushed on to the Infantry Training Brigade (ITB). Georgia had received an ice storm on the 3rd and we ended up having to spend another night in the hotel in Tampa before making the drive. It took about 10 hours to make the drive and we arrived after midnight.
Upon arrival, we could see four men in uniform, wearing BDUs and brown Smokey the Bear hats. Under the arc sodium lights outside the building, all we could see is their jaw lines. It was quiet and cold. We got our bags out of the van and once we turned around, the shark attack began. In a tone loud enough to wake the dead in another state and with words that would make your mother blush, we were rushed inside to dump all of our belongings on a table. Our personal effects were searched for contraband. The next thing that we were instructed to do was to shave our [expletive x4] faces. We got our first hair cut shortly thereafter. Fuzzy cue ball is not my favorite coif for cold weather.
30th AG is where you get your Army identity. It’s where your pay check, medical benefits, insurance, and training starts. It was a whirlwind. Let’s skip forward a week. We marched to our basic training company, C Co 2-19th Infantry, “Rock of Chickamaugua”. Our duffle bags road on a truck. Drill Sergeants can be evil bastards. This was where we first experienced unrealistic time hacks to accomplish a task and then swiftly and severely punished when we failed to meet it. The duffle bags were thrown into a haphazard pile behind the trucks. Now, you have less than a minute to find two with your name on them. It’s like trying to find a pair of needles in a stack of needles while the timer on a bomb counts down. You get it now?
I am not going to recount all of basic training. Either you’ve been there and done that or you haven’t. If you haven’t gone yet, I don’t want to ruin the fun. I will make a short list of things that I will never forget:
- 1. The Obstacle Course- You and your Battle Buddy charging through the mud and water, exhausted, but feeling completely alive.
- 2. Eagle Tower- Repelling from the top of a tall ass tower. It was pretty awesome and rather terrifying at the same time.
- 3. THE BAYONET- A 25 mile foot march, broken up with squad/platoon attacks missions along the way (one of them involving climbing a clay cliff face to attack a dug in position). It ended with use climbing up Honor Hill, the pathway going up and the top of the hill lit with torches. The hand you a pint of grog before pinning your crossed rifles on the chest.
- 4. The Steak Breakfast the next morning.
- 5. Graduation Day- Standing on that field with your fellow baby grunts, ready to make your way to Airborne School or to your first Duty Station. You can feel the change in you. You stand taller, you are mentally and physically stronger. It was a proud day.
I am going to start writing about my journey in an effort to help someone prepare for what they are about to face. Things have changed in the last 12 years, but a lot of things haven’t. I hope you learn from these lessons, DR. If you’re willing…
To be continued…