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.
By THOM SHANKERJAN. 18, 2014
FORT DRUM, N.Y. — Spec. Perez Brown Jr. spent three years in the Army and two tours in Afghanistan, where on his 23rd birthday a homemade bomb blew up a vehicle in his convoy and he came close to driving over another one just down the road. “That second one might have been for me,” he said.
Now Specialist Brown is safely home with the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, where he goes on field marches in the frosty forests near Lake Ontario. He will not be sent again to Afghanistan, where American involvement is winding down, so he is part of an Army that is no longer carrying out war plans, only training for them.
Although he is glad to be back, Specialist Brown misses the intensity and purpose that deployments brought to his life. Here in upstate New York, he said, it is peaceful but a little boring. “There are too many slow days,” he said.
A dozen years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, most of the two million American men and women who went to war are home, adjusting to new lives. Slightly more than half remain in the armed services, where many are struggling — like America’s ground forces over all — to find relevance in the face of an uncertain future.
Their restlessness is a particular challenge for the Army, which sent 1.3 million troops to war after 9/11 and created the most combat-tested force in the nation’s history. But now it must sustain the morale of soldiers who have returned to American bases and are living what the military calls garrison life.
“You have to ask yourself if you want to be that leader who is relegated to navigating garrison bureaucracy — submitting ammo requests, coordinating weapons ranges and conducting inventories,” said Capt. Brandon Archuleta, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who returned to Hunter Army Airfield, Ga. “I know those processes are in place for a reason, but it’s frustrating nonetheless.”
Lt. Andrew Mayville, who commanded an artillery platoon of 20 soldiers in Afghanistan and is back home at Fort Drum, misses the urgency of his deployment and so is applying to the Special Forces, a branch of the Army that trains allied militaries overseas and is sent to hot spots. “You can compare it to a football player who trains for years,” he said, “and doesn’t want to sit on the bench for the Super Bowl.”
The problems soldiers face in adjusting to ordinary Army life after the adrenaline of combat weighs on commanders.
“It takes a bit of audacity to fall out of a perfectly good airplane in the dark of night,” said the 82d Airborne Division’s command sergeant major, LaMarquis Knowles, based at Fort Bragg, N.C. “So there are some challenges when we integrate back into civilization. You transition from one mind-set — you roll out of your cot and you seek and destroy the enemy — to coming back to the States, where we want you to drive safely.”
Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, acknowledged that the Army and its soldiers were at “a very important inflection point.” The numbers tell part of the story: The Army is reducing to 490,000 troops from a post-9/11 peak of 570,000, and some at the Pentagon already are suggesting that budget cuts might force the Army down to as low as 420,000 in years to come.
But General Odierno, who served multiple command tours in Iraq, insisted that the Army would not be confined to garrison life. Instead, he said, his soldiers will be “globally responsive and regionally engaged” in overseas war games, exercises with foreign militaries and, if needed, deployments to hot spots. He also wants to restore a schedule of academic training, which was pushed aside by combat.
Maj. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commander of the 10th Mountain Division, is carrying out that mission with his soldiers. “We are not going to sit in our garrisons,” he said. “That’s not what the Army did before the wars. We trained here. We deployed for training all over the world. And we will find our way back to that.”
But the reality is indisputable. The 10th Mountain was the first division sent off to fight the war in Afghanistan, and now it will be the last. General Townsend is headed to eastern Afghanistan in a final deployment that will close the official NATO combat mission by the end of the year.
A More Experienced Field
Captain Archuleta, 30, is the face of today’s Army, the kind of young officer who had experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan far beyond his rank. President of his 2006 class at West Point, he deployed a year later as a platoon leader to Babil Province, south of Baghdad. One day, his battery commander approached him with an unusual offer.
“He said, ‘I’m having trouble with the town council,’ ” Captain Archuleta recalled. “ ‘I know you are a wonky poli-sci kind of guy. I’m at a standstill. Can you contribute to this?’ ”
Captain Archuleta joined a team of military representatives to the town council of Al Haq, where he helped oversee public services — water, roads, electricity — assisted in reconciliation talks with tribal elders and worked as a payroll officer to Iraqi security forces.
“My battery commander and my battalion commander realized they had a big challenge with governance,” he said. “They knew they couldn’t be everywhere at once. It was quite empowering for them to delegate those authorities to me.”
Over two wars, experiences like Captain Archuleta’s were repeated up the chain of command.
Commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan never had as many forces as called for under the military’s troop-heavy counterinsurgency strategy, so officers had to secure far larger expanses of territory than in past wars as a range of unexpected responsibilities, particularly governance and economic development, fell to them. Captains had responsibilities held by colonels a generation before, colonels shouldered the challenges of past generals, and generals had resources larger than many nations’ defense ministries.
But when Captain Archuleta returned home to Hunter Army Airfield in 2010, after he commanded a company of 110 soldiers in Afghanistan’s volatile Khost Province, he missed the responsibilities that his commanders had given him in war.
“My peers who felt similarly either pursued broadening assignments within the military, like me, or simply left active duty for business school and the private sector,” he said.
The Army, seeking to retain Captain Archuleta, selected him to join the West Point faculty to teach American politics. The Army is now paying for him to earn a master’s degree in public affairs at the University of Texas en route to a doctorate in government. Under his agreement with the Army, he will leave the West Point faculty and return to the fighting force in 2017.
“Such a positive option was not the experience of all of my contemporaries,” Captain Archuleta said.
Transition to Peacetime
That challenge of transitioning to a peacetime Army is felt in a different way across the enlisted ranks, as commanders say they typically face more challenges disciplining troops at home.
“We all struggle with the fact that leadership in garrison is much tougher than leadership in combat,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Larry D. Farmer, who served as the senior noncommissioned officer for the 82nd Airborne’s Combat Aviation Brigade at Fort Bragg.
Young soldiers may have survived multiple combat tours and countless brushes with death, which commanders say can lead to a sense of invincibility and the need to seek out the rush of war from thrills like reckless driving and drug and alcohol abuse.
Although there is typically an initial honeymoon period when soldiers return to their families, the frictions of daily life start to spark by the six-month mark, and Army leaders know they have to pay special attention as problems may emerge.
Stepping up the training schedule can help. Last summer, in a military exercise, more than a thousand paratroopers from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division floated down from the dark bowl of sky over Fort Bragg, visible through night-vision goggles as umbrella-shaped shadows against a pale green backdrop.
Their mission, the centerpiece of an eight-day war game for 7,500 troops, was to evacuate civilians endangered by a foreign political crisis and secure a chemical weapons depot in a chaotic, unnamed nation.
The 82nd Airborne, back home after years of nonstop deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, continues to prepare for conflict, although not the full-scale land wars of the last 12 years. As Robert M. Gates said in 2011, when he was the defense secretary, “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.”
Instead, commanders say the Army’s future lies in creating leaner, faster units that can provide disaster relief, secure embassies, seize airfields and deploy for other emergencies large and small — all while continuing to deter potential adversaries from aggressive actions.
“Our recent combat experience is not necessarily analogous to what we are going to have to do in the future,” said Maj. Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne. The division has again been designated the military’s Global Response Force — ready to deploy a battalion of about 750 troops overseas within 18 hours, and a full brigade of about 3,500 troops in as little as two days.
To meet that renewed purpose, General Nicholson also put his paratroopers through a separate “no-notice alert” last year to rehearse going from a status quo daily schedule to a rapid combat deployment. More than 1,000 soldiers swapped out their distinctive maroon berets for camouflage helmets as they shrugged into parachutes and loaded their combat equipment onto transport aircraft as if for immediate dispatch to an overseas crisis.
These drills, General Nicholson said, reflect the most significant change for paratroopers here, one that will return the division to its historic rapid-reaction role. They also serve to keep impatient troops who experienced real combat in Iraq and Afghanistan occupied at home.
When it comes to money for training, his division is one of the fortunate ones. For almost a year, tight budgets have meant that only those units next in line for deployments have been allowed to conduct large-scale training exercises — the sort of event that focuses the energy of soldiers and boosts morale.
“What keeps me up at night,” General Odierno said, “is if I’m asked to deploy 20,000 soldiers somewhere, I’m not sure I can guarantee you that they’re trained to the level that I think they should be.”
As for Specialist Brown, he has decided that his future and the Army’s are intertwined. With hopes for advanced training in electrical engineering, and at least the prospect of another tour overseas — perhaps to Africa, Europe or Asia — he has re-enlisted for another three years.
“I haven’t decided whether I’ll stay in for the whole 20 years,” he said. “But I’m willing to take it a couple of years at a time.”
This one is heavy on the language, but it is a good description of paratroopers. We are all type-A personalities. A lot of Alphas in a small community. You have to be careful around us, especially those of us whose job it is to close with and destroy the enemy by means of fire and maneuver.