I signed into Airborne School without any fear. I was too preoccupied to understand what I was about to endure. My thoughts were on my future and Annetta. What if she said no? Wait a second, what if she said yes? How would that work? Where would we live? Do I marry her while visiting on leave or wait until her tour was over? If we got married would the Army send me back to Germany? Would they send her to Ft. Benning? Was she thinking about her future? Could she be an Army wife?
I was snapped out of my daydream by a stumbling private who tripped over his duffle bag. I helped him up and advised him to slow down and breathe. He couldn’t hear me. He just stood up and stumbled again. I decided to leave him be. I was well acclimated to new situations by now and was trained in the art of “slicing the pie”. My immediate surroundings should be viewed as a circle perimeter. Each section of the perimeter, starting with me at the center, should be viewed as a slice of pie. Starting with just four sections facing outward I should assess risks and threats. Notice the exits. Look for the oddities. Spot the enemy.
What I assessed from my situation was everyone was new. New officers and newly enlisted soldiers. Their uniforms were shiny and dark. Their boots all looked fresh off the shelves and unworn. In contrast my uniform was faded and worn. My boots, although polished and shined to a glossy mirror like state, were cracked and beat up. Unlike the seemingly uncontained crowd of frightened bodies looking for someone to control them, I stood alone with my “ruck” against the wall. My equipment, only the bare necessities, was in my rucksack on my back. The handle of my rifle was tucked into my pant belt for security and to free up my hands. I was ready to move.
The “Black Hats” moved into the room with hurried focus and determination. Black Hats, Airborne Jumpmasters, were our new supervisors. All N.C.O.s, the Black Hats didn’t yell. They spoke loudly, clearly and cut right to the point. We were organized into barracks by newly formed platoons. Officers were to line up in front, by order of rank, followed closely by enlisted by order of rank. The stragglers and the confused were gently, but physically, guided to where they were supposed to be. Once assigned and marched to our barracks we were organized outside on the Battalions bleachers for instructions.
Airborne School was three weeks long. Week one is called Ground Week. Ground week, the “washout week” for soldiers not ready to make the cut, would be the most physically challenging of all three weeks. We would be running, running and running. In between running, we would be learning, practicing and perfecting P.L.F.’s (Parachute Landing Falls). We would learn P.L.F.’s using the fall as you are method and the Lateral Drift Assembly (imagine a zipline). We would be taking the Army Physical Fitness Test and would have to qualify in the 18 – 21 year old qualification range (the Army has higher standards for younger soldiers).
Week two is called Tower Week. Tower Week covered the proper way to exit an airplane, deployment of parachute risers, usage of the reserve parachute, parachute stearing and landing while moving with gear. We would start by practicing jumping off platforms then move onto the 30ft tower. Lastly, we would practice falling with a deployed parachute from the 200ft towers.
The 200ft towers were the only visable skyline marking Ft. Benning. With all the training that went on at the Army Base, the 200ft towers stood as an ominous warning to all who saw them. The warning was: Airborne School isn’t for everyone.
The last week of Airborne School is called Jump Week. Using the C130 and C141 Air Force Cargo Planes, candidates have to successfully complete five “jumps” in order to graduate the school. After candidates board the planes at Lawson Army Airfield, the planes reach an altitude of 2000 feet and cruising speed of approximately 150mph. When the pilots identify the D.Z. (Drop Zone), they alert the jumpmaster. The jumpmaster, inturn, alerts the candidates with a step by step order to “Stand up. Hook up. Shuffle to the door.” The jumpmaster then signals to “check equipment” and a well practiced equipment check is done soldier to soldier. Once completed, the first candidate in the Airborne “Stick” (the line of candidates loaded into the plane) signals the jumpmaster with a loud boisterous “ALL OK JUMPMASTER!” An overhead green light signals the “GO GO GO!” from the jumpmaster and there is a mass exit, one by one, out the side door of the plane. Any candidate who hesitates in the door is then “manually assisted” out of the door quickly and purposefully.
As I landed, feet and knees together, onto the D.Z. after my final jump I thought to myself how easy it was for me to progress through Jump School. I unhooked from my parachute and questioned why it was so easy. My answer was clear as the day: my day to day training was more rigorous than Airborne training. I walked a little taller as I left the D.Z. my final time.
Airborne graduation is an elaborate celebration. Family members attended marking some soldiers long traditions of family service. Fathers of both sons and daughters stood proudly in attendance. I watched parents pin shiny silver jump wings onto the uniform over their child’s heart over and over. It was in this moment I remembered my own parents. It had been a while since I spoke to them. I felt alone.
As I was handed my jump wings I turned to leave the ceremony. I heard the thumps followed by screams and laughter. I knew the tradition. I had just experienced it when i passed the E.F.M.B. test. I just wanted to go home.
My home now was on Kelley Hill, in the barracks. I had beer in the fridge waiting for me. I had one week left until my flight to Europe. I would grab my gear, board the bus and head back to the barracks. As I signed out of Airborne School I snapped to at the command of “Troop! Attention!”
I turned to see Sgt. Walker staring at me with predatory eyes.
I knew I would just have to take it as I had just a few weeks prior.
He commanded me to the position of “Parade Rest”, which was a non resting position with my legs shoulder width apart and my hands firmly placed in the small of my back. He grabbed my jump wings from my hand and placed them above my heart yet below my E.F.M.B.. He recited the regulation stating proper placement of each award as he adjusted my uniform. He purposefully left the safety backs off the jump wings. As he explained the historical tradition of earning ” blood wings” I closed my eyes and prepared myself. He gave me no warning.
At full strength, yet again, he punched the award driving the 1/4″ spears into the flesh of my chest.
Pain, I was learning, was how soldiers are born into brotherhood.