Eight years ago this week I left my duty station of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for three weeks at Fort Benning to attend the US Army Airborne School. With Veterans Day around the corner, I thought now may be a good time to share this.
It was autumn in Georgia and I remember driving in seeing the sign saying “1st Battalion (Airborne), 507th Infantry Regiment, Fort Benning, Georgia”. I kept thinking, is this really happening? I’m going to have to jump from an airplane 5 times in the next three weeks. I was still relatively young, 24 at the time. I had just returned back to the states from my first 15 month deployment to Iraq.
I was there with another guy from my platoon. He was the only other person I knew out of about 200. Some people were just a few days out of basic training. They were enjoying their first few days of freedom. Not complete freedom, but they were allowed to have cellphones again and leave base at night and on the weekend. They had only been in the army just a few months. By this point, I had been in about 2.5 years. There were others who had been in longer who were hoping to graduate Airborne School to receive enough points for promotion or cross it off their career bucket list.
The first day of Airborne School started with a wake up at 0400 for everyone but me. I was randomly selected by one of the Black Hats for “fire watch” at 0300. Fire watch was really just guard duty. Black Hats are Airborne Instructors who wear a black hat with Airborne Wings on them. They are also addressed as Sergeant Airborne. So, I was tired and nervous but wasn’t given the opportunity to be cold because at 5am we started a PT test. Physical Training tests were administered before every school. They consisted of 2 minutes of push ups, 2 minutes of sit ups and a 2 mile run. If you didn’t do the required amount of push ups, sit ups, or run fast enough to pass the test, you were sent back to your unit. I promise you they were sent back to an unhappy platoon sergeant and squad leader who were expecting you to come back with wings, instead you came back a failure. The Airborne community, as it’s called, hold themselves to a higher standard than others. These are the people who have volunteered to train over and over again in hopes to jump behind enemy lines. They were better than everyone else and they let everyone else know it.
After the PT test we had 30 minutes to eat breakfast and get into our Army Combat Uniform. Don’t even think about eating the fruit loops that were available at breakfast. Toucan Sam had wings, we didn’t. That was said by the Black Hats every morning over and over again. Nothing was easy. Every time we entered the dinning area and our barracks area, and every time we left them, we had to do 10 pull ups and 10 push ups. This was said to work the “pull up muscles” that would be needed to pull on the parachute risers later in week 2. We did at least 100 pull ups and push ups a day easy and that’s not counting morning PT. There was also no walking. EVERYWHERE you went was at an Airborne shuffle. It’s not a run, but you’re not walking and don’t get caught walking.
The first few days consisted of physical training and practicing parachute landing falls or PLF for short. In the Army, literally everything has an acronym. PLFs were practiced first by jumping off small play forms to land on the balls of the feet, calf, thigh, butt and then that famous pull up muscle which was basically just your side and back. Each one of these places on the body was a point of contact to hit the ground. 5 points of contact. My favorite was when someone would screw up and a Black Hat would yell “Get your head out of your 4th point of contact!!” meaning get your head out of your ass. A PLF was nothing more than hitting the ground and rolling to distribute the blow to avoid injuries. That didn’t always work. There were plenty of injuries.
All day for the first week we practiced PLFs. We would practice in rock pits to help cushion the landings. We would start by practicing with no gear on. We were instructed to look up, pull down the imaginary parachute risers to our chest and then jump into the rock pit keeping our knees and feet together. Once that was mastered, we were put in a harness and would jump from a higher platform until that was mastered. It was made clear, jumping out of the airplane is easy. You’re just falling under a parachute. The hard part was the landing. When we weren’t doing PLFs we were being yelled at or doing PT.
Sergeant Airborne loves to run for PT. So we ran, a lot. We ran at an Airborne shuffle pace, all 200 of us together in formation. We would sing motivating cadence to take our mind off of running and to control breathing. Cadences that were said so many times I could never forget.
“C-130 rollin’ down the strip
64 Rangers on a one-way trip
Mission Top Secret, destination unknown
They don’t even know if they’re ever coming home
When my plane gets up so high
Paratroopers take to the skies
Stand up, hook up, shuffle to the door
My knees got weak and I hit the floor
Jumpmaster picked me up with ease
Tossed my knees into the breeze”
I remember getting back from a run and being in a mass formation of 200 people when one of the Black Hats yells “Cardwell!” “Who the hell is Cardwell?” I answered up, “Here Sergeant Airborne!” I had no idea what was going on. Sergeant Airborne approached with a smile. “I know your Platoon Sergeant back at Bragg. He just called me. I was his squad leader 10 years ago. We are going to have a fun two weeks together.” I knew that meant it was only going to be fun for one of us. Just my luck.
There’s so much more and it only gets better. Week 2 and 3 of Airborne School will be posted as Part 2. I’ll have it posted before Veterans Day. Stay with me.