Army Strong Stories: Airborne. All The Way.

With today being Veteran's Day, I'm kicking off a series of posts about my recent return visit to the Army's Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia. It's my hope to convey, not only the amount of training the troops receive, but also the greater sacrifices that soldiers and their families have been making, particularly over the past decade. Today, as you're tweeting, and commenting on your social media sites, please take the time to show your appreciation for the sacrifices our brave men and women have made on our behalf. Thank you.

This past month I had the opportunity to visit the Army’s Fort Benning near Columbus, Georgia. This was not my first time on the post, which is home to units of the 3rd Infantry Division, the 75th Ranger Regiment, and a host of training course that include Airborne School, Ranger School, and as of recently, the Armor School. During the latter part of my military career, I had been here several times to attend training, the last being the Infantry Captain’s Career Course almost a decade ago.

Much has happened since then—the terrorist attacks on 9-11, the still ongoing war in Afghanistan, the controversial invasion and subsequently prolonged occupation of Iraq—events that have changed everyone’s life in this country at least to some extent. The Army, after much hard fighting and repeated, long-term deployments, has changed too.

So had I. Knowing this brought on a low level uneasiness that I hinted at with my Army liaison, Brianna Gallett on our ride from Atlanta to Benning.

“Just because you’ve been in the Army before doesn’t mean everyone’s going to welcome you with open arms,” I explained. “They’ve been through a lot of hardcore stuff, so they could really give a crap about what I did back in the day.” I thought about one of my good friends from my officer days and the extreme circumstances he faced as a company commander (These experiences were later captured in the book, They Fought For Each Other.

Gallett, who has been working with the Army for a while now, seemed to understand. Over the course of this time, she has developed some strong relationships with a number of soldiers whose character, professionalism, and dedication has fostered a level of respect that’s morphed into an unspoken passion for her work.

“I’m halfway through your friend’s book right now. It’s incredible to see what [soldiers] are going through,” she said. “It really puts things into context. They really were fighting for one another.”

* * *

The next morning I got up early and doubled-checked my canvas backpack to make sure I had all the equipment I might need for the day—pens, paper, camera, flip video, tape recorder, extra batteries. In the Army, this is known as a Pre-Combat Inspection, or PCI. It’s a routine so ingrained in me that even years later, I still do it anytime I leave the house no matter if it’s a short errand or an out-of-town trip. Some things just stick with you.

Downstairs at breakfast, the hotel restaurant was still in the process of opening, and the only other people joining me at that hour were a few guys in their early twenties sporting crew-cuts, a dead giveaway that they were soldiers. Judging by the number of tattoos on their muscled arms and the varied T-shirt announcing their proficiency at aggressively disposing of bad guys, I could tell they were part of one of the Ranger Regiment.

“I do bad things to bad people,” read one shirt with a menacing skull that further punctuated the message. And indeed they do. Members of the Ranger Regiment are the elite of the Army’s light infantry, and their mission is to be a highly skilled shock force. It was the Rangers who fought against mobs of Somali gunman as popularized by the movie, Blackhawk Down, and it was the Rangers who were the first ground troops in Afghanistan, parachuting into Kandahar to secure an airfield and raid Taliban hideouts. Death from above.

Watch this video to see Rangers in action

* * *

The focus of my visit, however, wasn’t the Rangers, but rather the Army’s Basic Airborne School, which all soldiers who are either in the Ranger Regiment, assigned to Airborne designated units, or otherwise directed must pass. The course is three weeks long, each of which marking a different phase. Ground Week, Tower Week, and Jump Week.

These phases are somewhat self-explanatory. After passing the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT), students spend the rest of the week learning how to execute the Parachute Landing Fall (PLF), as well as how to exit an airplane correctly. Week two is where the fun begins as you test your fear of heights by jumping from the 34ft Tower. Finally, in week three you qualify for you wings, provided you make five successful jumps from a perfectly good airplane at 1,250ft in both day and night conditions.

A short time after breakfast, Gallett and I drove from the hotel to Ft. Benning where we would me our contact from the Army’s Public Affairs Office (PAO), and then follow him to the Airborne School’s headquarters building for an informal orientation.

“Looking familiar?” Gallett asked as we made our way across the post.

I smiled. “Oh, yeah,” I said. “We used to do PT up and down these streets all the time. Right over there, that’s the barracks I stayed at for the Infantry Officer Basic Course.” These two massive, Spanish tiled Cuartels constructed between 1930 and 1939 formed a U around a large grassy area where my class would hold morning formations for PT and clean our equipment after field training exercises. There was a nostalgic giddiness that came over me, reflecting on those moments of sitting around, BSing with your buddies while stripping layers of carbon off of the various parts of your weapon.

But mixed with familiar was also the new, the most notable of this being the housing. You can tell a lot about how much an Army post cares about families by the condition of buildings they house them in. I’m not going to lie, I’ve seen some run down communities in my days. The townhomes my young family and I were assigned to at Fort Drum, New York had large holes in the exterior walls allowing critters in. At night my (first) wife and I would watch from the living room as rats ran back and forth in the dining room.

That didn’t seem to be the case now from what I could see. Pristine communities with pretty houses lined streets with trimmed yards—a stark contrast from the rundown, one story duplexes that were being torn down in some cases in order to make way for better facilities. It was genuinely impressive.

Next Week: Airborne School and the Swing Landing Trainer

To read more about today's soldiers, check out Army Strong Stories, blog posts actually written by the men and women serving in the United States Army.

Disclaimer: In accordance with FTC regulations, it is necessary for me to disclose that the Army paid for my travel, lodging, and meal expenses during my trip to Fort Benning, Georgia.

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