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"Airborne School", an Essay
Over the past three weeks of airborne school, I've probably said the word "airborne" over one thousand times. Cadences are riddled with the word, cadre members are addressed as "sergeant airborne", and we are not called "soldiers" but instead "airborne". (e.g. "Listen up, airborne!")
Airborne school, a three week course conducted at Ft. Benning, Georgia, was pure, frustrating misery for me. Most of my class was gung-ho infantry, so they'll tell you the course was easy, but I'll be up front and say you get battered physically and mentally, not so much by the training, but by the long hours and the brutal summer Georgia weather.
The first day, inprocessing, was a harbinger of things to come. I had been given approximately 36 hours to drive from Texas to Georgia, most of which I had "squandered" on getting a good night's sleep. A little less than a day later, I was standing outside in oppressive, brutal, smothering Georgia weather, wearing a dark, long-sleeved uniform, waiting for ages during each stage of the inprocessing schedule, body covered in sweat and mind full of reminiscences to basic training days two years ago.
Getting out seven hours after reporting time, I was already ready to run away to a hotel for the weekend, since it was a Friday night. I'd come with another person who I'd trained with the last two years in California and Texas, so we split a hotel room and commiserated on our situation. It was pathetic; we whined continuously to each other and to our loved ones over the phone. For me, the pain is not in training itself -- it's in the knowledge of what's to come and the expectation of hardship. So sitting there on Sunday, enjoying my last few hours of freedom, knowing there were three weeks left to go, was a little like being tied to a train track and resignedly waiting for a Georgia Pacific to come. You knew the pain train would come, but there's nothing you could do about it.
The first week, Ground Week, was stifling. Uniforms drenched in sweat from 5AM to 6PM, we did a PT (physical training) test, two multiple-mile runs, demoralizing circuit PT (three laps around a 0.8mi track doing various torturous exercises like bear crawls, crab walks, and iron mikes along the way), and scrambling around in a gravel pit for an hour and a half in a session the Army likes to call "front/back/go's". And that was just morning PT! During training, we practiced jumping out a 34ft mock door along a zipline, practiced PLFs (parachute landing falls) off small elevations into gravel pits by jumping onto the ground and collapsing onto one's side, and getting smoked and yelled at by the sergeants airborne for not moving fast enough.
My friend who came with me quit on the Thursday of the first week. He had fallen out of our first run on Wednesday morning, because the sergeants airborne set a blistering pace which was not the 9min pace prescribed in the regulations. In retrospect, after later much slower runs, this run seemed to be intended to weed people out. My buddy said he wasn't a good runner and didn't think he'd complete the later, longer runs, so he decided he wasn't going to waste any more time. Besides, he had orders to the 82nd airborne division, which is notoriously difficult with lots of running and lots of annoying infantry post-pubescent boys. He didn't feel bad about quitting.
At any rate, it was a blow to lose my friend. I still hung out with him on the weekends while I was at Benning, but I felt like I was then on my own in training.
So what's the environment like? The sergeants airborne, who are also called Black Hats (because of their black ballcaps), are boss. They instruct the students and most are qualified jumpmasters who help people get out the door when airborne missions take place. There are other sergeants who are not Black Hat instructors, and they wear the paratrooper maroon beret. There were about 400 people in my class when I started, and about 100 fell out along the way to graduation. Most students are infantry, but there are also a lot of cadets from military schools like West Point. I was the only military intel guy, I think. There were quite a few psychological ops guys too. Some sergeants and officers were in the course, most of whom I think were younger than me. We had an Estonian and I think an Uzbek. It's bizarre seeing West Point cadets and butter bar first lieutenants who look like they barely need to shave.
Benning is not unlike most Army posts, even though most of it is just training. Airborne, pathfinder, officer candidate school, sergeant leadership, jumpmaster, ranger, infantry, just a ton of schools there. Right outside the base is Victory Drive, which is run down to say the least. It's full of crap intended for soldiers. Pawn shops, strip joints, low income apartments, thrift shops, fast food, jewelry stores, tattoo parlors, bars. Murder of infantry soldiers seems to be a big problem in the city of Columbus there. A great deal of the businesses just along Victory Drive are specifically banned to soldiers by Ft. Benning's administration because of violence and drug sales. The saving grace is Ranger Joe's, a military store that sells everything and which I've been ordering online from since I enlisted. It carries a ton of gear and has a barber shop complete with razor skin shaves for all the fucking gung-ho high-and-tight grunts.
Columbus is right on the border of Georgia and Alabama. If you drive quite a distance away from the base, you get into nicer, less sketchy territory called Phenix City. There you'll find all the comfort strip malls and gigantic chain stores and restaurants. Needless to say, that's where the soldiers go to get away on the weekend. One thing that fucking drove me nuts, though, was going all that way, only to be dining or shopping next to a bunch of loud, obnoxious infantry kids fresh out of training, or walking by some cantankerous sergeant who feels he needs to inspect anyone who looks military for deficiencies.
If you've never been in the military, it's hard to understand how oppressive military culture can be. You can't escape it in military towns. You're always going to instantly spot the big, muscular, mean-looking guys wearing offensive t-shirts with poorly chosen white socks and boots, or pasty-looking kids in DragonballZ shirts and zoot-suit pants. Military types rarely know how to dress. They dress like middle school boys dress.
You're going to see groups of guys walking around talking brazenly and loudly about their training so that nearby girls might overhear and be impressed. You're going to see people in uniform with armbands that read "courtesy police", which I assume means they go around correcting soldiers for acting or dressing inappropriately.
It gets tiring. Testosterone-laden, stereotypical, aggressive culture. A lot of people in the Army don't know how to turn the hooah off. I've had sergeants who only speak in military cliches like "make it happen" and "drive on", or say "pop smoke" when they want me to leave, or say "out" (a radio term) when they hang up the phone. I hear people yelling "HOOAH" when they're in the fucking bookstore. And sergeants are always stopping privates in civilian clothes to yell at them. JUST STOP IT. LET IT GO. There's more to life than acting like a hardass Army type!
By the second weekend, another friend of mine arrived at Benning, since she was being stationed there for duty. All three of us eked out every moment of the weekend trying to relax with good food and lots of comfort swimming, TV, and movies.
The second week, Tower Week, consists of more advanced jumping out and falling down. We fell off a swing system from a 12ft platform or so, dropped in various directions at the sergeant airborne's discretion, causing for a lot of embarrassing crunches on our heads and backs. We practiced multiple people exiting from the 34ft mock door. Some people get dropped with an open chute from 250ft later in the week. I didn't get to do that, but I helped people get ready to be lifted up the tower. I also had a sergeant airborne shake my hand when I told him I was an Arabic linguist. He said the Army really needed more of guys like me.
For me, I was getting to know my three roommates better, who were also in my "stick" (squad) for the whole course, which helped with my other friend leaving. One of them was the type who just looks like he's going to be a great soldier. Great at PT, educated with a degree, motivated, never complaining, always smiling the All-American smile. After airborne school, he was going to go through RIP, or the Ranger Indoctrination Program, a course that preps soldiers to go through Ranger school. He had aspirations to become an officer also. Another roommate was Polish in heritage, I think. He was interesting to talk to. Always talking, always open. The other guy moved a bit slower than the other two, more at my speed, less motivated than them. He would always be on his phone talking to his fiancee, even when we only got a few minutes to change after PT in the morning. They were all good guys, and down to earth, which I appreciated very much. We took care of each other during the three weeks by double-checking each others' equipment and making sure everything was squared away.
I was dreading each day since the course never seemed to get shorter. I'd lick my wounds every night with drinking Powerades while shining my boots and doing my laundry or whining to friends and family in the couple hours between end of training and bedtime. The worst feeling came when I woke up at 4:30AM. Once I got up and moving, I didn't really care so much, but starting the day always gave me dread. Oh fuck, there's so much to do today before I get to come back in here...
We conducted three more runs, culminating in a final battalion run which had a steep hill called "Cardiac Arrest". We did log PT, which involved moving a log around in a group of eight or so people from shoulder to shoulder to the ground. More sweat, more misery, more frustration at a seemingly never-ending school. Many times during this week, the sergeants airborne would make us unblouse and then spray us with water hoses to keep our body temperatures down. We inhaled water from our canteens like infantry guys drink beer.
In paratrooper culture, non-airborne soldiers are called "legs", as in "Get out of here, you fucking leg." The sergeants airborne would threaten us of always being a leg if we quit the school, since we would never be allowed another chance to complete the school. On a related note, I learned that infantry soldiers love telling non-infantry that they're just "pogues", the people who do things like take all the A/C and bottled water while the infantry moves the universe and saves mankind.
I must've downed eight canteens of water a day to replace all the liquid I was losing. We'd get three meals a day, but they were hurried meals with sergeants pushing us out the door all the time. By the time I graduated the school, my shorts were sliding off me, and I'm a fairly thin guy to begin with.
Airborne students doubletime, or run, everywhere they go. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, the Georgia heat and humidity caused Heat Cat 5 by 11AM every day, pretty much. Heat Cat 5 is a high category on the Army's system used to judge how much activity soldiers should be doing outside. During Heat Cat 5, soldiers can't run from place to place, and their activity must be lowered. We didn't have to run, but we were still dying from the heat trapped in our uniforms and the sweat stinging our eyes and soaking our clothes.
At the end of Tower Week, we were taught the airborne songs. One goes as such:
We pull up on the risers and we fall down on the grass
Another, "Blood on the Risers", goes like this:
[the sergeant airborne's part]
The third and final week, or Jump Week, finally came. I had become more and more apprehensive about it. I'd get off training in the evening and walk around outside, only to see a bunch of guys stumbling about with bandaged or casted legs and crutches, people who'd had horrible accidents when they'd jumped out of the plane and landed. I had dinner with one guy before Jump Week who landed wrong on his third jump out of five. He knew he busted his ankle when he landed, and when a medic cut his boot off, his foot just fell over with nothing stopping it. But when he went to the hospital, x-rays concluded he'd already broken the end parts of his right fibula and tibia! Encouraging for me!
Most of Jump Week is spent in an ominously named place called the Harness Shed, which sounds like a fucking Iraqi prison and seems to come close at times. All of us would don our chute harnesses and reserve chutes and sit for hours and hours until it was our turn to get on the C-130 to jump. During that waiting time, you're not allowed to drink water, go to the latrine, or touch any of your equipment, since it's been inspected by a sergeant airborne and you touching it might mess something up. The sergeants' airborne inspections are called JMPI's and they consist of a lot of holding things, checking snaps, arching your back, lowering and raising your chin, and bending over. In typical military fashion, this activity invites a lot of homophobic humor.
If you don't adjust your leg straps correctly, your harness will be too tight and your testicles will be smashed against your groin. Ever seen otherwise tough brickhouse guys buckle in pain and want to cry? I have! The harness also cuts into your collarbone because of all the weight. You can't stand up straight sometimes.
The day of our first jump, my stick waited ten hours (!!) to jump. We were the last stick of all to go, and this was after a two hour rain delay. It was an agonizing wait. Everyone would be trying to stay awake, my ass would get sore from sitting on saddle straps on a wooden workbench, and not being able to talk also made time pass slower. Not to mention a sergeant airborne watching the room from above and making cruel and demoralizing demands of us the whole time.
My stick's turn to jump finally came and we were guided out behind the parked plane outside. Its prop blast buffeted us with hot jet fuel fumes which made us want to hold our breaths and close our eyes. We'd be packed on the plane, hip to hip, looking at each other not with fright, but with apprehension and nervousness about performing all our points of performance correctly. I don't think many guys were scared to jump out the door -- they just didn't want to get banged up against the plane, or fucked up on the landing. We'd heard stories about one guy who smashed his face against the side of the plane because he didn't jump out far enough. And then there's the person the week before us whose chute was right above someone else's: he entered the vacuum above the lower person's chute and free-fell 50ft to the ground. Broke a lot of shit. There's also a story of a beheading of someone because the guy before him didn't pass his static line off properly, so it got tangled around the next guy's neck. Don't know if I believe that. I believe the story about the severed bicep muscle from the same thing though.
As soon as the plane takes off, we're already getting ready, standing up with difficulty against the plane's elevating hulk, hooking up, and lining up with our static lines above our shoulders. We sound off and perform various commands for making sure we're ready. It doesn't hit us that we're about to jump out of a god damn plane until the door opens and a breeze sweeps the cabin. The plane swings over the drop zone, drops in altitude a bit, and then there's a fucking lurch in the plane as it slows down before the green light is given by the pilots. Suddenly we're all shuffling forward and disappearing. When it comes to my turn, I hand off my static line to the safety, turn, and see open sky before I jump out and tuck into a good, tight position. I don't have time to think about what I'm doing, and don't remember much of the inside of the plane afterwards except the roaring sound that it makes and that you can never forget. I count to four and feel a big tug on my back as my chute is pulled out by the static line. The canopy is heard inflating, and I relax and look up to see it billowing cheerfully. Then I look all around me, see the plane quickly disappearing, and chutes all around me. Then I look down. It's not as far down as I thought, and the ground is coming quickly. Before I know it, I'm about to land and there's a sergeant airborne on a bullhorn yelling at everyone to assume landing position. When I land, it doesn't look like it's coming that fast, and my feet and legs buckle correctly, but I fucking land right on my side and jar my neck to the side. Ow. That's gonna make turning my head to the side difficult for a couple days, but at least my legs are okay. I keep saying, audibly but quietly, "What the fuck am I doing? What the fuck am I doing?" Then I start getting out of my chute and packing it into a bag before I extract myself to the buses 600yds away. Not as bad as I thought, but I'd be nervous about perfecting my landings later that week.
The next two jumps got progressively softer on my landings, the last one feeling like I just collapsed while standing. Of course, landing in a marsh helped. One jump was a combat jump, wearing a rucksack hanging in front of my legs, off my harness, with a weapon inside a pack under my left arm. Waddling towards a door on a moving plane, and ensuring a strong jump out the door, is quite nervewracking. Not to mention carrying all that shit to the extraction point. On one of the jumps, one guy's main chute didn't open, and he said he fell 500ft (we jump from 1250ft and fall at a rate of 18-22ft/sec) before he regained his composure and pulled his reserve. He grabbed onto another guy's chute because they collided, and he was working himself down to the other guy, as trained, when the reserve collapsed, sending him falling again. Right before he hit the ground, his chute main opened up again and he fell hard, but survived! Other people had to run on the top of other peoples' chutes to get away from them after landing on top of them. Fucking crazy!
The last jump was a night combat jump. We waited until dusk, after watching some of "Executive Decision" in the Harness Shed to keep the nerves down, and we were laden down with all the afore-mentioned combat equipment. My rucksack became waterlogged from the second jump day's rain delay, so it weighed a ton! Everyone was a bit nervous about the jump because supposedly most injuries come on the night jump, and most classes don't even jump with combat equipment for the night jump. We stacked ourselves in the plane, with one guy's rucksack put on top of the rucksack of the guy across from him. When we tried to stand up, my rucksack was stuck under some other guy's, so I had to support all our weight with my lower back, which got tired quickly. Eventually we were slow-waddling towards the door and I made an extremely weak exit from the plane.
I didn't hit myself on the plane though. My chute opened up faster than it had before, though, and almost ripped part of my neck's flesh off along with my ballistic helmet and glasses! When I straightened out my glasses, which were pressed against my face after the chute opened, I could barely make out the ground in the night. I landed on my side again, ending up with a sore neck again, took forever to pack up all my shit, nursing an overexerted tennis elbow on my left arm, and hiked to the extraction point, where I thought I'd be all done with the fucking school. But no. We were packed onto the bus to go back to the Harness Shed, perhaps six miles away, with all our equipment, which meant I was sitting under gun cases and rucksacks resting in my face, with little freedom to move and no ventilation. We stayed out at the airfield until 2AM, when the power went out on base, forcing the sergeants airborne to take us home. Imagine our dismay at finding out we'd have to be outside at 5AM to conduct a full day of outprocessing and shaking out all of our parachutes! Christ. Never-ending misery.
Graduation finally came. None of my friends or family could make it to the ceremony, so I was there alone and had my wings pinned on by a sergeant airborne. I didn't mind -- the ceremony didn't mean that much to me, and I wanted to leave quickly. I got to shake the hand of a general though, who happened to be the hoss father of one of the West Point cadets. Some students were pinned by their paratrooper grandparents, which must have been cool for their family traditions.
We'd finally become paratroopers. I didn't really care at the time, to be honest. I just wanted to escape from the damn place. We'd done nothing but work and sweat and suffer for a day and a half after our final jump, so it took away from the satisfaction of completing the necessary five jumps.
But eventually we were released and I hopped on a plane to go home to Dallas to recover and reconnect. I was happy to escape with my legs and knees intact and only a few already-healed blisters on my feet and hands. I also have sore shoulders and a jarred neck still. But that's definitely okay. I rented the first two episodes of Band of Brothers to see how similar the training was in it to what I did, and it was remarkably similar. I don't know if the scenes were historically accurate or based on current training. We don't train on Curahee mountain in Toccoa, GA anymore, but all the traditions of the paratrooper are still there. When you see them bitching about the weight of all the equipment, see them jumping out the mock door, see them getting inspected thoroughly, see them looking at each other while they're waiting on the plane...that's all still there.
It's beginning to hit me that I'm a paratrooper now. I'll wear a maroon beret and an airborne tab on my uniform. I'll be going to a military intelligence detachment to a special forces group to translate Arabic in a week. I've been in training for over two years now. Some other people finish training within two to five weeks of completing basic training. It's been a long road, but I've now got some powerful qualifications. My feeling's coming back. My normal self is re-emerging. My days of a training peon are over. I'm so god damn happy.
And I'm a fucking military intel paratrooper now. Fuck yeah!
P.S.: The Army has its own airborne familiarization site at http://www-benning.army.mil/airborne/airborne/index.htm. It has good stuff, including pictures!
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