“Air-Borne” School Provides Worthwhile Summer Experience
Fort Benning GA, “Home of the Infantry”, conducts the most prestigious “Air-Borne” school in the world. Each week a class of roughly four-hundred soldiers graduate with their “jump wings” proudly pinned on their chests. Among these graduates are soldiers in the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force both officers and enlistees, as well as members of our allied armed forces such as Britain, Israel, and Hungary. One last group, the one that gave me the opportunity to earn one of these coveted slots and my wings, is Army ROTC.
My personal experience as Charlie 26, a title that identified as the 26th female cadet in B Company, seems to be a blur of sweat and the fragile balance between hydration and becoming a heat casualty. I have never drunk so much water in my life. Being college students, ROTC cadets usually only attend this school during the summer months when temperatures are high. Some mornings they fly a red flag symbolizing “heat cap 5”, meaning dangerous heat, as early as nine o’clock. I went during the peak of summer, July, so it was rarely a question of “if” but “when” this precaution would be given. When it is, even the meanest Sergeant Airborne cannot make you run. However, this fact and even the small uniform alterations such as loosening your sleeves are of little comfort when you can feel the sweet running down your face and back while sitting still.
“Double time”, which is military jargon for running, is one of the biggest parts of jump school. Unless it’s heat cap five, you are expected to run everywhere you go. Pull-ups are also an unavoidable element. Everyone must do ten before they can enter or leave chow (the cafeteria) and the barracks (sleeping quarters). I gained a true understanding of the cadence saying “if you wanna be airborne you gotta be thin”. I lost twelve pounds in three weeks. By sweating profusely, working out, and being so hot that I could only manage to eat a few bites of food each meal.
The experience I gained was invaluable. Each week at airborne was dedicated to a certain level of training. First week is called “ground week” because your feet remain on the ground. (The Army isn’t prized on its creative titles by any stretch of the means). It is mostly a time of physical training that is meant to weed out those who are physically deficient as well as teach the basic principles of landing and the functions of equipment. The first week you must pass the basic Army Physical Fitness Test. During the second week, known as “tower week”, you were expected to successfully complete three four mile runs with the company without “falling out” of formation. Being a cadet, my importance fell even below that of the lowest enlistees and therefore I ran in the very back. I was victim to “the slinky effect”. It’s an awful occurrence when people speed up and slow down. By the time it ripples to the back, people have to sprint to fill in the gaps making it four miles of sprints. I did receive great encouragement with “Come on, little cadet! Don’t you quit!”.
Tower week is also self-explanatory. It was at this time that we practiced exiting techniques from a 34-foot tower and zip line.. We took landing practice from just jumping off ladders and being swung and dropped from a 12 foot “swing landing trainer” platforms. The bruises and whiplash seemed to become increasingly worse each day and blisters were inevitable when working with the risers of the chutes, but it was all worth it when I jumped out of the plane for the first time on “jump week”.
What should have been a miserable week was easily the best of our lives. We had to wake up at 3am and run a few miles to get to the airstrip. It was torture for some to sit for hours on wooden benches with tons of gear on waiting for our turn to board a plane that was loud and cramped. When I found myself floating through the air, it was like seeing the world for the first time. All at once an overwhelming sensation of personal satisfaction and wonder rushed over me. I couldn’t find my voice or I would have celebrated. Others hooted and hollered right up until we heard, “hey, shut the hell up and focus on landing” from the Sgt. Airborne below snapping us back to reality.
Of course, the first landing was a rude awakening for me. At about fifteen feet off the ground I became all too aware of the speed at which I was going to hit the ground and failed to properly prepare myself. I ended up eating dirt pretty hard. It toughened me up for the next four jumps, which included one at night and combat equipment jumps that had me so bogged down with gear I could barely walk. Airborne in general was a “tough love” experience. Things hurt and nothing was ever sugar coated with a Sgt. Airborne but it made us strong. It is the main reason why a person can successfully and safely parachute from a plan in such a short amount of time.
I became a paratrooper and a member of the airborne family. “Airborne, Airborne all the way, Airborne, Airborne every day. We like it here, we love it here, we finally found our home. A home, a home, a home away from home”. This is the cadence we were required to sing every time we moved in formation. We went through grueling training together, looked out for each other, and managed to have fun. These bonds have left me with brothers and sisters scattered across the globe. No matter where the military takes me, I will always have my airborne family.