All kidding aside, I’m not sure how I survived the training and the heat, but I just did what I’ve done for most of my career and made the best of it, giving my best effort, focusing on the main things, helping my team and friends around me, and constantly reminding myself that “this too shall pass.” Actually, I do know how I survived. God was with me, strengthening me and encouraging me, helping me to get through this school and all the other events of my life big and small. He was definitely there during all my various military training and schools as well as my times of duty in danger zones, in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq. In any case, once we made it to jump week, which was the third week of training, we completely forgot about all the previous misery. It’s a wild experience jumping out of a perfectly good military aircraft into nothing but thin air. The first few seconds feels like you’ve made a mistake that is not going to end well. It feels like you jumped into the middle of a tornado, with the force of the wind rushing past the aircraft and the turbulence created by the aircraft’s movement through the air jerking you around like a toy on a string while the force of the wind and your weight pull the static line so that your parachute starts unfurling in a long rope-like mass that hopefully will deploy into a canopy that will prolong your life for one more day. You try to remain in as tight a position as possible for safety reasons with your elbows digging into your sides and your hands resting on top of your reserve parachute which is rigged in front of you roughly in the area of your solar plexus. Your legs are tight together. Your head should be tucked hard into your chest to avoid neck injuries, especially from the static line catching your exposed chin due to a poorly executed static line hand-off to the jumpmaster upon your exit, or just a bad exit altogether. It is certainly not child’s play. You can get very seriously injured during paratrooper training, and many soldiers do. Or you can die, which is rare, but it does occur. Years after my attendance at Paratrooper School, one of the soldiers that worked for me when I was stationed at Fort Bragg, NC, told me his story of being a “towed jumper.” This occurs because of an improper exit or because of equipment failure of some type, resulting in the static line, risers, and canopy remaining attached to the aircraft and “towing” the soldier through the rough choppy air behind the aircraft. When this happens, there is usually serious injury as the soldier is possibly slammed back against the aircraft or injured somehow by the violent force of the wind he or she is being pulled through.
Thankfully, the vast majority of jumps go off without such major problems, although even in a good jump, some might be injured due to the many variables that may go wrong. But oh what a glorious feeling when the first few seconds of chaos abruptly stops. You feel the tug from the deployed canopy and the risers attached to you, and everything immediately becomes peaceful like floating on a cloud. After exiting the aircraft, you are supposed to count out four seconds (one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand, four-one-thousand), then look up, checking for proper deployment of the canopy and for possible twists in your riser lines that connect to your canopy. If all that is kosher, then you check your relative position to other jumpers in the air around you to make sure you are not too close to them. If you are, you must take immediate corrective action by grasping the riser straps in your two hands and pulling. By pulling on the right riser, you cause air to move past your canopy faster on the left side, which essentially pushes you to your right. By pulling on the left riser, you move to the left.
Once you are in a clear position, not too close to any jumpers and not having a jumper below you, you want to maneuver yourself to face into the wind to prepare for landing, and you want to check your position relative to the ground to determine where you are going to land and what immediate actions you might need to take if you are drifting toward trees or water, etc. If everything is good at that point, you then relax, enjoy the ride, and wait to meet the ground, where you will hopefully execute a text-book parachute landing fall (PLF), and failing that, at least keep your feet and knees together to minimize the possibility of serious injury. I didn’t make a single good PLF thanks to the unexpected. Every time, although I positioned myself into the wind, the wind shifted direction at the last minute as I got within 20 to 30 feet from the ground, so there was no time to adjust my position. I just kept my feet and knees together and hoped for the best. Two times I landed in soft dirt, so no big deal. The rest, I landed on very hard ground and bounced, with the cross winds on the drop zone catching my canopy and dragging me several feet until I was able to get my hands on the release buckle for one of the risers, thereby collapsing the canopy.
All in all, it was a great experience. Unfortunately, I was not able to get on jump status at any time after that, so that was the sum total of my airborne experience. We actually had a German paratrooper unit come to Fort Benning, Georgia, while I was stationed there. There was a call for anyone that wanted to jump with them, which I immediately responded to. But, when the rush of people to these few slots vastly outnumbered the slots, it got so chaotic that they canceled the offer. Then, even if you get stationed at Fort Bragg, which I did for two years, and even if you get into a unit that has jump slots, there is often fierce competition for those slots, making it difficult for a newcomer to a unit like I was to maneuver into them. Plus, the higher you get in rank, the greater your responsibilities, so it becomes harder and harder to reconcile your schedule with the crap-shoot of possible openings from someone else not being able to jump sporadically. I finally gave up hoping for it since I had many other things to focus my mental energy on, with a growing family and leadership responsibilities. But I am thankful that I was able to have a few of these opportunities at the military schools I attended to do something that few people will experience.