Archived Story

Hmm, earn my blood wings or a body bag?

Published 9:31am Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The balls of my feet hurt so badly that I gave great consideration to walking anywhere. It was the weekend after Ground Week at the U.S. Army Airborne School at Fort Benning in Georgia.

Still, on this Saturday, I managed to hobble over to the pizza parlor where I liked to soak down pop and play the video games in its arcade. I was fortunate to be walking, not running, even though walking was painful. It was 1989. I was 18. I held the lowly rank of private. Jump School was a Spartan life, and free time pretty much was recovery time.

All during Ground Week, we had practiced parachute landing falls, or PLFs. It was the hardest week of Jump School, when the Black Hats — the name for the airborne instructors — do all they can to get soldiers of all ranks to quit. The Black Hats begged us to quit. They wanted to get as many soldiers to quit as possible. They said they only wanted the best. One morning, a Black Hat got on the company loudspeaker and sung to all, “You’re going home in a body bag.”

They ran us to death in the morning before breakfast. Anyone who fell behind was dropped out of Jump School. They exercised us to death. Anyone who failed to keep up was out. The Black Hats at every turn sought to test our resolve to succeed.

We had to run, not walk, everywhere we went outdoors, even from the mess hall to the barracks. They made us practice PLFs at ground level on sawdust, sand or dirt at progressively higher levels. For hours. Feet and knees together, then fall sideways through the knees, hip, side and then roll the legs around. Over and over and over. They reminded us that no one will be doing stand-up landings like we see at football games. We would hit the ground like jumping off the roof of a two-story building, and even harder if using a reserve. We had to practice more PLFs while riding a cable, then dropping about four or five feet and falling properly. This was called the lateral drift apparatus. Anyone who failed to do enough correct falls was booted out.

I almost didn’t pass the lateral drift apparatus. I got enough correct on my last few falls. Phew! I’m tall and lanky and not all that athletically coordinated.

It wasn’t all beating up our bodies. They familiarized us with the rigging for T-10C (that’s pronounced “tee-ten charlie”) parachute. We got to know how uncomfortable wearing the gear incorrectly can be. We got to know how static lines work, how to operate our reserve chute, what jumpmaster commands are, how procedures on the airplane go and more of the basics of jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft.

On top of it all, they administered a fitness test. Fail to pass and guess what? You are out.

Somehow, I survived Ground Week. I’d bet about 30 percent did not. We got weekends to ourselves, thank goodness. Tower Week was next, and it still required difficult morning exercise and running everywhere, but the training wasn’t as body bruising as Ground Week. Still, it created bruises, too, but in more creative ways. We jumped from 34-foot-high towers that resembled airplane side doors but with our body harnesses connected to zip lines. Another a device called the swing landing trainer dropped us like plopping a sack of potatoes on the floor — from the second story of a house. There was a suspended harness, which let us get accustomed to checking each other’s equipment, to floating in a harness and to pulling risers to steer. And there was a tower that rather boringly dropped people with their chutes open from 250 feet.

Finally, for the survivors, it was Jump Week. Get five jumps in, and we get our paratrooper wings. Apparently, I don’t have a fear of heights; I had no problem exiting the aircraft. We all were assigned to “sticks,” and each stick had to jump from at least two kinds of airplanes — a C-130 Hercules and a C-141 Starlifter. Usually, the Black Hats have a hard time getting sticks on at least one C-141, because the C-130s are more common, but my stick had the odd occasion to be on four C-141s, so they made sure for that fifth and final jump we were on a C-130.

A C-141 is a jet, so paratroopers just step out the door with their hands placed on their reserve. A C-130 is a propeller-driven plane, so paratroopers must place the side of their hands on the side of the door and leap something like — and I can’t exactly recall now — 1 foot up and 3 feet out.

On this one, I was the second-to-last in my stick, but doors are on the side of the plane near the rear, so that made me the second one out. The jumpmaster determined that the lieutenant in front of me had a problem with his rigging and unhooked. Then he gave me a command: “Stand. In the door.”

I stood in the door, with my hands touching the sides of the door, looking down at Alabama. Our stick was on the left side of the C-130. The aircraft banked left, and I was now looking straight out at Alabama, with centrifugal force keeping me from falling out. Holy buckets!

A red light by the door turned green — a signal from the pilot that we were over the drop zone — and the jumpmaster yelled the command, “Go!”

Of course, I leapt immediately, but the jumpmaster also shoved. He must do that to all of them, in case they freeze up while getting that dazzling, dizzying look at Alabama.

On the ground, the stick gathered at a designated spot, and a sergeant was present to pin on our wings. He placed the wings through the cloth of our uniform but with no backing and then punched our wings with the butt of his hand to make what were called “blood wings.” I had the scars for weeks. They don’t do that in the Army anymore.

I actually ended up making 18 jumps during my three-year stint in the U.S. Army. When paratroopers exit the aircraft, they are supposed to count to four — one thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four. I never did. Instead, I uttered a catalog of words that I cannot print here. But every jump was a fantastic thrill. I am proud to have served in the 82nd Airborne Division.

But it wouldn’t have been possible without those Black Hats. For this week of Veterans Day, I salute the military instructors who train our sons and daughters in the U.S. armed forces.

 

Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.