The paratroopers and the pukefest

Published 10:42 am Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Column: Pothole Prairie

Stomach queasy, I was about to ralph. All I could think about was, “Get me off this bird!”

The closer I was to the door, the sooner I could escape the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter. On a jet, paratroopers don’t jump. They just fall out a door on each side near the rear of the aircraft. The pilot flips a switch and a little green light by the door tells the jumpmaster that we are over the drop zone.

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“Go, go go!” the jumpmaster yelled. In this case, the jumpmaster was our company commander, Capt. David Dodd.

We were Alpha Company of the 82nd Signal Battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division. It was 1991. Much of the company’s soldiers had been seasoned by the Persian Gulf War.

I shuffled toward the door, hoping the green light would not turn red.

That’s because we had just spent the past hour or so flying in a manner called “nap of the earth” on a hot and humid July day in North Carolina. Allow me to explain in a roundabout way.

Being a paratrooper isn’t just jumping out of perfectly good airplanes. It’s also learning to endure hardships. The 82nd Airborne Division is light infantry. Units have to be able to move swiftly, so we marched often. I don’t mean those precision drill-and-ceremony marches you see on TV, but I mean ruck march, which really means “hike with gear.” Three out of four quarters of the year, each platoon had to ruck march 12 miles in under four hours. They had to do it as a platoon, wearing boots, helmets and camouflage uniforms, carrying an 8.79-pound M-A16A2 rifle, with ruck sacks (i.e. Army backpacks) that weighed at least 35 pounds. Yes, they would bring a scale and weigh our ruck sacks. Soldiers marched single file, each about five meters behind the guy in front of them. If too many people in a platoon failed, the entire platoon had to do it again later that month. And again until the platoon passed.

And on the other quarter, we had to do the 12-mile ruck under three hours. Yes, it sounds worse, but this was much better because people were able to go at their own pace. I have long legs, so I was usually one of the first ones done.

When I hear the phrase, “My dogs are killing me,” it reminds me of soldiers in the barracks taking off their green, woolen Army socks after a 12-mile ruck.

Paratroopers run a lot. Keeping legs nimble and strong was important because they needed to be able to take the shock of a parachute landing fall, or PLF. Paratroopers do not land standing up like skydivers landing at sports contests. They hit the ground with legs slightly bent, feet and knees together and elbows and chin tucked, then they perform a roll that they have practiced a zillion times prior.

Every weekday morning, we did PT, which is physical training. On Tuesdays and Thursdays we got to do something like football, basketball, yoga, weightlifting, obstacle course, and you get the idea, maybe even a short ruck march. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, we did some exercises and then ran, usually in platoon formation. Our runs were anywhere from two to 10 miles, but usually something like four to seven miles. That’s a lot of running and not at your own pace.

In most Army units, no one says, “Drop and give me 20,” like they did at basic and perhaps even at advanced individual training. The 20 refers to pushups. But in the 82nd, they do, usually with a tinge of humor but sometimes as serious punishment. In fact, a double-time cadence the 82nd sings when it runs mentions “the leaning rest,” which is the pushup position. There are many variations. This is how we sang it:

“C-130 rollin’ down the strip. Airborne daddy gonna take a little trip. Stand up, hook up, shuffle to the door, jump right out and count to four.

“If my chute don’t open wide, I have another one by my side. If that chute should fail me too, look out below I’m coming through.”

“If I die on the old drop zone, pack me up and ship me home. Tell my girl I done my best. Bury me in the leaning rest.”

OK, these are some examples, but do you see how the airborne has this unending warrior mentality? The 82nd has to be ready to fight anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. They call it “wheels up in 18 hours.” The “wheels up” refers to the landing gear on an aircraft.

During nap of the earth flights, pilots fly at low altitudes to avoid detections. The plane banks left and right and up and down, in addition to hitting air pockets and updrafts, and there are no windows for the paratroopers to stare out of. Barf bags are available. Paratroopers endure.

I was sweating. My face felt greener than my uniform. The door was getting closer. Just as the light turned red, Dodd hollered his final “Go!” I made it out the door just before he stopped the next guy. Jumpers are supposed to count to four, but I’m pretty sure I rattled off words that ought not be published. My chute opened, and the ordeal was over. Ah! I drifted safely to the ground in about 15 seconds. I did my PLF, unhooked my risers, grabbed my rifle, collected my chute, threw on my ruck sack, then headed to a gathering marker called a steiner aid.

The soldiers who remained in the jet had to suffer more nap of the earth. That’s why I wanted off the bird so badly. It made two more passes before all the paratroopers were out. As they began to gather at the steiner aid, stories were repeated and repeated again about the pukefest that occurred on the second and third passes. Even Capt. Dodd was ralphing, in between the usual jumpmaster commands such as “six minutes” and “check equipment,” into the box in which the earplugs had been.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone. I am proud of our troops, especially the 82nd Airborne Division.


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

About Tim Engstrom

Tim Engstrom is the editor of the Albert Lea Tribune. He resides in Albert Lea with his wife, two sons and dog.

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