By: Peter Sessum
I am very much against Stolen Valor, heck, I have written about it, and here I stand, a fake, a phony a charlatan. Airborne School can be tough and you can quit at any point. But if you quit, you don’t graduate and you don’t get silver wings. Yet for almost 20 years, I have had them on my uniform. Here is the story.
So there I was, at Fort Benning, no shit. I had just graduated Infantry training and was young and full of hooah. I got Airborne in my contract. It added a year to my enlistment, but guaranteed that I was go to Airborne School. It was a different time. There was no war on and going Airborne was another way to test myself.
Week 1: Separate the men from the boys
Ground week was a breeze. I was pretty much in the best shape of my life and the PT and shuffle runs were a joke. The week before I had rucked about 25 miles with full gear, plus an 81mm mortar base plate and carrying the M249 SAW. The training was fun, it was easier than Infantry training, we got nights off AND plenty of time to eat breakfast. They had donuts! It was the first dessert I had eaten in months. It was cakewalk and the easiest time I had so far in the Army.
Week 2: Separate the men from the fools
Okay, tower week was harder than a thought it would be. I am not a big fan of heights, but it had never come into play before. Now I had to step out the door of the 35 foot tower and ride a zip line to the end. That sounds like fun, but there isn’t instant tension on the line. So you drop about eight feet before the line catches and you slide along.
Technique matters, so if you do it wrong, you have to go again. In some cases, like mine, if you close your eyes, you go again. The guys that had fun were disappointed that they only got to go once while the nervous ones had to go over and over and over.
Then, of course, there is the 250 foot tower. The red and white, four armed monstrosity was developed with thrill seekers in mind. Strapped into a harness you are lifted about 25 stories into the air. The parachute is already opened and once released you drift to the ground. I cannot say how much I was not looking forward to it. It got down to the two people ahead of me in line when it was shut down due to strong winds.
I almost got dropped from Airborne School on the last day of tower week. There is a safety class that everyone must be awake for. You get caught sleeping and you are gone. Naturally is it as boring as watching paint dry on a lawnmower so it can cut the grass you just watched grow and knowing you have to watch slow motion senior citizen golf be played. I was doing everything I could to stay awake. I drained all the canteens within three rows of where I was sitting and still just barely made it. But I survived, long enough to quit during jump week.
Week 3: The fool jump
Standing in formation on the first day of jump week I looked at Lopez. We had been in the same Infantry training company and used to teasing each other. “If you’re scared, say you’re scared,” I said. “I’m scared” he said. There was no macho BS, he was going to jump out of a perfectly good airplane in a couple hours.
I tried not to think about it while we were getting in our chutes, and intentionally placed myself in the middle of the chalk so I wouldn’t be near the door, but still have the pressure of people behind me to keep moving. I was so relaxed on the flight up that I fell asleep.
That first jump, I handed my static line to the jumpmaster, took a sharp right and before I could think “oh shit” I was out the door. I got buffeted by the turbulence a little, felt the opening shock of my chute deploying and looked up to see a fully deployed parachute.
I am not exaggerating when I say that was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. I was so happy to see that chute, it was almost magical. After the fourth time I had checked my chute and risers I convinced myself everything was okay and I was not going to be a dirt dart. That is when I looked down.
It was glorious. From 1,200 feet, the earth looks cool. It isn’t the same looking through a plane window.
As I drifted down I could hear other solders yelling “AIRBORNE” and as we got closer to the ground I could hear the Sergeant Airborne (our instructors) screaming in the bullhorn for us to shut up so they could give directions to landing paratroopers.
My landing was ugly. It was like jumping out a second story window onto hard dirt. This huge patch of soft dirt and I hit the packed dirt the instructors drive their truck down. Lopez, however, was still in the air. He was so light they had to attach weights to his ankles or his chute wouldn’t open properly. Even with that he caught an updraft and was stuck in the air for a while. They were yelling at him to come down and he kept yelling, “I am trying!” His landing was so soft, he landed standing up which is unheard of in a military parachute.
After being happy to be alive (one guy actually kissed the ground) we laughed at the two guys that were drops that day. One wouldn’t even get on the plane. He put on the chute, walked to the flight line, saw the idling plane and turned around and quit. The other guy actually got on the plane, stood up when commanded, and sat back down. He was the only one to land with the plane. We laughed, but I didn’t think a short time later I would be joining him.
Last jump: Time to quit
In my first four jumps I had only one good landing. As you go on, it actually gets worse because you know how much it sucks. By the time I had my last jump, I was nervous about jumping. It was the worst time to get injured. If I got injured, I would be recycled and have to go through some of this again was unnerving to say the least.
Once again I planned to be in the back of my chalk. And that would have worked had some jackass not screwed the pooch and exited wrong and made us have to stop our shuffle forward. I couldn’t see what happened, all I could see what the chute in front of me that I kept running into when the line would stop.
I saw an open door, passed off my static line and was happy for it all to be over. I said, “See ya” and was turning for the door when a huge paw slammed me in the chest. The Sergeant Airborne yelled, “Red light, no jump.”
Just as I passed off the static line, the light turned red and we were outside the safe zone of the drop zone. I was given my static line and had to go back and sit down. It was then I realized I would be first in line for the next pass.
Standing in the door
I was nervous all the way back to the door. As soon as I stood in the door I thought, “fuck this, I quit.”
I was standing in the open door of a C-130 flying at 1,250 and thinking how this is not a good idea. Running is easy, Man has been running for thousands of years. But humans have not been jumping off huge flying birds for centuries so it really isn’t natural. I can still remember what was going through my head at the time. It went something like this.
“Fuck this, I quit. I fucking quit. Who cares if I land with the plane? It isn’t like I am any less of a man. Besides, I am going to Fort Knox, there is no jump unit there. No one is going to care if I don’t have jump wings. Fuck this, I am sitting down. I quit.”
Of course, I really should have told someone. I was looking out at the ground, then looking at the red light, looking at the ground, then back at the red light. I saw the light turn green and the jumpmaster tapped me on the hip and yelled, “Go!”
“Okay,” I said, took a little step and I was knees in the breeze. Once floating down I was happy I jumped. I was even happier when I was safely on the ground with no injuries. The only thing about the graduation ceremony I remember is the only thing that matters. My wings were pinned by a man that jumped into Normandy. After pushing the pins through my uniform, he punched my wings driving them into my chest. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.
Technically, I did quit Airborne School so maybe I should turn in my wings. But this does illustrate a tip for surviving the military. It is okay to quit, as long as you never tell anyone.