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‘Elite’ military units: Army Airborne (paratroopers)

Posted by John Reed on

I graduated from U.S. Army Airborne School in December, 1968. I was a platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne Division in the summer of 1969 before I went to Vietnam. In July, 1966, I was in an artillery battalion of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, KY. At that time, I was a West Point cadet on what civilians would call an internship and had not yet attended jump school. Other details of my military service are at my military page.

Hollywood has long depicted military matters inaccurately for dramatic effect. In recent years, as more military stuff appeared on such cable channels as the History Channel, Discovery Channel, and Military Channel, I have become concerned that the public is getting a misleading impression about a bunch of military stuff. Since the military concerns life and death and national security, I regard these misconceptions as too important to be let slide.

There are links to a number of other article I wrote about military issues at my above-mentioned military page including one about Army Rangers. I wrote about these experiences in my book Succeeding.

Succeeding bookAlthough I have a lot of problems with Ranger training as discussed at my article on the subject, I generally have few problems with airborne training. I suspect it can be done in less time than the three weeks it took. Actually, they let my airborne class out early because it was just before Christmas and the cadre (instructors stationed at Airborne School at Fort Benning) wanted extra vacation. 

Airborne training

I could do without the petty harassment that the military seems to think has to accompany all learning experiences including Jump School. And I suspect three weeks is longer than necessary. I get the impression that civilian parachute schools only take a couple of days, albeit with one-on-one instruction. On page 61 of his book The Unforgiving Minute, airborne, ranger, West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar Craig Mullaney says,

They say that Airborne School “crams” five days of training into three weeks.

On 4/12/08, my oldest son and his wife became “airborne” in a civilian sort of way. They both made a tandem jump from 14,000 feet free-falling for a couple of minutes before opening their chutes. They got about five or ten minutes training. They saw others getting several hours training to make a solo jump.

I am aware that a tandem jump is arguably easier than a solo jump. There was no such thing as a tandem jump when I was jumping. All first jumps—civilian or military—were solo jumps. No doubt some current or former paratrooper will claim that my son and his wife were not real paratroopers just as readers have accused me of not being a real ranger because I never served in a ranger unit after ranger school or that I was not a real paratrooper because I was only in the 82nd Airborne Division for four months (sorry guys I have to go to Vietnam). I am not interested in the childlike hair splitting of distinguishing between the duration of your jump school, the number of people attached to the chute, or how long you continued to repeat what you learned in the school in question. The salient aspect is the courage to jump out of an airplane. The bottom line is that nowadays, everyone from teenage girls to grandparents jumps out of air planes which proves that jumping out of an airplane is not as big of a deal as many current and former paratroopers would have you believe.

Subsequently, without any prompting from me, my other two sons, separately with groups of friends, also made a tandem parachute jump. None of the three nor my daughter-in-law ever had any thought of doing a second jump. So except for my wife, my whole family is airborne.

Otherwise, I thought the instructors at Airborne School knew what they were doing and did teach us all how to jump competently and relatively safely.


One of my big complaints is the hype surrounding paratroopers. There appears to be a widespread notion that paratroopers are supermen because they have the courage to jump out of an airplane. Too many, if not most, paratroopers have encouraged, or at least accepted silently, this misconception.

This article is my refusal to accept it silently. Jumping out of a plane is relatively easy. Former President George H.W. Bush (Bush “senior”) did it on his 75th and 80th birthdays. I doubt he was the oldest ever. I would be surprised if it is not being done by teenage girls and grandmothers, too. At least one couple held their marriage ceremony during a free-fall. Others have had sex during free falls.

A number of amusement parks and World’s Fairs have had parachute-jump rides. During our second week at Fort Benning Airborne School, we trained on high towers that had been created for the 1936 New York World’s Fair then moved to Benning after the Fair closed. My kids and I did a parachute ride at Knott’s Berry Farm. You can see a photo of Coney Island’s parachute Jump ride at

At the National Speakers Association convention I attended one year, a heavy-set, 50ish woman showed a movie she had made about her taking parachute lessons culminating in her jumping into the Pacific Ocean off Los Angeles—the standard end of that school’s course.

Someone once said that politics was Hollywood for ugly people. I think it can equally be said that so-called “elite” military units are the NFL for guys who lack the size or athletic ability to play in the NFL. (Pat Tillman being the single exception.)


One reason it is easy is that the human body has not evolved to be afraid of a 1,200-foot fall. That’s the altitude for a normal military jump. The reason probably is that the planet earth had few 1,200 falls before air planes were invented.

For my first jump, I was the third guy out the door. Our instructor was first. One of my West Point classmates and good friends was second. The plane, a C-130, had no windows that I recall (A reader says they have six but guys in parachute equipment would probably not be able to see the ground out of them). So we could not see out until we momentarily stood in the door. You wait, then a green light goes on and the jumpmaster, who does not jump, starts yelling, “Go! Go! Go!” Within seconds, I was standing in the door for the first time. He slapped me on the back of my thigh, the signal for me to jump. We had been trained to do that instinctively for the prior two weeks so no thought was required.

During that moment in the door, I saw the ground for the first time from that altitude. But it was so far away, it looked surreal, not dangerous. That is, it looked like a picture. Entire farms looked like tiny rectangles. Roads and rivers were thin lines. It simply was not scary and after two weeks of being told “Go!” and jumping off short, medium, and tall platforms, there was nothing to think about or time to get scared.

Not a single person in my huge airborne class chickened out when the time came to jump from a plane for the first time. I’m not sure it was an option. I suspect they would have pushed you out. But as far as I know, no one had to be pushed.

34-foot tower

Part of Airborne School was scary: the 34-foot tower. But we had gotten to sample that when we were seniors at West Point during a class trip to Fort Benning. When you look out the door of that tower at the ground the ground looks very scary and dangerous. Your mind tells you to back away from the edge. A reader tells me that a paratrooper in refresher training died when his 34-tower harness broke.

But we all jumped when given the command. After you exit the fake plane fuselage 34 feet off the ground, you fall until straps from your parachute harness go taught, at which time you begin riding down a cable to a little hill about 75 feet away. There are photos of it at and

I was watching a TV show about Airborne School recently and the announcer said the 34-foot height was chosen because it engenders maximum fear in humans. I can believe that. It’s probably the lowest height at which death is likely if you free fall to the ground.

But even the Worlds Fair towers, which were maybe 250 feet tall, were not scary to look down from. Again, I suspect it’s because evolution figured there was so little opportunity to fall that far that we did not need to recognize the danger of it.

So I get very annoyed when I hear any military paratrooper beating his chest about his manhood being proved by his having jumped out of a plane. It’s not that big of a deal. Try it and you’ll find out.

I do not expect that everyone has the exact same perspective as I did, but I never heard paratroopers trying to convince each other that parachuting was any great act of courage. They wouldn’t dare. But too many bask in the admiration of laymen who think it’s some great act of courage.

I did the standard five jumps in Airborne School out of C-130s, which I disliked, and C-119s, which I loved. In the 82nd Airborne Division, I jumped out of a C-141 Starlifter jet. That’s an adventure. When you jump out of a prop plane, you try to get as far away from the fuselage as you can. When you leave a jet, you try to just fall straight down as close to the fuselage as possible. Apparently jumping out can put you into the jet exhaust or cause you to be thrown against the fuselage as a sort of bounce back off the air that is moving much faster than when you jump out of a prop plane. The military jumps were all from 1,200 feet.

I also did two weekend, preliminary, skydiving jumps out of piper cubs from 3,000 feet.

All my jumps were on a static line. That is, I did not have to pull a rip cord. My chute was attached to the plane and when the static line ran out, it pulled my chute out. That is standard military jumping procedure so that we all open at the same time and altitude to avoid colliding with each other and to land together.

I found that your chute opens in about four seconds out of a prop military plane, one second out of a jet, and about seven seconds out of a piper cub. It varies with the air speed of the plane. Both times I jumped out of the piper cub I thought my main chute had failed because I counted to four and nothing happened. But about the time I was ready to pull the rip cord on my reserve (2nd or emergency) chute, the main opened. I never had occasion to pull the ripcord on my reserve chute.

Landing on the ground can be dangerous

Make no mistake, landing on the ground while descending under a parachute can be quite dangerous—especially if you land in a tree, water, road with traffic, or touch power lines. But at that point, it is not an act of courage. Rather, you are just trying to deal with the problem at hand. I never landed anywhere but on the ground, but I came close to trees once, landing miraculously in a tiny clearing instead of the trees around it.

In war movies, they almost always make a joke out of landing in a tree. It’s no joke. In 1968 at least, landing under a chute had the same force as jumping off a nine-foot high platform without one. How would you like to jump off a platform nine feet above a tree into the top of the tree?

Some may think, “You say now that jumping is easy, but I’ll bet you wore your airborne wings when you were in the military.” You’d be wrong if you think that. I only wore them when I was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division where they were part of the uniform.

I never wore them in Vietnam or when I was assigned to various Army Schools or when I was a company XO or company commander. I also never wore my Ranger tab—even when I was in the 82nd Airborne Division. And I have never worn or even purchased a West Point class ring. I divulge such information when appropriate or when asked. The military authorities in the Pentagon who assigned me had my personnel file which told them about my West Point, Ranger, and Airborne qualifications. No one else needed to know, or cared as far as I know.

Airborne units in actual combat

There have been 41 combat jumps in the history of the U.S. military, probably about 85% of them involved two big World War II operations Overlord (D-Day) and Market Garden (made famous by the book and movie A Bridge Too Far).

Combat jumps since the Korean War have been insignificant in size (small number of jumpers) or in terms of the lopsidedness of the war (e.g., Grenada and Panama).

Did the paratroopers who made those combat jumps risk their lives and show great courage doing so? Absolutely. Many died as a result.

Have paratroopers acquitted themselves well when fighting as regular infantry? Absolutely. the 101st Airborne Division’s performance in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge (featured in the TV series Band of Brothers) is a classic example of that. They generally seem to have performed significantly better than “legs” (non-paratroop infantry).

Were the parachute assaults decisive in any important U.S. battles? I suspect not. The fact that they have not been used much since Operation Market Garden in 1944 seems to indicate that military leaders agree with that assessment, although they seem distinctly uneager to say so publicly. So I will say so publicly because somebody needs to.

Again, I am not denigrating the courage and fighting skill of the guys who made combat jumps. They were magnificent.

Rather, I am asking, if the top civilian and military leaders had it to do over, would they have used the same number of paratroopers in the same way on D-Day, in Market Garden, and other major operations? I doubt it.


On D-Day, for example, paratroopers jumped during the night of June 5th-6th. Their mission generally was to prevent German reserves from reinforcing the beach defenders against the main body of U.S. troops who landed on the Normandy beaches on June 6th, 1944. Did they accomplish that mission?

The situation was probably too muddled to yield a definitive answer. The jumps were disasters in terms of the paratroopers not being dropped in the right places. Instead, they were scattered all over Normandy. As a result, the various units fighting that night were much smaller and more widely scattered than intended and expected. This had the unintended, but beneficial, effect of convincing the Germans that the paratroopers were everywhere. In fact, the paratroopers were everywhere, but in relatively ineffective tiny groups of lost soldiers trying to reunite with their units.

The paratroopers did an amazing job of capturing and holding many objectives, but the main reason the Germans did not reinforce the beach defenders promptly was hesitation by Hitler as to the true location of the Allied invasion. Hitler believed the Normandy invasion was a feint and that the main invasion would come later in the Pas de Calais area. Also, the Germans were simply slow in general to react to the D-Day invasion. Had the Germans instantly sent reinforcements charging toward the beachheads, it seems unlikely that the lightly-armed, widely-scattered paratroopers could have stopped them for long

You might say that the problem of dropping them in the wrong places could be fixed. Probably true. Would that enable the paratroopers to accomplish their missions? There really is no actual combat experience we can point to that says paratroopers can hold bridges, say, for X hours or days against Y enemy force. Too few combat parachute operations have been mounted in wars to make definitive actuarial statements about how long lightly-armed paratroopers can last against heavily-armed enemy units.

Plus, the last significant parachute infantry operations were 60 years ago. Even if the data from back then were more definitive, what would it tell us about Twenty-First Century wars?

A Bridge Too Far

The other big parachute operation, Operation Market Garden, is also not a convincing argument for large-scale paratrooper assaults. The northern portion of western Europe was assigned to the British starting on D-Day. Montgomery was the top British general. He was a personal glory seeker and lobbied to make the British sector the main thrust into Germany. The terrain in that portion of Europe, which included Holland, is essentially a series of causeways. This is not good ground for a major combat operation. Such a narrow, multi-bridge path is too easy to block. But Montgomery prevailed, probably because American Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower was eager to maintain good relations with the British.

The U.S. and British paratroopers generally captured the various bridges along the causeway, but the British paratroopers in the front were unable to successfully take the Arnhem bridge over the Rhein River border with Germany and the entire British 1st Airborne Division was killed or captured in the process. Thus the book name A Bridge Too Far. The operation was a disaster. The Dutch were generally liberated by the operation and were understandably thrilled, but the Allies were not able to cross the Rhein until six months later and then the breakthrough was in the American sector at Remagen, not at Arnhem.

German parachute assault on Crete

The Nazis did not have much more success with their own paratroopers. They lost 4,500 paratroopers in ten days there starting May 20, 1941. That was the first major parachute assault by any army in history. Hitler was so disgusted with it that he ended use of large-scale parachute operations.

I keep saying “paratroopers.” In fact, both the Germans and the Allies also made extensive use of glider-borne troops in each of these airborne assaults. As far as I know, gliders were eliminated after World War II except that paratroopers still proudly wear an overseas cap patch with a glider and a parachute on it.

Seemed like a good idea at the time

Use of parachute/glider infantry in large-scale “vertical envelopments” was impossible until large aircraft were developed in the late 1930s. It is not surprising that some military men were then intrigued by the idea of dropping soldiers in large numbers behind enemy lines. This was especially attractive in the aftermath of World War I trench warfare where both sides found it extremely difficult to break through enemy lines.

But in the event, when such large-scale airborne assaults were actually tried, it was harder than expected to deliver all the paratroops to the desired locations. Typically, they were widely scattered and often too far from their objectives to stay on schedule. By definition, people who arrive hanging from parachutes must be lightly armed and carry relatively little ammunition. That, in turn, means they can only fight for a brief period of time and are only effective against similarly lightly-armed enemy soldiers. But the enemy soldiers did not arrive by parachute. They arrived by truck and invariably have heavy weapons like artillery and tanks.

That, in turn, requires that conventional troops to come to the rescue of the airborne troops soon after the parachute assault. Keeping to such schedules in spite of the many unexpected turns of events in war appears to be simply impractical.

Accordingly, large-scale parachute assault appears to be a suicide mission and the U.S. does not use its soldiers in that manner.

Small scale OK

Parachute operations on a small scale also appear to be viable. Indeed, nowadays, Ranger students are required to be parachute qualified to enter Ranger School and the Ranger students are typically inserted into patrol areas during the swamp phase of Ranger School by parachute drop.

The Rangers now refer to themselves as “stealth soldiers,” and remaining undetected is about the only way that lightly-armed soldiers can survive among enemy forces far from allied conventional troops. So the use of parachute insertion in stealthy Ranger-type operations in remote, sparsely-populated, densely-vegetated areas where the soldiers can hide until they attack and can hide after they attack appears to make some sense.

So-called “vertical envelopment,” that is, the large-scale use of parachute divisions, would appear to be non-viable based on consistent experience in World War II and in the relatively few, medium-scale parachute assaults since then.

Why still have airborne divisions?

So why have we had entire airborne divisions in the U.S. Army continuously since World War II? Good question.

It seems clear that we have far too many airborne-qualified soldiers on active duty and that we should not have any large units that are equipped, staffed, and practicing for large-scale airborne operations. Yet every month at Fort Bragg, NC, the XVIII Airborne Corps and 82nd Airborne Division jump out of planes to meet the requirements for continuing to earn their extra jump pay. In other words, the U.S. taxpayers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars annually to get ready for the next D-Day-type use of entire divisions of paratroopers—an operation which almost certainly will never happen.

I am sure the Army would dispute that, but I doubt their reasons are persuasive. What is the real reason we still have the airborne division and so many additional active-duty personnel who are not currently in that division or any other unit requiring airborne qualifications (e.g. Rangers, Special Forces)? I suspect the following:

Tradition: The World War II airborne divisions were gallant and famous. Good PR. The media would howl if such divisions were inactivated. So, probably would the “alumni” of those divisions whose status would be diminished by the division going out of business like former football players of a school that gets rid of football or graduates of a college that ceases to exist. Finally, the current members of the military who are in, or wanted to be in, such units in the future would howl. I would not oppose continuing the existence of the 82nd, for example, but its mission, equipment, training, and prerequisites should be modernized. We still have a 1st Cavalry Division, but they got rid of the horses.

Pride through put-downs of military teammates: In my experience, airborne troops are extremely big on swaggering, strutting, posing, breast beating, and trash talking based on the fact that they have jumped out of a plane on a number of occasions. They not only wear their parachutist wings, but also their Corcoran Jump Boots, glider patch overseas caps or special colored berets, and various unit citation ribbons that were awarded to the unit for the gallantry of their long-ago predecessors.

They spit out the word “leg” with contempt when talking to or about non-airborne soldiers—the same soldiers they desperately need to rescue them after they jump into a combat zone. “Leg” is short for “straight leg” which refers to the fact that airborne troops bend their legs at the knee in preparation for landing when they jump. Since non-Airborne troops do not land, they need not bend their legs.

This behavior, which is also typically of Marines, Rangers, SEALs, and fighter pilots, but not green berets, submariners, aviation mechanics, or combat engineers, to list a few other highly trained and respected military specialists, is analogous to football running backs and quarterbacks treating offensive linemen with contempt. So-called “elite” units are members of the overall U.S. military team. At times, they must rely on the same people they never miss an opportunity to publicly hold in contempt, namely, troop transport pilots and crews and “leg” units that have to link up with the paratroopers during combat.

Pro football running backs and quarterbacks routinely buy expensive dinners and gifts for, and throw lavish parties for, and verbally praise the offensive linemen who block for and protect them. No football coach in his right mind would allow his backs to put down his linemen. No back in his right mind would treat his blockers with disdain or contempt. All the best ones go out of their way to show appreciation for their teammates who play crucial, but less glamorous, positions. Yet the people at the top of the U.S. Army have permitted the relatively unskilled paratroopers—it’s only a three-week course—to treat their far more skilled military teammates with contempt for decades.

The brass justifies this because the paratroopers derive espirit de corps from it. What happened to teamwork? What about common decency? What about the Golden Rule? Who do the paratroopers think they are kidding? They are among the least skilled active-duty military personnel in the entire Defense Department in terms of the amount of time it takes to learn how to jump out of a plane compared to the amount of time it takes, say, to learn to maintain or fly the same plane. How’s about the paratroopers grow up? How’s about they start respecting the other members of the U.S. military team? How’s about they start accurately depicting the ease of acquiring and practicing their parachuting skills?

Looks cool: Paratroopers jumping out of planes en masse looks cool and dramatic and gallant and is often seen in movies, on TV, and in recruiting posters as a result. In addition to combat training jumps, the Army also has a number of parachute demonstration teams that jump into football games and such. Lest anyone overlook the point, this is a really dumb, immature, adolescent male reason to spend huge amounts of taxpayer money and military personnel time on an unneeded, never-very-successful military tactic.

Inertia: For years, the Army has held Airborne Rangers up as the ultimate soldiers. There is a marching ditty in which the commander says in sing-song fashion, “I want to live a life of danger” and the marching troops answer back, “I want to be an Airborne Ranger.” In the era during which I graduated from West Point, becoming an Airborne Ranger was standard for West Pointers. I would guess that about 90% of my West Point classmates later graduated from jump school and that about 80% later attended Ranger School with about 65% of those graduating from it. When you see top Army brass on TV, like Centcom Commander General John Abizaid, they almost always have airborne wings on their chest and a Ranger tab on the top of their left shoulder. If the military reduces the number of soldiers allowed to go to jump school and the number and size of airborne units, as they should, it would be much harder for careerist officers to get those merit badges. So after touting Airborne Ranger as the ultimate for decades, the Army is incapable of reducing the amount of resources committed to those rather un-useful trainings and units. The exaltation of Airborne troops over many decades has rendered such training and units mindlessly untouchable as far as budget and Army organization are concerned.

Fight better as regular infantry: This may be because they have to live up to their own bullshit. Whatever the reason, they generally have proven themselves to be better at the regular old infantry (no parachute jumps) roles than those who did not go through three weeks of jump school. Go figure. Seems like we ought to be able to achieve that with better infantry training for those willing to undergo it, in which case they graduates of such training can take true pride in true accomplishments rather than the blue smoke and mirrors of parachute jumping.

Is jump school tough?
I was surprised to receive a couple of complaints from two former airborne troops who took enormous exception to my saying that jump school was easy.

I can think of two possible explanations for that:

• The individuals in question led sheltered lives.
• They actually agree with me but have been telling friends, relatives, and acquaintances for decades how tough it was and they are mad at me for outing them.

Here is how I would rate various difficult courses on a scale of 1 to 10 where 10 is physically toughest:

6—High school football two-a-day practices
8—West Point
10—Ranger School
3—Airborne School

Airborne School

Airborne School is three weeks. The first week involves classroom lectures and light field training like learning how to wear the chutes, how to land, how to deal with water and tree landings, how to avoid problems when in the air in the vicinity of other paratroopers.

The second week involves jumping out of the 34-foot tower, which is the toughest thing in Airborne School because your brain rejects jumping from that high. You also are dropped with a chute form a 250-foot tower. That’s fun, as you would expect when you know the tower’s history. It was a ride at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Anyone who tells you that it is tough to ride on a thrill ride that civilians with no training paid to ride during the Depression in the 1930s is kidding you.

The third week is jumping five times from various planes. That is slightly scary the first time you do it just because of the unknown, but you can’t see anything until you are in the door and then what you see is not scary because the brain simply has no programming against jumping from 1,200 feet.

Airborne school is also a weekdays, military business hours only deal. You get to go home at night. Ranger School and West Point are 24-7.

Yes, you have sergeants yelling at you in the style made famous by the History Channel’s R. Lee Ermey or the sergeant in the movie Officer and a Gentlemen, but after four years of West Point and two months of Ranger School, that rolled off our backs unnoticed. However, I can see where it might bother you if you had never experienced it previously.

Jumps but no jump school

It occurs to me that many, maybe most, of the non-training military parachute jumps in history were made by U.S. military men who never went to jump school.

How so?

They were members of fixed-wing aircraft crews whose aircraft was malfunctioning, often because of enemy fire. They bailed out. How could they do that without prior training and practice?

Parachute jumping is sort of self-explanatory. Jump out and pull the ripcord, which is a D-shaped ring on your chest. Actually, paratroopers do not pull the ripcord in the vast majority of cases. They only have a ripcord on their reserve (back-up) chute. I never pulled mine. They make static-line jumps which means that the ripcord is pulled automatically by the plane when they fall a certain distance. They do that to keep the paratroopers together in the air and when they hit the ground. If each trooper pulled his own ripcord, they would end up more scattered on the ground than they already do.

Most of the American prisoners of war in Europe in World War II—Stalag 17 and all that—had made one parachute jump in their lives after their plane had been shot down. No jump school.

Chuck Yeager, George H.W. Bush, and John McCain all made bail out parachute jumps, but none of them went to jump school.

My point is that Army jump school is not deemed necessary by the Air Force, Navy, or Marines or by civilians who learn how to make a jump and do so in about four hours at civilian jump schools around the world. The U.S. Army jump school needs to be greatly shortened and the number of people who go through it needs to be greatly reduced because the U.S. military only needs a few jump-qualified troops and can make more quickly—in about four hours each actually—if it ever needs them. U.S. Army jump school is more of a ritual and tradition than a necessity.

If you think it’s tough, you need to get out more.

Pounding wings into bare chests

Years ago, I saw a video that showed Soviet paratroop school NCOs putting the metal airborne wings on the bare chest of recent graduates and pounding them into their chests with the heels of their hands. The wings have two pointed 1/4-inch long spikes on the back. They are supposed to go through the fabric of the uniform and go into two catches like some earrings women wear with pierced ears.

The Soviet video was gross and stupid and gratuitously brutal. The Soviet Army announced the practice had been banned as soon as the video was seen around the world.

Then, in 2009, I read this on page 102 of I Love a Man in Uniform by Lily Burana about her husband U.S. Army major Mike Burana:

...his airborne wings were pounded into his chest at Fort Benning. “Want your blood wings, soldier?” the training company commander asked. Mike shouted, “Hooah, sir!” and the instructor smashed the heel of his palm into the wings so that they pierced the skin just above Mike’s heart.

Craig Mullaney said the following on page 64 of his book The Unforgiving Minute:

At the graduation ceremony a grizzly sergeant stood in front of me in a red beret. He took a set of silver wings from my hand, positioned them above my left beast pocket, and hammered them ino my chest with his fist.

Mullaney seemed to think it was cool. In view of the fact that he was on the West Point sky-diving team for four years before he went to jump school, you wonder why he even had to go there to become airborne qualified.

You gotta be shitting me! Idiot grade school dropouts in the Soviet Army do this, embarrass their country by doing so, and get the practice banned by the grown-ups who ran the Soviet Union. Then the U.S. Army sees that video and says, “Hey, that’s really cool. We should do that, too.” As I have said in many of my articles about the military, it has far more than its share of people who are immature and/or insecure about their manhood. This sort of behavior is not “elite.” It’s adolescent.

No such thing was done in any U.S. military unit when I as in. It sounds like a very bad idea from a health standpoint. They probably ought to pound a tetanus booster shot into the graduates arms after they pound the wings into his chest. How long will it be until these idiots get the idea of deliberately infecting the pins on the back of the wings so the graduates have to take antibiotics to recover from the graduation ceremony? The two spikes on the back of the wings are 1/4 inch long. Punching a trainee is something that the Marines used to do routinely. They were ordered to stop. It is assault and battery, a felony. Now we’re back to doing it inspired by some of the dumbest guys in a brutal Communist dictatorship.

What does it prove—other than the elementary school immaturity of the trainers at Airborne School and the lack of adult supervision by the Army brass?

Not a very exclusive club

Apparently, the Army has 46 Airborne classes classes a year and the average class has about 400 students. That’s 18,500 graduates a year and the Army has been in the airborne business for about 65 years. That’s roughly 65 x 18,500 = 1.2 million graduates of U.S. Army parachute school. Then there are all the other civilian and non-U.S. military paratroopers in the world.

God bless my fellow paratroopers, especially those who made combat jumps or who fought well as infantry in our various wars without jumping into the battle in question. In part, their impulse to join the airborne was magnificent and noble. But don’t let anyone tell you that the mere act of jumping out of a plane or going through U.S. Army jump school makes you some sort of superman. For one thing, far too many people of all genders and ages have jumped to claim that jumping per se is very special.

Click here to read an email from another airborne ranger who discusses both schools.

I truly welcome constructive criticism. I have gotten little of it. I link to my Web article on intellectually dishonest debate tactics. But the criticism I have gotten about this article generally only uses a couple of the many intellectually dishonest debate tactics: namely name calling and claiming longer airborne resumes than mine. Those who claim to have more time in airborne than I say they are “real” airborne and I am not. Maybe so, but I’ll wait for the letter from the Department of the Army announcing that Jump School graduates who were awarded the wings need to return them and remove mention of them from their resumes and biographies if they were not also in an airborne unit for more than five months.

Meanwhile, my “real” airborne critics need to straighten out the American Airborne Association. They say,

Anyone trained and qualified by the award of qualification badges... is covered under the term "Airborne" as envisioned by the "AAA".

Claiming longer resumes than mine implies that I am wrong about some of my facts, but conspicuous by their absence are citing of any specific facts that I got wrong. That causes me to conclude that I got the facts right. If not, they would have jumped on the errors. These two debate tactics are typically accompanied by profanity and trash talking.

Although so-called “elite” troops do, indeed, have a little bit more training than “non-elite” troops, they, as a group, tend to me be the opposite of elite with regard to IQ and maturity. When I compared notes with West Point classmates who were platoon leaders in non-airborne units, it sounded like their troops were about 20 to 30 IQ points smarter than mine and only about one or two years behind their chronological ages compared to about eight years behind for my “elite” guys. Profane, trash talking Internet postings about my ‘elite” unit articles by guys hiding behind handles only prove my point. Professionals have better things to do and when they offer criticism, it is fact and logic based and signed with real names.

When I went through it, there did not seem to be any arbitrary flunking guys out of Airborne school to brag about how tough it is. They do that at Ranger School and apparently more so since I graduated from both in 1968. But Mullaney says one of his West Point classmates was thrown out of the course for loosening his chin strap after the jumpmaster inspected it. That was not arbitrary. Your helmet has to be painfully tight when you jump. But instead of being thrown out of the course he should have been severely punished but allowed to continue.

Here is an email I got from a reader:

Mr. Reed:
Quite by accident (I was discussing my rather unusual Army career with a friend, and he mentioned your website), I ran across your discussion of jump school. You were spot on. First, to make this as short as possible, I should tell you that I enlisted in the Army in 1978, was trained in signal intelligence, and hoped to be assigned to an Army Security Agency unit, or something similar.
My experience was actually quite different. I was assigned to a psychological operations unit in West Fort Hood Texas, a unit which had no use for signal intel at all. After several useless months, my CO suggested I apply for OCS (I had completed my BS degree prior to enlisting). After taking what I thought was a ridiculously easy application exam, I was accepted and orders were cut sending me to Fort Benning. Unfortunately, 1 week late for the class. Since there was no chance of starting at that point, I was offered a slot in jump school (OCS generally has 3 or 4 open) -- I suppose to kill time.
I should point out that I was a distance runner in college, and - oddly - had also taken up sport parachute jumping as a hobby (extreme stuff before it was called extreme!), so I was fairly well prepared for the course. I was not prepared for the amount of time wasted with completely irrelevant stuff. My observations:
1. This course could easily have been 1 week or less.
2. I concur that the Army trains far too many paratroopers, particularly given the lack of REAL need for combat jumps.
3. There is no need for what appears to be an almost "by rote" harassment which occurs in so many training environments.
Regarding #3: I have been told by organizational psychologists that the military generally engages in this quite simply because it has always done so, as well as to see how one handles stressful situations (as might be found in combat). A ridiculous excuse, since it is almost impossible to mimic a true combat situation.
Oh, and concerning your statement about the bravado (false or otherwise) which one can almost cut with a knife -- I was flabbergasted. It really was not a big deal.
I also completed Air Assault training about this time (not at Fort Campbell. It was -- and possibly still is -- conducted by mobile units at various locations. Mine was at Fort Benning). I have heard this training referred to as the "toughest school in the Army." A ridiculous assertion, although I do believe that rotary wing insertion and extraction is far more practicable than combat jumping, if for no other reason than getting more equipment where it is needed.
To close, and possibly the strangest part of this tale. I never made it to OCS, and was instead assigned to the corps level of the 18th Airborne at Fort Bragg, where I stayed for about 3 weeks. Eventually I was assigned to an NSA listening post (a civilian post. Very few military at that time) in Bad Aibling Germany, although I was still attached to the 18th. I spent 2 wonderful years in Bavaria, no jumps. No signal intelligence either. After all the time, training, and money spent, I was in charge of the Bad Aibling Post Office for the entire time.

You may absolutely quote me! From my experience talking to many other Army vets, I believe our experiences are far from unusual. One of my direct reports at the moment was in during the Vietnam era, although never in-country. He was trained in mechinized infantry, and spent virtually his entire enlisted service as a cook at Fort Drum. Go figure!
 I can't speak for the Navy or Air Force, of course, and I would not venture a guess about the Marine Corps since they are, by training and disposition, an entirely different breed -- at least  from my observation.
I wonder how much money the military wastes on this nonsense? Must be considerable.
John Herrmann -- Phoenix, AZ

Another email from a former paratrooper

I enjoyed reading your column on the Army Airborne and, since you invited comments, here you go.

In early 1978, after serving three years in the active Army, I got out and joined a newly-activated Army Reserve pathfinder platoon. I hadn't gone to jump school yet, but that problem was easily solved. The unit was attached for admin purposes to HQ 11th SFGA, a USAR SF unit aligned with the active duty 10th SFGA at Fort Devens, MA. Every other year, the 10th would run a two-week jump school for reservists who needed training. (During the other years they ran a jumpmaster course.) I went up to Devens that summer, along with the rest of the 11th SFGA, and spent the time in jump training. Most of those in the course were also reservists, although there were some Guardsmen from the 20th SFGA and some active duty support troops from within the 10th itself. Getting away from employers for more than two weeks could be a problem for some reservists, so a two-week jump school worked out well over three weeks at Fort Benning. I think the paperwork was much simpler as well, although I wasn't directly involved with it.

The course was pretty much like what one would encounter at Fort Benning except that there were no 250-foot towers. Also, there was no dropping
back to a follow-on class for any reason, simply because this was the only class being run. We also trained on the middle weekend's Saturday and were
threatened with coming out there Sunday too if we didn't do well that day. I don't know if they actually meant it, but in any case, we (and the instructors) had Sunday off. One instructor, MSG Clancy, got us together and told us that he was scheduled to attend an orgy on Sunday, but if he had to give that up to come out there and train us, he was going to be very, very unhappy, so it was definitely in our interest to do our best that day. We did, and if he wasn't kidding about his orgy, he didn't have to miss it.

I know that other locations over the years (Fort McCoy, WI - 12th SFGA; Panama - 8th SFGA, Fort Bragg - 82d; Fort Campbell - 11th, later the 101st; Wiesbaden, Germany - 1st Bde (Abn), 8th Inf Div) ran jump courses and usually these were only a couple of weeks long, proving that three full weeks at Fort Benning isn't really necessary. Had all of the running, PT, etc., been cut, we could have done it in even less time. As you wrote, just about anyone can jump out of a plane. I saw one guy lose it on the 34-foot tower, going into a panic in the door and refusing to jump, but that was it.

I recall from later days in the late 1980s, when I was in the Air Force and back in Germany, the Brits were running a one-day sport parachute course in northern Germany that culminated in a jump before the day was over. There were no wings awarded - this was all for fun.

As for the height of the 34-foot foot tower, I too heard the story about how that height was selected because of some psychological study the Army had supposedly done. I recall reading somewhere years ago that the story is nothing but a myth. When constructing the first jump school facilities, some standard length poles were used and, after being buried at an appropriate depth, 34 feet just happened to remain sticking out of the ground. Nothing magical about it. And when you think about it, would the Army really go to such lengths to study the minds of soldiers, or simply build something out of readily-available materials - and then leave it to paratroopers to create a popular myth after the fact that was actually just more macho silliness?

Comparison of planes for jumping... I never had any problems with C-130s. I jumped from a C-119 once over Taiwan with the Nationalist Chinese and that was the roughest jump I ever had. I felt like the tip of a whip that someone just cracked as I received a hard opening shock and my helmet got yanked down over my eyes. That was after taxiing down the runway and getting up to altitude in an old bird that vibrated so much it made my buns go numb. I had one C-141 jump and that went nicely.

After graduating from college and being commissioned through AFROTC, I was back on active duty, and there I found that jump wings often have a different meaning. The Air Force Academy runs a short, in-house "extra-curricular activity" sport parachute free-fall (not HALO) course for which they award jump wings to cadets. (This is an option only open to cadets. Anyone going into pararescue, combat control teams, etc., to serve in an operational jump unit must go to Fort Benning.) So many cadets have jump wings from this source that they're known as the "Academy frat badge." On top of that, a great many people in the Air Force have no idea what jump wings are anyway. Air rescue and special ops people are fairly rare in the Air Force, so what they do and what they wear are not well known.

Operation Market Garden... I don't think the entire 1st Airborne Division was lost at Arnhem, but rather about 80% and all of their equipment - which is close enough to 100%. They never fought as a unit again. The Germans moved back into areas the allies had initially liberated, and to show their thanks for the trouble the Dutch had caused at this time, they stopped food shipments going into the area, resulting in the "Hunger Winter" in the months to come during which many starved to death.

Regarding Crete you wrote, "They [the Germans] lost 4,500 paratroopers in ten days there starting May 20, 1945." I know you meant to write 1941, not 1945.

You're right, glider units were eliminated in the late 1940s, typically being converted to parachute. As for the overseas cap with glider patch, that went a way decades ago in favor of the maroon beret. The 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) continued to wear these caps with glider patches until the entire Army (except for units that already had their own berets) went to black berets in 2001.

You wrote, "Indeed, nowadays, Ranger students are required to be parachute qualified to enter Ranger School..." I don't think jump wings are a prerequisite, although people typically are jump qualified before going to Ranger School. I never attended Ranger School myself, but I've been told that those without jump qualification are typically just air-landed by helicopter to wherever the jumpers are going. Also, I well remember a fellow student in my jump school class who had a Ranger tab but was not Airborne yet. He was a captain in the next platoon, and I recall one instructor (remember, these were all 10th SFGA NCOs) yelling to another, "Hey, Sergeant [Blank], we got us a leg Ranger!" "A leg Ranger?!" Both went running in that guy's direction. I glanced over at the next platoon and I saw several instructors huddled around the captain, who was giving them the "leg Ranger push-ups" they demanded.

Since 1978 wasn't all that long after Vietnam, we had quite a few people with combat patches from their tours in Vietnam. Oddly enough, one guy had an SF combat patch but no jump wings. During a break, one of the instructors asked him how this was so. As it turned out, the guy had a military intelligence MOS and, when he arrived in Vietnam, he was assigned to a B team in the 5th SFGA. Jumping really wasn't a requirement in that job, but he had the MOS and the spot was open, so he filled it and ended up with an SF combat patch.

You're right about the Army having too many people on jump status. At Fort Bragg in the early 1980s, only one of the several battalions within each of the various supporting brigades of XVIII Abn Corps (e.g., 35th Signal Brigade, 20th Engineer Brigade, 18th FA Brigade, etc.) was on jump status. Within a few years, typically all of them were on jump status. I think these was done mainly for espirit de corps purposes because there was certainly no way all of these units - heck, ANY of these units - would be used as part of an Airborne assault. It took the tightening of the Army's budget and the diversion of airlift to the Mideast war zones for the Army
to decide to take all of the supporting brigade headquarters off jump status, as well as most of the subordinate supporting units. (Possibly due to advances in technology, 35th Signal Brigade not only went off jump status, it was inactivated.) Now they're back to perhaps having one battalion on jump status, and even that probably isn't necessary. (Just thinking about how much more aircraft time, parachutes, and riggers were necessary to support all that unnecessary jumping, to say nothing of the jump pay for all involved... whew!)

Oddly enough, there are still lots of maroon berets being worn in units that are not on jump status anymore or never were, but whatever lame reason
claimed, they're wearing maroon berets, jump boots and Airborne tabs above their patches. There's an erroneous belief that, if your brigade has subordinate Airborne units - such as a support brigade with a rigger company - that makes the entire brigade "Airborne." An equally erroneous belief is that, if you fall under a HQ that's on jump status, you too are "Airborne," even if you're really not. True, there are uniform regulations that spell out what's authorized, but units do what pleases them, and people are very caught up in wanting to don the "coolest" uniform items.

Within the 82d, the division's aviation brigade was taken off jump status, which made a great deal of sense because there's no need for aviators to jump. (Most flyers don't care much for jumping anyway.) I've read that the division's HQ is also supposed to go off jump status and the highest
jump slots would be at brigade level, but I don't think that will happen simply for purposes of tradition, etc. I doubt anyone really expects the division HQ to ever participate in a combat jump at any time in the future. Additionally, HQ XVIII Abn Corps was to go off jump status and retain the designation for historical purposes, but like HQ 82d, I doubt this will happen.

"Pride through put-downs of military teammates" - all very true. In the UK, the "paras" refer to others as "crap hats" instead of "legs." In South Africa in 1986, however, I found no such attitudes. I went down to the South African Defense Force jump school at Bloemfontein and, while I was there, I asked specifically about terms used to describe non-Airborne members of the SADF. This seemed to be an unknown concept to them that served no useful purpose in their war effort. And of course, they were right.

You mentioned transport pilots, who are of course put down by fighter pilots. The latter are fond of stating, referring to the restrooms aboard transports, bombers and aerial tankers, "If it's big enough to shit in, it's too big to fly." A clever transporter comeback is: "Which is why fighter pilots are full of shit."

In the "Inertia" paragraph, you recommended reducing the number of jump units and those who go to jump school, but unfortunately the officer corps is unlikely to let that happen. In the competition for promotion, one gets an edge over others by having attended schools and collected badges and
tabs, and cutting back on these training opportunities would reduce their ability to compete. The only way out of this would be to remove such school attendance from consideration for promotion, but they're not going to change the system from which they have benefitted so far.

You wrote that "jump school was easy." It's only really hard if you arrive unprepared for the level of PT a student receives. I trained myself for months ahead of time, so when I arrived, I could easily keep up with the physical pace. Those who had not taken preparation seriously soon fell by the wayside. Not that it was all that hard, but because it was no place for couch potatoes.

You mentioned the Soviets pounding in "blood wings," which might have been the least of one's worries in such a unit. I recall seeing a news video on TV in which a Soviet Airborne NCO had junior members of the unit lie down lengthwise in a hallway, much like ties in a railroad track, and he ran up and down the hallway, stomping on their stomachs with his boots with each step. All of this was pointless harassment and likely dangerous to the health of the young soldiers.

As for "blood wings," you probably saw the video in the 1990s when some USMC Force Recon Marines at Camp Lejeune, NC, were viciously punching gold jump wings into the chests of newly-qualified members of the unit, as well as grabbing the ends of wings and twisting them back and forth while still embedded in the chests of the victims. It reminded me more of street gang activity than what a military unit should be doing.

In my own jump school class, the cadre pounded in our new wings, although they weren't too rough about it. One set of wings must have hit a Signal captain's chest just right because the front of his white T-shirt was soon covered with blood. The instructor who had done it apologized, but the captain was actually delighted to have true "blood wings." (Nuts.)

Six years later I went to Air Assault School at Fort Rucker but no one was doing the "blood wing" nonsense there. I don't know what the instructors themselves would have liked to do, but a civilized LTC from somewhere higher in the post's food chain pinned the wings onto the pocket flaps of graduates.

Anyway, those are my thoughts and comments. Drop a line to me if you need clarification on anything.

As I re-read my email to you, particularly the part about separate brigades under XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, I remembered that the 18th Field
Artillery Brigade was one unit that did not see all of its battalions go on jump status. Each battalion was intended for a different division under the Corps, so only 1-321st FA was on jump status in support of the 82d. 1-377th FA was designated as Air Assault for support of the 101st but wore maroon berets and jump boots anyway. Couldn't figure that out, and since then it has been moved to Fort Lewis for assignment to the 17th Fires Brigade (formerly 17th FA Brigade), still retaining its AA designation, although they no longer wear maroon berets. 3-321st FA was not on jump status and, I think, was aligned with the 10th Mountain Division (Light
Infantry) and 3-27th FA is, I believe, aligned with the 3d Infantry Division, a heavy division at Fort Stewart. As a HIMARS unit, I don't think it could be airdropped anyway, so trying to get jump status for such a battalion would really be a stretch.

Anyway, please edit 18th FA Brigade (now 18th Fires Brigade) out of my earlier email since it really doesn't fit the definition of a brigade that saw its subordinate battalions on jump status go from one to several.

In your email you mentioned "the Army's immature, idiot, frat hazing mentality." In my first email I noted that there were no "blood wings" when I attended Fort Rucker's Air Assault School (which operated from late 1983 to 1995); however, there was plenty of that idiotic Army mentality. We spent a lot of time on basic training-style activities, such as heavy PT, forced marches and formation runs, and barking instructors while classroom and hands-on time with equipment was sometimes rather rushed and brief. I remember going on forced marches in full gear while Blackhawks passed by overhead, wondering what hours spent on forced marches had to do with airmobility. The answer - nothing, really, but it helped to fill the schedule and make the course more physically difficult. The original AAS
started at Fort Campbell as a replacement of sorts for jump wings and jump status in the post-Vietnam 101st, so of course there were going to be comparisons about which one was tougher, which one had a higher attrition rate, etc. I felt the course would have been much better if it canned the basic training-level activities and dedicated the time to teaching people something useful. Rappeling takes up two days in the schedule and, as you wrote, is mainly for macho purposes. It's certainly no way to get a lot of people on the ground in a hurry and reduce the exposure of an aircraft to ground fire. I admit rappelling was fun to do, but it has very limited utility. Since parachuting days are over in the 101st, it's the most exciting thing that can be done from aircraft, except perhaps fast-roping.

Name withheld

Classification: UNCLASSIFIED
Caveats: FOUO

Wow, you rated West Point as a 8 in your little 1-10 toughness rating system?? Every PL I ever had from West Point was tactically and
technically inferior to other officers who went the civilian education route, so your little rant on paratroopers holds no water in my book.
Why you chose paratroopers to vent your spleen, I will never know. You obviously have a personal vendetta against paratroopers but hey, freedom
of speech right??
Classification: UNCLASSIFIED
Caveats: FOUO

From: Burrus, Johnny E SGT MIL USA FORSCOM <>
Date: May 26, 2011 4:20:16 AM PDT
To: John Reed <>

Reed response: This is the first time I have ever heard that ROTC, where you attend a couple of military classes a week and spend some additional time during school and in the summer engaging in military training, is tougher and better at imparting military knowledge than West Point which is 24/7 and about 330 days a year. My observation was, as you would expect with such minimal training, that ROTC guys were inferior knowledge-wise in every way. They put their rank on the wrong side of their uniform, gave commands never heard before, and in general, when trying to do or say military things, sounded like an American in Poland trying to speak Polish for the first time. Sergeant Burrus needs to send a letter to his Congressman about this as well as tell all the West Pointers in his unit to buck up. I predict the West Pointers will want some specific examples of their inferiority to ROTC guys so they know which areas to work on. Taxpayers are spending a lot more money on each West Pointer than they are on each ROTC lieutenant. Perhaps Sergeant Burrus should bring this to the attention of 60 Minutes. I and most of my friends are paratroopers. My oldest son and daughter in law did a civilian jump. None of them has commented on my “personal vendetta against paratroopers.” What I do not care for is people who try to claim that being a paratrooper is more than it really is. In the civilian world, these people are known as bullshit artists.


  1. Tell the paratroopers to knock off the chest beating about airborne superiority and putting down non-airborne military personnel.

  2. Modernize the current parachute units by de-emphasizing parachute training and practice and increasing the time and other resources devoted to acquiring military skills that are actually likely to be used in future combat.

  3. Reduce the number of parachute-qualified persons in the U.S. military down to the level that are truly needed for anticipated combat operations. If necessary, thousands more paratroopers can be trained from scratch in a matter of weeks. We do not need tens of thousands of paratroopers hanging around in the U.S. military and receiving jump pay for no good reason.

  4. Drastically reduce the importance of Airborne Ranger status for officer career success. Use performance, instead. If airborne and ranger training are so beneficial, it wil manifest itself in performance. If it does not, which is more likely, then airborne and ranger training and experience are, as I claim, only marginally useful.

  5. End any official use of the term “elite” to describe airborne personnel or units. Everyone in the U.S. military has a role to play and all U.S. military personnel have had training and experience to one degree or another to perform their role. By almost any standard other than three weeks of jump school and varying numbers of subsequent jumps, paratroopers are actually less “elite” than the other personnel in the military. They tend to be less intelligent and mature and are using being paratroopers to compensate for their insecurities.

  6. Commanders, achieve espirit de corps in your unit honestly by training them to a higher degree of proficiency in their roles than other comparable units, not by encouraging your soldiers to trash talk and put down their military teammates.

  7. End official hype of the Airborne and discourage such hype by Hollywood and the media. Accurate portrayals are welcome.

Here is another email from a reader:

John -

I was reading your critique on the Benning jump school, the length of
it, and the Ranger training as well.

I was aircrew in the Air Force. The very few AF jobs that required
regular jumping went to the Benning jump school (there was one in my
career field - weather - called Para-weather. These guys jumped with
regular Army and supplied weather support for forward locations). The
rest only received any jump training during basic Air Force survival

Aircrews were not required to attend AF survival training, although it
was highly recommended and encouraged. I met several aircrew during
my time that had not attended the training but were active duty aircrew
This was in the 80s so perhaps that requirement has changed. At the
time, basic survival training was at Fairchild AFB, Washington, near
Spokane (the base has since closed, don't know where they do it now).

The training was 3 weeks, and included about 3 days of jump training.
We did not actually jump from a perfectly good plane, but did the
whole 34 foot tower bit, as well as some repelling at the end just for the
fun of it.
Along with the tower there was a nine-foot swing, in which you swung
back and forth about 9 feet above the ground in full harness, and they
would drop you, unannounced, several times forwards and backwards so
you could practice landing properly. The landings were hard but in
sand and no one was hurt that I could see. We also trained in packing
a chute, putting on harnesses, and so on.

There were about 100 students in my class, of which about 90% were
Most were pilots or navigators. None were higher in rank than
Captain, the majority were 1 LTs.

The first week was all survival classes - escape and evasion, finding
water, building shelters, finding food, building a back pack from your
harness, etc. This included us actually dismantling a harness and
building a pack with the tools at hand. This pack was used in the 2nd
week when we were in the woods. The site was about 30 mi south of the
Canadian border, in very rugged, hilly, rocky and heavily forested
country. The first couple days we practiced our survival skills such as
finding water, food, navigating, etc.
We also practiced helicopter extractions, learning to coordinate air
rescue, actually being hoisted up from the ground into a chopper, and
so on. The final 3 days we were on our own. We were given map
coordinates about 15 miles away, told what day and time to be there,
and left. Everyone was to pair up with one other student, and then
go. The entire time you were being chased by unfriendlies, so you had
to use your escape and evasion skills as well as finding water and
food and shelter. The terrain was very difficult so it was hard to go
more than a few miles each day. The temp during the day was up to 90, but
dropped into the 30s at night, with rain one night.
We did have a sleeping bag and poncho, plus a few survival items, but
no food or water. On the final day the sleeping bag was taken away as
well. We had to interact with partisans if we encountered them, and
avoid unfriendlies if we detected them without being caught. Water
was scarce, sometimes gotten from mosquito-infested mud puddles. Food
was down to insects or the occasional bird or rabbit if you could
catch one. I lost 20 pounds that week from the heat, 14-hours per day
hiking in rough terrain, and lack of food.

The training was useful and practical. At no time was there petty
harassment or "make-them-suffer just to make them suffer" bullshit
that the Army does. Following the backwoods survival training was the
POW camp. You were stuck in simulated POW camp and treated
accordingly for three days, enduring interrogations, hazing-type
behavior (being locked in tiny cramped boxes, being stripped naked and
hosed down in 30-degree weather and so on, usually right before an
interrogation session), and propaganda-brainwashing type sessions. It
was as realistic as possible without actually harming people beyond just
major discomfort.

The jump training followed all this. After basic survival, I attended
water survival at the same location, another week-long class. Jumping
in water was taught - how to get out of your harness in the water
without drowning, getting out of an ejection seat underwater - getting
rafts set up, setting up solar stills, and the like. Again, practical
training without petty harassment and BS.

There were no tabs, awards, or certificates given after all the training.
Nobody would ever know you attended such training. You can't even
assume just because someone has wings on their uniform that they
attended the course, since it was not mandatory. There was another
jungle survival course offered as well (one in Florida, another in the
Philippines), which I did not attend even though I was posted in
WestPac and flew out of the PI many times. The jump training in my
case was also moot because as we flew in the hurricanes/typhoons for
the weather recon mission, we didn't carry parachutes since bailing
out in a typhoon is not possible. Even if it was, we were frequently
thousands of miles from the nearest sandbar in the middle of the Pacific.


Mark Christoph

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