29 Years ago. . . Seems like Yesterday

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With the 4th of July right around the corner I started reflecting on what this nation has endured and accomplished through the men and women who serve in the Armed Forces. I think of my son and his family who are currently stationed at Ft. Bragg, which leads us to the content of this piece.

You see twenty-nine years ago I too was stationed at Ft. Bragg as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division. That time I spent in service would stay with me for the rest of my life. We learn many lessons through the years, but the ones we keep with us are foundational. Even though it was so long ago, it seems like just yesterday I was running in tight formation with hundreds of other paratroopers down Gruber Road singing cadence for miles, or jumping out of a perfectly good airplane in the blackness of night.

I just want to thank all of the men and women who are serving and sacrificing daily so that we can enjoy what we have as a nation. Not that I agree where this nation is heading but our loved one(s) serve anyway, because they love their country and us. So to all of you, from all of us, thank you and God bless the USA, and our men and women in uniform.

Here is another excerpt from my book entitled: “Remember the Prisoners: He Came to Set the captives Free.”

When I took the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) test, I didn’t do so well. I scored low in math and needed to get some college credits to supplement my score.

So I did. It wasn’t easy, but I wanted to serve my country and become a paratrooper more than anything. And on January 7, 1987, I boarded a bus in Phoenix, bound for the induction center at Fort Benning in Georgia. Back then, they could still yell at you and say horrible and mean things, which, when they weren’t directed at you, were pretty comical. I had packed on quite a bit of weight between the ages of seventeen and nineteen from all the beer and alcohol I drank, so I was pretty chubby. My drill instructors were very vocal about my weight and let me know daily their disapproval of my physical condition and appearance. They singled out the fat guys and troublemakers, and made examples out of them. Their intention was to break you and make you either quit or become a soldier.

I had quit at everything in my life, especially school or anything that took a lot of effort or wasn’t something I was any good at. The one thing I disliked most was running. I was in poor physical condition with zero stamina. I felt like a bucket of chum in a shark tank. The drill sergeants would get in my face and say, “Why are you here, Private? You’re never gonna make it!” When they found out I was trying to get to the airborne, they really started in on me. I mean, it got bad. I wanted to quit. I tried to talk myself into quitting. I practiced the words I would say and tried to convince myself that it was okay to quit, but I didn’t.

With each passing day, the PT (physical training) got a little easier. I began to see the value in their approach, and deep down, I started to feel like I belonged to something, something greater than myself. I can’t tell you how good it felt to graduate from basic and AIT (advanced infantry training), but I still had to make it through airborne training, known as “jump school.” Upon my graduation, my drill instructors shook our hands and signed our graduation books. I was so excited to see what the senior drill was going to write in mine. I thought it would be something encouraging and hopeful like, “Way to go. You’ve had great improvements this cycle. Good luck in the airborne!”

But all it said was, “Learn to lead.” It was such a blow. He didn’t even mention one single thing I did right. Just when I didn’t think it could get any worse, the other drill instructor walked up and said, “You’re never gonna make it through jump school, let alone to the 82nd Airborne Division. I was crushed—beyond crushed, near tears—but I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of my sorrow. I purposed right there and then in my heart that I would do whatever it took to make it.

The one thing they couldn’t take from me was the confidence I now had by graduating. I had passed all the tests and had been found acceptable according to their standards. I would build on this confidence and succeed, I told myself, no matter what they said.

It was mid-May in Georgia and already hot. They marched us from the graduation parade field over to an area off to the side and informed us that there would be an advanced class being pushed through. That meant that whoever wasn’t chosen would have an additional week tacked on before getting assigned to his or her duty station.

Back then, jump school consisted of three weeks or phases known as “ground week” (when demanding physical and mental training was employed to prepare the student to meet the basic qualifications of a paratrooper), “tower week” (when the student honed the skills he or she had learned and began to learn how to exit the aircraft in a mass tactical formation and land safely; this meant the use of mock aircraft and a harness and pulley system that allowed the student to actually jump from a thirty-four-foot tower and experience the simulated opening shock of a parachute), and “jump week” (when the remaining students, who had successfully passed all prior requirements and physical tests, finally got to exit an aircraft at twelve hundred feet five times, one being at night).

If you made all five jumps without getting hurt or disqualified for unsafe practices, you were now jump qualified and considered airborne. This also meant that you got to dress differently than the rest of the regular army. You wore a maroon beret, and when you were in your dress green uniform, you got to wear highly polished jump boots and tuck your pant legs into the boots. We looked so cool!

The confidence I gained there at jump school would stay with me for the rest of my life. I was no longer a quitter, but a hard-charging, high-speed, low-drag airborne soldier who could run two miles in thirteen minutes with no problem.

Once at my duty station at Fort Bragg, the real training started. I thought jump school had made me airborne, but I was wrong. Jump school only qualified me. Being airborne meant maintaining a high level of physical readiness. The PT got harder, the training was more intense, and the jumps … Almost all of them were at night.

Being airborne is a lifestyle. For those of you who don’t know who or what the 82nd Airborne Division is or what their mission is, I’ll briefly explain. The paratrooper was born out of necessity during World War II to be able to put highly motivated and trained soldiers on the battlefield as fast as possible by the use of parachutes or gliders.

Nearly all the parachute or glider drops at the invasion of D-Day took place “behind enemy lines” to overrun the enemy, secure vital strategic pieces of land, and isolate or cut off command and control centers or important places like airstrips or bridges.

The 82nd is the hub of America’s quick reaction force and can have a complete military contingency on the ground anywhere in the world en route within eighteen hours of notification. Everything an army needs to win the battle, including tanks, artillery, trucks, cooks, and of course the soldier himself, is brought to the battlefield by way of parachute.[i]

The 82nd is completely self-contained, and to the best of my knowledge, it is the only whole airborne division in the free world. It is a sight to behold, the low-approaching thunder of aircraft after aircraft flying in mass tactical formation, and then to see the small black dots being released from the bellies of the planes. Each dot blossoms into a canopy, and the enemy knows the full might and broadsword of American power has come for him or her.

[i] See articles entitled “82nd Airborne Division:  ‘All American’/’America’s Guard of Honor’” at http://globalsecurity.org/military/agency/army/82ndabn.htm, and “82nd Airborne History” at http://www.bragg.army.mil.

I wanted to share this with you all to show the transition from civilian to soldier. Once that transition takes place it is for a lifetime. This is my personal experience, so obviously I am showcasing the 82nd, but all branches of the service are worthy of mention and all play a vital role in our freedom. Again I thank all who serve and I thank my instructors who helped to make me who I am today. Happy 4th and God bless!

 

Rev. Larriba

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