Chapter 9 Operation Green Feet
For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to jump out of an airplane. It was the parachute on the PJ logo that initially caught my eye. The para in “pararescue” puts parachuting right in the job title. I couldn’t get to the Army Airborne School fast enough, but the way it works is, once you enter the pipeline, you also hit half a dozen other schools and courses as positions become available.
Lucky for me, my first school after INDOC was Airborne. I packed my bags and headed to Fort Benning, Georgia. When I reported in, I was assigned a barracks room with three army men. Our class size had to be close to two hundred men and women. The first thing I noticed in the dorm was that the doors to all the rooms had been removed, which seemed strange.
On the first day, I was given my room assignment and was issued a green wool blanket, a pillow, and linens. I hauled the bedding and my gear up to the second floor room. I threw the sheets and blanket on an open top bunk and started unpacking into my locker. I took out my shower gear and closed and locked my locker. By the time I finished my shower, someone had swiped my bedding materials. Perhaps that was why the doors had been removed. Welcome to the army!
That first night I slept in my PT gear and used a wadded-up sweatshirt top for a pillow. The next morning, we started early. The cadre strutted up and down the formation like cats stalking prey. Black ball caps distinguished the Airborne cadre from the fresh meat. These “black hats” collectively referred to us as “legs”—because anyone who can’t jump out of airplanes has to use his legs to get around. The Airborne black hats also loved to use the word boots to refer to a form of physical strength conditioning. They would holler at us when we needed correction, “Beat your boots, you dirty, nasty legs!” To beat your boots, you begin by standing erect. Then, while maintaining a vertically erect upper body, you bend at the knees and hips until your hands can slap your ankles, and then you return to the fully upright position. The black hats ensured that our leg muscles had the strength to absorb the impact of an airborne landing.
Next came my first introduction to a chow hall, US Army style, which is an adventure in the army way. For some reason, which I’m sure in theory is related to jumping from an airplane, in classic “military intelligence,” we were allowed only one food item per hand. Piece of toast for your left. Glass of orange juice for your right. Don’t even think about throwing a banana onto a plate of institutional scrambled eggs and grabbing a cookie. Are you insane, man? One item. Per hand. Period!
The chow hall chief, a man with too much time on his own hands, will raise his voice and stop you cold in your tracks if you try to slip by on this. You will be directed, in no uncertain terms, to return all items that break the one-item-per-hand rule. Of course, you are invited to get back in line, to make another trip, for two more items. Having a quick breakfast could involve three or more trips from the food line to the seating area.
And the food? Let me just say, we don’t have the best military in the world due to our cuisine. The whole base at times seemed to smell of high-protein army-diet farts that, oddly, were not that much different from the smell of the food they served us.
Before and after breakfast, the black hats had us form up on what they called the “wires.” These are big steel cables bolted to the ground to serve as reference marks for formation. We did a lot of standing on those damn wires. Hours. The boredom on the wires would lead to silly games, like tossing small pebbles into helmets, and to adding to the already fragrant aroma as the morning meal churned in our bellies and that famous Georgia heat began to rise.
Airborne school could be called “I wish I wasn’t born” school, with all the waiting. I almost quit just from all the standing around and doing nothing for hours and hours. But, for some, the waiting caused a fair bit of anxiety. Technically, there were two hundred “volunteers” in my Airborne school class, but plenty of them possessed zero interest in the whole jumping-out-of-airplanes thing. The first week of Airborne involved hours of ground training and waiting for ground training. Basically, the black hats were teaching us how to land. They taught us the parachute landing fall, or PLF.
The PLF is a graceful crunch into the earth. In classic military training form, the Airborne instructors followed a crawl, walk, run format, just as the cadre at INDOC had done. The first day or two was the crawl phase, the easiest tier of the training program. They had us get “jocked up,” with realistic training parachute packs harnessed to our bodies and a reserve parachute across the belly, just as if we would be parachuting. We practiced jumping off boxes and doing PLF landings in deep pits of pea gravel. This was sweaty and dusty work. Up on the boxes. Down in the gravel. Repeat. Repeat. As the training progressed, we started to jump from taller and taller objects. Soon we were launching from airplane mock-ups and towers high in the sky. The black hats turned up the heat and the height.
After ground week, we began tower week. Here, they would have us jumping from giant towers. We were going to be working on learning how to jump out of aircraft, to deal with twists in the paracords, and then to stick our landings. On my first trip up, we jogged as a formation divided into columns called “chalks.” As we approached, I could see the towers with steel cables attached to the top and anchored, about one hundred feet away, in a giant dirt berm. We split into chalks and went to our assigned towers. Each tower was constructed mostly of wood two-by-fours and plywood, creating a loud, echoing racket of people riding the zip line down from the top. Every time someone jumped, you could hear the pulleys clanging on the steel cable, resounding through the tower like old church bells.
Most of us were really excited to ride our first Airborne zip line. The guys in line behind me knew each other. Every time someone jumped onto the zip line they would cheer like frat boys. I was behind an army female who grew less and less excited about the training as we made our way up the stairs to the launchpad. At first she was friendly and social, but after the first person went and we heard the clang and thud and the sound of steel cables, her demeanor shut down. I watched as her anxiety increased with each clang, thump, and zip. After each series of noises, we took one more step up the stairs of the tower. I could just feel the dread building in her.
“It’s going to be fine,” I said.
She didn’t reply.
After about midway up, we were high enough that the ground began to look far away. Around this point, her nerve began to waver, and she was clearly having second thoughts about earning her jump wings. I joined the soldiers around her, in support. We encouraged and cheered her on. At first we were simply saying calming and encouraging things—“This ain’t nothing” or “You got this.” But by the time we could see the top and the launching platform, our words fell on deaf ears. She was pale and on the verge of tears, but not ready to quit.
She didn’t like being up there, but she still put on the harness, her helmet, and her gloves when it was her turn to jock up. By the time she stepped up to the edge of the platform to jump, though, she stopped cold. She didn’t just hesitate on the edge; the poor girl froze. Solid. The earth waited far below us, and jumping from that height isn’t natural. She just couldn’t do it.
I’d seen men fail by inaction, but I had little experience around women in combat training roles. I was a bit worried about how the instructors would treat her refusal to jump. It didn’t take but a second for me to see how Airborne deals with such moments.
The kind and loving black hat gently showed her the most efficient way off his tower. With the bottom of his boot.
She screamed the whole way down and hit the landing hill in a billowing cloud of dust.
The instructor turned to me with the smile of a man who loves his job.
“Will you be requiring assistance this morning?” he asked.
I answered with a smile and jumped before he could even think to lift his boot off the deck.
I jumped, and for the first half second from the tower, there was a brief feeling of weightlessness. This was immediately followed by the feeling of compression as the steel cable caught my weight and the downward energy from my fall became converted into horizontal speed. The first time, things happened fast and furious and there was no moment to take things in. The giant dirt berms that the cables were anchored into raced up toward me so fast that I barely got my feet up in time to make my PLF and keep from becoming a crumpled pile of broken air force property.
The weekend following the first week at jump school, I hung out with other PJ trainees who had just graduated from Airborne. So, naturally, we partied. A few friends of note were there: Brock, Reach, Wilson, McGraw, and a guy named Schumacher, or Schu. Some of these were guys I had survived INDOC with. That night, we closed down the bar, and on the way home we decided to get some food at a late-night greasy spoon. Our server was a full-figured, beautiful-as-life black woman. She described the specials and then warned us, in her rich Southern accent, “The milkshake machine is out-of-order.”
Without any thought for my surroundings, half drunk, I exclaimed, “But your milkshake brings all the boys to the yard!”
The table exploded in laughter. Without missing a beat, she leaned down toward me and said, “You can’t handle my milkshake, honey.”
And she was probably right.
“Beat your boots!” they yelled out to us, rousing us from our beds in the predawn morning of our first jump. We had to jock up before the sun rose. The jump required being rigged up in our parachute harnesses.
They had us in a big hall, all lined up by chalks, on hard wooden benches in a converted giant airplane hangar. A black hat instructed us flatly, “Once you get jocked up and inspected, you can’t leave.” We weren’t allowed to stand or to walk around. All we could do was talk quietly and watch the instructional video looping over and over on itself.
The problem with periods of forced sitting is that the human body, my body in particular, likes to process the fluids I intake at a pretty high rate. After the first couple hours, the urge to piss began rising like the tide at Turnagain Arm back home. Fast and unstoppable. The black hats had made the morning sound as though we were jocking up and jumping that minute. Instead, we’d been thrust into the classic military hurry-up-and-wait.
“This is happening right now. Get jocked up and let’s go! Hurry up,” they yelled. And then we sat. One hour became two, and then four. Waiting. Waiting. There I am, trying to be a cool guy in the PJ pipeline, and I’m on the verge of pissing my pants in front of God, country, and a bunch of army folks who are itching for something to clown the air force guy with. Was taking a piss going to count as failure? Was this another military test of endurance?
I couldn’t handle it anymore. I rose, but barely. I could barely stand.
“Can I go to the bathroom please?” I asked the first black hat. “No, Air Force,” he said. “We’ll have to re-JMPI you. Sit down.” JMPI meant jumpmaster preinspection, where the jumpmaster inspects all buckles, straps, and pins and makes sure that you are good to go. And the jumpmaster takes his job very seriously. I guess the jumpmasters at Airborne were a little too busy to come deal with guys who couldn’t sit for four hours without needing to step into a bathroom.
I waited some more. Then I asked again. I received another no.
Finally, on the verge of pissing myself, I stood up and started walking. I walked, though it might have been a little more of a hobble, over to the bathroom. There, by some force of divine intervention, I encountered a black hat in an air force uniform.
He said, “Hey! Where are you going?”
“I really have to go to the latrine,” I pleaded.
“Cool. Right over there. What are you training for? What pipeline are you in?”
In the air force, there are only a handful of jobs that involve jumping. The two most common are PJ and combat controller. I knew he had a pretty good guess as to which I hoped to be.
“PJ, Sergeant,” I said, trying not to sound like a ten-year-old girl.
“Good luck,” he said. I’m pretty sure he meant in the pipeline, not whether I would make it to the urinal or not.
In I went, did my thing, and he inspected my chute upon return. Within minutes I was back to my spot. It was that easy. Army control, exemplified, but it was also a little lesson, and a recurring theme in my military career. I can’t tell you how many times I wished for a catheter tip with a hose, to just run it down my leg and feel that relief.
After I relieved myself and returned to my spot, I realized that I had started something, and other people began getting up too. The black hats got angry, and one of them shouted, “Hey! You guys have to get reinspected!” The boots didn’t care. I’d started a urinal mutiny.
Not long after that, we finally made our way out to load up on the airplane.
We all carried on our backs the T-10, the old-school green army parachute. They look like they are right from World War II. We carried the reserve parachute on our bellies, and that beast was heavy, the harness tight and constricting as hell.
When it was our turn to load onto the airplane, four chalks loaded, two on each side of the aircraft. The airplane would jettison people out of the back, on both sides of the airplane, one after another. It would take two passes over the airfield to get everybody out.
This was the first time I had ever been on a C-130, and I heard the auxiliary generator outside supplying power to the aircraft. We walked up the ramp in formation, four lines, up and into the back of the airplane. We shuttled in and sat down. The cargo area was lined and divided down the middle with green canvas seats, making four rows of canvas seats, one row for each chalk. Two rows for one door, two rows for the other door.
All the compression from the weight and straps makes for an uncomfortable ride on the thin, narrow canvas seats. The aluminum bar cut into the back of my legs and the weight of the parachute pressed down on my guts and bladder. Between the weight and my nerves, if I didn’t feel like I needed to go pee before, I definitely did then.
They shut off the auxiliary generator and started the motors. Those engines on the C-130s are workhorses. The props sprang to life and the whole world started vibrating. I couldn’t help smiling so big my cheeks hurt.
Oh baby! I’m about to jump out of a perfectly good airplane.
C-130s have been around for a long time, and I couldn’t help but wonder where this plane had flown, what action it had seen. I started to feel a bit nervous, but not nervous like I couldn’t do it. This was that nervous excitement before a big race. The difference? I couldn’t believe I was about to jump out of a plane. As my job. This was my job.
At that moment I was the luckiest man in America. Jumping out of airplanes was something that I always wanted to do, but I never really had the guts to go do it on my own, out of personal interest. There was also the fact that I was always broke. Poor people don’t jump out of airplanes on their own dime. To have the opportunity, as my job, was phenomenal and a bit unbelievable to me. I was super stoked to be there. I was not really afraid. I knew I wasn’t going to die or anything like that. But my heart picked up the pace significantly when the jumpmaster gave us our first signal.
I didn’t intentionally put myself into the position I was in, but I happened to be one of the last people to board, so this made me the first person out the door on my side, on the first jump pass. First guy out the door, on my first jump ever. Hell yeah!
“Stand up!” the jumpmaster commanded. He held out his open right hand, fingers pointed toward the ground. He raised his hand halfway, in a sweeping motion, with the palm facing up. Then the jumpmaster made a hook with his index finger and raised it over his head. “Hook up!”
At this point, you hook up the metal clasp you’ve been holding in your lap the whole time, clipping it to a steel wire hanging above you. The metal hook is attached to several feet of one-inch yellow webbing. This webbing, called a static line, is a tether from the airplane to the parachute on your back. When you jump, the static line pays out as you fall from the plane. Once you reach a certain point, that static line yanks the parachute out of the pack tray, deploying it. The static line stays with the aircraft as it flies away. Jumper and parachute deploy together and you float happily to the ground.
That’s the plan.
If the main parachute doesn’t work, you have plan B: the reserve chute on your belly.
If the reserve chute fails?
There is no plan C.
I was first chalk on the first lift. The jumpmaster opened the door. He looked at me and yelled over the roaring wind billowing past, “Are you scared? Come here!” He waved me forward. I stood in the doorway and he grabbed my arm. He faked shoving me out of the plane. “Hey, you scared? You scared?” he asked, grinning.
“No, sir! This is cool! I like this!” I yelled in reply.
I leaned forward and looked out of the aircraft, soaking in the adrenaline. The C-130 cruised along at 130 miles per hour. We flew at 1,200 feet but, for some reason, that seemed closer to the ground than I expected. I thought, I don’t know if there is a lot of room for error. A guy could get hurt or die if something goes wrong here!
I could see people going about their lives below us. I could see the houses. I could make out the individual trees and shrubs. We passed over neighborhoods, schools, and baseball diamonds as we lined up on the drop zone, the DZ. Normal people, living normal lives below. That used to be me. This is crazy.
The flight engineer for the C-130 was air force. Since I was one of the few air force guys on the airplane, he waved to me and yelled, “Hey, man, look at this.” He had his flight suit on, and on his suit he had the classic Velcro name tape. I don’t recall what his name was, but he smiled and then peeled off the Velcro to reveal red embroidered words underneath. It simply read, “STD FREE.” I laughed. My first jump, my first introduction to an air force morale patch— and to aircrew. They can be some seriously goofy people. He slapped me on the back and yelled something about luck.
I moved back to my spot at the door.
The sequence of events goes like this: You jump out of the plane with your feet and knees together like you mean it. You wait for that big tug from the static line. Then you count to three. One. Two.
Three. After the g-forces of the opening sequences slow down, you look up to inspect your canopy and check for twists, or funny looking burbles, or gremlins, or anything crazy. If you see any of that stuff, you’d better try to do something about it, and quick. If you see a really scary mess above your head, you have only a few moments to decide to activate your emergency reserve, and then you ride that sucker down. That’s the name of that game. A little different from what I would learn at free fall school, but that is how it works at Airborne school.
Luckily, I never had to ride the reserve option.
My adrenaline surged. A couple minutes now; weeks of mind- numbing training was on the verge of actually being used. I don’t think I ever thought I would actually get to jump from a plane, and there I was. And since I would be the first one out, I had the privilege of watching the ground below for those final minutes, as we came in on our approach to the drop zone.
The jumpmaster must have sensed how excited and happy I was to be there. He smiled and slapped me on the back. “Get some!” he said.
The jump light turned green and he yelled, “Go!”
This was it.
I took a deep breath and launched.
As we had practiced, I held my chin to my chest. Feet and knees together. Hands on the reserve parachute on my belly. I tumbled down and then felt the jerk of the parachute, the hard yank pulling me into myself. I looked up toward the giant green airplane with men falling out of both sides. One. Two. Three. They streamed out like little ants.
My canopy expanded and untwisted itself, and then I saw them. The risers were all twisted.
Shit! Shit! Shit! This isn’t good! My risers!
I’d say my stomach dropped, but I was dropping with it.
The parachute canopy comes to two connection points, one on each shoulder, and these are the risers. Sometimes they can twist around on each other and make it really difficult to steer, and sometimes the tangled risers can make a descent deadly.
What I saw above me looked like a hammock twisted in on itself. Instead of the lines being open in an umbrella fashion, they were wound tight. The black hats had warned us that this could happen, and for a brief moment my heart thudded rapidly in my chest and I could feel the tinges of panic. Oh no! What is going to happen?
I kept my cool and remembered my training. The black hats had drilled us on how to identify many potential problems while parachuting and how to take rapid, lifesaving action. To deal with this situation, they had taught us to “work it.” You do this by pulling apart the risers near your neck and bicycle kicking.
As soon as I identified the problem, I did just that. I grabbed the risers as high as I could. They had twisted almost completely down the length of the lines, to near my neck. I started bicycle kicking for my life. At the same time, I pulled down and out. Slowly, I began to unwind. Once that started happening, I felt relief. I worked the problem almost until I hit the ground. The world revolved as I spun in circles under the canopy. The risers straightened out and I was able to line up for a landing.
The situation turned out okay, but at the time I wasn’t so sure about my predicament. My training made all the difference, but, I’ll admit, that moment of realization came as a surprise. As much as they taught us, I wasn’t ready for it. But I worked the problem, and the next thing I knew, the ground was coming quick. I could hear the black hats below.
“Feet and knees together, Airborne!” they bellowed at us from the ground. This was a phrase they yelled frequently, and for good reason, as I would learn later in free fall school.
The earth raced up to greet me. I held my feet and knees together and hit the dirt. Hard. This was tilled-up, rocky dirt. There was a road in the middle, and you didn’t want to hit that, but every now and then somebody would. I aimed for the soft dirt. You can steer these particular chutes a little, direct your descent somewhat, but it isn’t like steering a car. You don’t have a whole lot to work with. I managed to hit the plowed-up dirt of the field, but what I missed was enjoying the ride down. Too much of my time in the air had been consumed with the tangled risers.