I have a fear of heights. A clinical fear of heights, I should say. I can reveal in all confidence that my acrophobia is what made me decline the offer to attend Airborne School from my initial visit with an Army recruiter; I would have none of that. I went into the Army because I meant to be there and wanted to be there, not because I had no other place to go. My GT score was high enough that I could have picked any military occupational specialty (MOS) available. I wanted to be in combat arms. I wanted the infantry.

In my first infantry duty assignment, there was petty bickering and fighting among the ranks. There was lying, cheating, malingering, shirking, there were soldiers arrested for illegal drugs and soldiers missing duty call because they were drunk in bed and couldn’t get out. After serving for two years in a peacetime army in a mechanized regular infantry unit with court-directed enlistees and other dead-end ash and trash, I was ready to jump out of an airplane without a parachute if it meant extracting me from my demise.

I made my way through airborne training at Ft. Benning en route to Ft. Bragg to attend the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) at Camp Mackall, North Carolina. Ft. Benning had been a training environment for me and fraught with young men who were unsure of the choice they made to be there. Ft Bragg was more business-oriented and boasted men who had a cause and a mission to fulfill. This place was more like where I felt I wanted to be.

I spent the next eight years with 7th and 1st Special Forces Groups and the Combat Diver Academy in Key West, Florida. Aside from my participation with the diving school, I performed strictly static line parachute operations, during day and night, on land, and in water. Static line parachuting is low level, typically at 1,200 feet, and uses a 20-foot yellow nylon cord to pull out and deploy the olive drab parachute. The jumper need only jump; the static line does the rest. Ultimately, I would find myself completing Delta selection and assessment in West (by God) Virginia, and fully engaged in the six-month Operator’s Training Course (OTC) at “Lamont and McKellars, on the farm, behind the fence, at the Unit.”

Mandatory to the OTC, I knew that I would ultimately have to face the accelerated free fall (AFF) course as a substitute for the longer duration, more formal military free fall (MFF) course in Yuma, Arizona. Such locations in Arizona featured statistically higher good weather days per year than most any other location in the U.S., thus were low in risk of jump days ruined by foul weather. Our AFF course would be an intense training event condensed into just under two weeks, would be taught exclusively by Unit personnel, and was augmented by the vaunted Golden Knights Parachute Team.

Static line parachute operations had been a terrifying experience for me. I would never admit it to my peers, but I couldn’t fathom what effect High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) jumps would have on me. To confess such a fear would take away some of my credibility and cause my brothers in the unit to lose confidence in my courage. Fortunately, OTC was a fast-moving train and I wasn’t left with much time to wring my hands and worry about AFF; I would just have to deal with it as it came.

When it came, it came to Morana, Arizona, another place with consistently clear blue skies, where we all gathered to execute. Many of the Rangers in my OTC class were already MFF qualified and pulled apart from the rest of us novices, who remained embedded in the misery of each other’s company as we gutted out our first jumps. The subset of experienced jumpers just did their own thing and had a blast all day, every day, while the rest of us kissed our rosaries and did that awkward walk to the jump aircraft three or four times a day. As we progressed through the course, we would engage in at least one of every level and configuration of HALO jump operations. I was blessed with a staunch poker face and showed no fear of the jumps, completing all my objectives with a fair level of conviction. I watched other men from time to time flounder a bit, but always recover, like my bud Greg who I witnessed flip and tumble uncontrollable for 8,000 feet before stabilizing.

The day came for the HAHO jump. For this jump we would exit the aircraft at 18,000 feet above ground level (AGL) instead of the usual 12,500 feet. We would fall only long enough to get a flat and stable body position, which usually took a man about five seconds, and immediately pull our ripcords. The result put a paratrooper under parachute canopy at approximately 17,000 feet. At this altitude, a man could travel over a vast distance and remain in the air for an extended period of time. It had its tactical application for sure, but it did indeed leave a jumper exposed for a greater length of time.