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IN THE BEGINNINGCopyright 2002 by Eric Haney
"C-One-Thirty rollin' down the strip,
Airborne Ranger on a one-way trip.
Mission unspoken, destination unknown,
Airborne Ranger ain't never comin' home!"
Ranger Running Cadence
The C-130 transport plane bucked and shook side to side like a malevolent rodeo bull. It's going to be a helluva ride till we can get out of this baby, I thought as the big iron bird descended to jump altitude. Then the plane leveled out, and the bouncing and shivering, though still severe, took on a slightly more predictable tempo.
Now it was time. Barely able to move, encased in the weight of parachute, rucksack, equipment harness, and rifle, I lurched to my feet, hooked the parachute's static line to the overhead steel cable, and turned to face the forty other Rangers still seated on the red nylon benches that ran down the sides and center of the aircraft.
I looked at the Air Force loadmaster as he spoke into his microphone and watched for the red jump light to come on. Then, with a sudden whoosh followed by a deafening roar, he and his assistant slid the jump doors into the opened and ready position. Wind howled through the plane and whipped at my legs as I glanced across the plane to my assistant jump master, Sergeant Allie Jones. He nodded that he was ready, and it began.
I looked back down the line of expectant men seated in front of me, gave the fuselage floor a powerful stamp with my left foot, threw my hands and arms into the air with my palms facing the men, and yelled at the top of my lungs, "Get ready!"
The men unbuckled their seat belts, focused their attention on my assistant and me on theother side of the plane, and sat upright in their seats, ready for the next command.
"Outboard personnel. Stand up!" I shouted, as I pointed to the men seated against the skin of the aircraft. They struggled to their feet in spite of the plane's wild lurching, and when they were in line facing me, I continued the jump commands.
"Inboard personnel. Stand up!" I pointed with extended arms and hands to the men still seated on the centerline seats. With help from their standing comrades, they got to their feet, and the two groups formed into a continuous line.
The plane was bouncing and rattling now like an old truck hurtling over a washboarded dirt road, and it was all the men could do to keep their balance. I hope no one starts throwing up. If they do it'll spread like wildfire, and the floors will become slippery and dangerous. But this was a veteran bunch of jumpers and no one became airsick, even though the ride was getting worse now that we were on the jump run.
"Hook up!" I called, extending my arms high overhead and making crooks of my index fingers.
Only the first few men in line could hear the commands and understand my voice over the roaring blast coming in the open doors, but everyone could see the hand and arm signals of the jump commands, and it was a code they knew by heart. In unison the jumpers detached their static line clips from the top of their reserve parachutes, snapped them in place on the overhead steel cable running the length of the fuselage, and inserted the safety wire though the sliding lock.
I slid my fingers back and forth over imaginary steel cables. "Check static lines!"
Every man checked his own static line and then the line of the man in front of him. This was the crucial check; a fouled static line could kill you.
With exaggerated movements I patted the front of my chest with both hands. "Check equipment!"
Each Ranger checked his helmet, his reserve parachute, his rucksack and lowering line, and his weapon, making sure everything was securely and properly fastened.
I placed cupped hands behind my ears and shouted, "Sound off for equipment check!"
Beginning with the last man in the rear of the plane, the response came up the line, each Ranger slapping the ass of the man in front of him and yelling into his ear, "Okay!" I heard the muffled reply faintly at first, but it gathered power and speed as the call rippled up the line, until the man directly in front of me threw out his hand with the circled fingers of the "okay" signal, stamped his foot on the aluminum floor, and shouted, "All okay!"
Now I turned to the open jump door. I checked to make sure my rucksack was securely tied to my upwind leg. Then I took a firm hold of the door frame with my right hand and ran my left hand down the other edge of the door, making sure there was no sharp edge that might cut a static line. Next I kicked the side locks of the jump platform and gave it a stomp with one foot to make sure it was secure.
Satisfied that all was well with the door, I slid my legs forward, hooked my toes over the outer edge of the platform, and with a white-knuckled grip on the frame of the door, arched my back and shoved my entire body outside the plane to perform the first air safety check.
The 120-mile-per-hour wind tore at my clothes and equipment and tried to wrest the plane from my tenuous grasp, but I hung on with determination. I still had a job to perform, and we were miles short of the drop zone.
First I looked forward to orient myself and then I checked for the position of the other planes. Then I looked up to make sure no one was above us, and toward the rear to make certain no one was back there. We were the last plane in the flight, and I was glad to see the other birds all in their proper position. I tilted my head down just a bit so the brim of my helmet helped cut the wind from my eyes and then concentrated on the ground ahead as I looked for the checkpoints that told me we were approaching Fort Stewart, Georgia, and Taylor's Creek Drop Zone.
In the distance ahead, I caught sight of the huge DZ, showing as a rectangular slab of white sand and scrub brush in an endless green forest. I watched its steady approach, and when it was just in front of the plane's nose, I wrenched myself back inside, pointed to the open doorway, and shouted to the first man in line the phrase that thrills every paratrooper, "Stand in the door!"
The human energy in the plane crackled as the soldier threw his static line into my waiting hand, put his feet on the jump platform, and grasped the outside of the shuddering door frame. Knees cocked like levers, arms tensed, he looked with steady eyes straight out the wind-blasted and howling door, waiting for the ultimate command. An eighteen-year-old private first class, Ricky Magee was the youngest jumper in the plane, but he was showing the steady courage of an old hand.
I held him by his parachute harness and looked around the front of his chest as the drop zone slid under the belly of the plane, then I looked back inside just in time to see the red light extinguished and the green light come on in its place.
It was as if a switch had been thrown. My right arm felt electric as I swung it sharply forward, gave the jumper a stinging slap low on the back of his thigh, and yelled into his ear, "Go!"
He sprang out the door like he'd been shot from an automatic cannon, while behind him a human conveyor belt of fresh ammo rushed for the breach of the exit door.
Slap, "Go!" Slap, "Go!" Slap, "Go!"
The rapidly shortening line of men disappeared from sight as the wildly lunging plane, a thousand feet above the ground, disgorged its human cargo into the ether. Like Jonahs from the belly of the whale. As the last man hurled himself into space, I looked out the plane and back down at the descending jumpers to make sure no one was hung up on the plane and being dragged to his death.
Satisfied that all was okay, I looked to my assistant in the other doorway who had been doing the same thing. He shouted across to me, "Clear to the rear!"
I gave him a thumbs-up and answered "Clear!" then pointed a finger at him and yelled, "Go!"
He turned to the door, hesitated the split second he needed to take a good door position, and then launched himself from view. I quickly checked outside and below to see that he had a chute over his head, glanced at the still green jump light, and rocketed myself out the door into the full blast of the air.
Tight body position. Feet and knees pressed together, hands grasping the ends of the reserve chute, head down with my chin tucked into my chest, I counted.
One thousand! Two thousand! A hard tug at my back as the parachute was jerked from its pack. Three thousand! The drag of the elongated but still unopened chute acted as an air brake, immediately slowing my forward movement, tilting my back toward the earth, and I watched as the tail of the plane sailed past over the tips of my boots.
Four thousand! A full parachute. Feet once again pointed toward the ground, I checked the canopy. It looked good. No tears in the green fabric and no lines out of place. And after the overwhelming noise inside the airplane, the world is suddenly silent.
I grabbed the handles of the control lines and pulled them down to the level of my helmet as I quickly looked all around for other jumpers. Ah, plenty of clear air. I checked for the direction of smoke on the drop zone and then let the parachute fly so that I could also gauge the direction of the wind up here. I let the canopy run with the wind, I was a long way from the assembly point and I wanted the parachute to take me as close as it possibly could.
Two hundred feet above the ground I bent my knees so my rucksack would have a ramp to slide off. I reached down and pulled the quick-release tabs to the rucksack and felt it drop free until it hit the end of the twenty-foot lowering line with a yank. The tall Georgia pines at the side of the drop zone drifted lazily upward, and when I was level with their tops, I faced the canopy into the wind and prepared to land.
Shove the rifle over so that it's not under my armpit or it'll bend the barrel and dislocate my shoulder when I hit the ground. Legs slightly bent, feet and knees together, elbows in front of the face, hands even with the top of the helmet . . . and relax. Now the ground came hurtling upward with amazing speed and the rucksack hit with a solid thunk. Relax, relax, relax . . .
At a speed of twenty-two feet per second, I made jolting impact with the earth. Balls of the feet, calves, sides of the thighs, ass, and backs of the shoulders making contact in a practiced rolling sequence that spread the energy of the controlled crash across the length of my body. I heard, as from a distance, the thump and jangle of equipment as my load and I completed our short flight and sudden landing. And then it was over.
Everything still works. And any parachute landing is a good one if you can get up and walk away. I came to rest, shucked myself out of the harness, and ran to the canopy to fold and stow it away before a puff of wind could inflate it again. I quickly stuffed my chute into its kit bag, donned my gear, and set out at a fast trot to rejoin my company.
Today we had a rare and unexpected treat. Following an exercise, we usually road-marched the twenty miles from the drop zone back to the barracks. But we were returning from a long and arduous month in the jungles of Panama. And we had a lot of work ahead of us cleaning and turning in weapons and equipment, so the colonel had us trucked back to camp instead.
Four hours later everything was accounted for and back in its proper place. The formation came to attention, the first sergeant called, "Dismissed!" and with a thundering "Hoo-ah!" the 158 men of Charlie Company, 1st Ranger Battalion, were released for a well-deserved three-day weekend.
I watched my platoon as it immediately disintegrated into individuals and small groups of buddies. I was about to walk away when Glenn Morrell, the battalion command sergeant major, called me to his side.
"Sergeant Haney, I want you to report to the battalion conference room and meet someone who'd like to speak with you."
"Certainly, Sergeant Major," I said. "Who is it?"
"He's an old friend of mine, and I think you'll find what he has to say pretty interesting," he replied with the lopsided smile that habitually adorned his rugged face. "He's waiting for you now."
"Wilco, Sergeant Major. I'm on my way." And with a salute I moved out sharply in the direction of battalion headquarters.
I thought the world of Sergeant Major Morrell. A practical yet deeply thoughtful man, he is that very rare combination of action and intellect.
Morrell had come to us the previous year after our former sergeant major, Henry Caro, had been killed on a parachute jump. With the battalion's reputation as a hardship posting, no other sergeant major in the Army would come to join us. When Morrell heard that no Ranger-qualified sergeant major would accept the assignment, he volunteered and at age forty-two attended Ranger School so he could accept the posting as command sergeant major. He was as hard as woodpecker lips and he had my utter respect. If he wanted me to meet Beelzebub himself, I was confident it was all for the best.
The meeting in the conference room turned out to be an interview to attend tryouts for a secretive new unit that was forming at Fort Bragg, the one we had been hearing rumors about. The man I spoke with was tall and broad-shouldered, with dark, well-combed hair, penetrating brown eyes, and a hint of tin-roof twang in his voice. He was dressed in civvies, never gave his name, and told me damn little about his organization. I later came to know him as Sergeant Major William "Country" Grimes, the man handpicked by Colonel Charlie Beckwith to be his sergeant major.
He had my personnel records open on the table in front of him and he glanced at them occasionally as we talked about my career, about the units I had been in and the assignments I had held to that point. He told me this was a chance to be a charter member of a unit that would be unique in the American militarythe nation's first unit dedicated to fighting international terrorism.