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The C-119 cargo plane sat on the airstrip at Fort Benning, its engines whining. The smell of the aircraft's exhaust filled my nostrils. It looked like a large rectangular box with curved corners and two long tails protruding toward the rear. Now I understood why it was nicknamed the "flying boxcar." I wondered how the hell something configured in that shape could possibly fly. It was my first parachute jump, and I was mentally rehashing all of the jump procedures that had been taught over the past two weeks.
The jumpmaster screamed out, "Roster number sixty-seven!"
I responded automatically, "Here, Sergeant!"
He pointed his finger at the ground. "This is your position in the stick."
I quickly placed myself in line and snapped to attention as best I could while wearing the parachute. "Clear, Sergeant. Airborne!"
I couldn't believe my luck. I was positioned as third from last man to jump. What a relief! All weekend I had dreaded being the first man in the door. I was afraid of heights and didn't want to stand in the door and look down at the ground for any length of time. I had flown in a plane only once in my life, and that had scared the hell out of me.
After a few moments, my stick boarded the left side of the aircraft and we took our seats. The cabin held forty-two jumpers, so we were packed like sardines. In no time I felt the perspiration building inside the sweatband of my helmet and on my hands.
The plane raced down the runway, its engines shrieking. I could barely hear myself speak to the guy sitting next to me. Jolting forward, the aircraft quickly increased speed. The rapid acceleration thrust my upper torso toward the rear. We were airborne in a matter of seconds. Everyone on board was solemn.
The plane repeatedly vaulted and swayed, making the flight to the drop zone especially rough. During a previous class, one of the instructors had said he was more afraid of riding in a C-119 than of jumping out of one. As the plane continued to bounce and weave about the sky, I began to understand the significance of his comment.
The jumpmaster opened the door, releasing a deafening roar of wind. I was overwhelmed by the sound of the blast; it was much louder than I had imagined it would be. A brilliant light from the outside invaded the cabin.
The jumpmaster rendered the six-minute warning. Moments later, he thrust both his palms straight out in our direction and shouted the first jump command, "Get ready!" We had rehearsed the jump commands so many times, the response was instantaneous. Everyone slapped their hands to their knees and placed one foot forward. Although I couldn't hear his next command, I could see the jumpmaster rotate his arms into the air, gesturing the second command, "Stand up!"
I was somewhat surprised by the feebleness in my legs as I rose to my feet. As the jumpmaster continued the jump-command sequence, the time it took us to carry out his instructions seemed much faster than when in training. I thought, this is it; the moment we've all trained so hard for.
In no time I heard the command I had eagerly awaited but also dreaded: "Go!"
The first student left the plane. The rest of us started shuffling toward the door. I heard the snap hooks scraping and banging against the anchor-line cable and the jumpmaster repeatedly yelling "Go!" My mouth was dry, my lips sticking together. Now only three students were left in front of me. As the light at the door rapidly approached, I gaped at the brightness. The man in front of me leaped into the open space. I stared in amazement as his body was momentarily suspended in the air, then violently swept away.
It was my turn; my heart was pounding. Determined to jump on command, I hurriedly positioned myself in the door. The moment I'd imagined for so long was about to occur. I stared out into the blue sky and clouds and awaited the tap that would send me leaping into the air. Suddenly the jumpmaster waved his hand in front of my face.
Stunned and confused, I wondered if I had done something wrong. He shouted in my ear, "Ran out of drop zone, gonna have to make another go-around. Just relax and stay where you are."
In any other setting I would have laughed over the irony of the situation. Here I was, on my first parachute jump, afraid of heights, standing in the door, 1,250 feet in the air, and this guy is telling me to relax and not to go anywhere. I stared out to the horizon and tried not to look down. That proved impossible as the plane banked on my side, causing me to face the earth horizontally. I wondered why I wasn't falling out and concluded that centrifugal force must be holding me in place, the way it did on amusement park rides. Then I wondered why I was even worried about falling out since I had a parachute on anyway. I let out a sigh of relief as the plane leveled again. The jumpmaster must have sensed my nervousness. "Are you scared, trooper?"
"Good. As long as you're scared, you won't screw up."
The plane banked again, then leveled off. The jumpmaster pointed to a patch sewn on the left pocket of his field jacket. It was a large, colorful patch, backgrounded in black, with a yellow winged torch and a bright red flame streaking across it. "Do you know what this is?"
"This is a Pathfinder badge."
It was a beautiful patch. As a matter of fact, it was the most colorful patch I had ever seen in the army. At that precise moment, however, I really didn't care. Didn't he realize that in a few minutes I could be dead? I peeked down at the ground and saw how small the trees appeared; I immediately stared back at the horizon again. He pointed to the ground below. "Do you see those trees?"
"Yes, Sergeant!" My eyes were watering from the wind, but hoping he might relate something of importance I would need to know, I strained to take a long look.
"That's where Pathfinders jump, in the trees. If you're lucky enough, someday you might be a Pathfinder."
"Yes, Sergeant!" I yelled in a soldierly manner. I thought to myself, Are you kidding? I'll be lucky just to make it through the next few minutes.
I felt the jumpmaster's tap as he yelled, "Go!"
Unhesitatingly, I leaped out the door. My body reacted unconsciously as a result of endless hours of jump-school indoctrination.
"One thousand . . ." I heard myself counting above the roar of the wind. The blast threw my legs up above me; I felt my body swirl through the sky. On the count of "four thousand," I came to an abrupt stop as the canopy snapped open. I glanced upward, observing the plane streaking away a few hundred feet above me. God, what a sight! I checked the canopy for tears or holes, then viewed the drop zone below. It was very quiet; everything seemed peaceful and serene. I felt like I was on top of the world, and I didn't want to come down. It was an exhilarating feeling. At that moment, I knew I wanted to continue jumping, maybe even for the rest of my life.
Our second parachute jump was that afternoon. Everyone was swapping jump stories as we trucked to the barracks. Crescendos of laughter followed each tale, and they became more extravagant as time went on. I was beginning to understand the deep camaraderie I'd heard existed among Airborne soldiers. I felt I had finally discovered my niche in life.
On the third jump I hit the ground really hard. The winds were high, and I came smashing in to the rear. I didn't have my chin tucked in tight as I'd been instructed; therefore, my head slammed into the ground. I stood up, fixed in a daze until a medical jeep arrived. The medics asked me simple questions, but I couldn't remember anything. It immediately became apparent that I had sustained a concussion along with some form of amnesia.
A medevac (ambulance helicopter) flew me off the drop zone to Martin Army Hospital. I had been there a few hours awaiting X rays when an injured sergeant arrived. He appeared to have a broken leg. There was something strangely familiar about him. I continued to stare at him, trying to remember where I had seen him before. In minutes my mind cleared. I recognized him as one of my classmates. Instantly, my memory returned. I pleaded with the doctor to release me. The last thing I needed was to be recycled and not graduate with my class. The doctor tried to convince me to stay, but I guess he felt sorry for me, because he let me go. I had a hell of a headache, but I made damn sure I had my chin tucked in on the following two jumps.
Graduation day came at the end of Jump Week. Of the one thousand students beginning Class 27, a little over five hundred made it to graduation. Someone barked loudly over the intercom that all students were to fall out of the barracks and load up on the trucks for transport to Infantry Hall for the graduation ceremony. Everyone looked very sharp in their dress greens, showing off glider patches and spit-shined jump boots.
I was climbing onto the truck when I heard my name called. I was ordered to report to the 43d Company orderly room to the first sergeant. I had never reported to a first sergeant before and felt anxious as I stood at attention in front of his desk. First Sergeant Donovan then proceeded to render me a royal ass-chewing for having gotten hurt on his drop zone. After he was finished, he instructed me to get the hell out of his office at a double time if I wanted to graduate. I ran through the doorway before he had a chance to change his mind. As I was fleeing, I detected a slight grin on the first sergeant's face. When I got outside, I had no problem climbing onto the bed of the truck since I was ten pounds lighter in my fourth point of contact.
The days that followed consisted of two or three formations a day, during which one of the cadre would yell out assignments. After the roll call, those who had orders threw their duffel bags onto trucks and were driven to an out-processing facility.
It was early March 1967, and the majority of assignments were to Vietnam with the 173d Airborne Brigade or the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division. By the end of the second day most of my classmates had shipped out. I was becoming increasingly concerned that I might not be sent to Vietnam. Although I had graduated from high school and completed basic, infantry, and airborne training, I had not yet reached my eighteenth birthday. I thought that my age had somehow held me back from receiving a combat assignment.
On the morning of the third day, the TAC (teach, access, and counseling) sergeant called off twelve names; mine was among them.
"You cherries be back here in one hour wearing clean fatigues and spit-shined boots. You shitbirds are going to be interviewed for an assignment right here at Fort Benning."
I couldn't believe it. I knew it! I knew I'd get screwed out of going to Vietnam. But why? It couldn't be just because I was seventeen; the rest of the guys standing with me were all eighteen or over. I stared at each one of them, trying to determine what we might all have in common. Damned if I knew. I'd figure something out. I didn't join the paratroops to sit out the war at Fort Benning, Georgia.
An hour later we marched a mile down the road to a wooden, World War II-vintage building. Above the front door was a large scroll that read: 187 pathfinder det. I immediately became apprehensive. First of all, I didn't want to be stationed Stateside and miss out on the war. Second, I didn't want to spend the rest of my time parachuting into trees and clearing paths with a machete. I thought I would decline the interview but I was afraid that if I voiced my opinion, I'd piss off the TAC sergeant. So I thought, What the hell? I'll go along for the ride. Besides, I won't get selected anyway.
I didn't have to wait long; I was picked first to report inside. I stepped into the room. Behind a long table sat a lieutenant, a staff sergeant, and two buck sergeants. I was struck by the age of the lieutenant. At first I thought I'd read his rank wrong. He was much older than the others.
"Private Burns reports as ordered, sir."
The lieutenant addressed me. "Have a seat, Private. Do you know why you are here?"
I tried not to appear nervous as I answered, "Not really, sir!"
"Well, six of our men have received orders for Vietnam, and we need replacements. We have decided to interview you based on your aptitude scores. Do you know what kind of unit we are?"
I was pretty sure it was a Pathfinder unit because of the scroll over the front door, and each person on the panel had a Pathfinder badge on his left breast pocket. I was confused, however, since each had a black baseball hat with airborne wings attached. I thought only the jump instructors wore black hats. I took a guess. "I believe you're a Pathfinder unit, sir."
"That's correct. Do you know what Pathfinders do?"
Now I took advantage of the opportunity to impress him with my vast knowledge. I remembered the words of the jumpmaster on my first jump. "Well, sir, I do know that you jump into trees."
A roar of spontaneous laughter erupted among the panel members. I certainly didn't know what was so hilarious. The staff sergeant said something to the lieutenant like, "I don't believe it!" After they regained their composure, the lieutenant, still chuckling, responded, "Well, unfortunately, I have to admit you're right; we do have a tendency to land in the trees at times."
The staff sergeant grinned over at the lieutenant. He then stared back at me, his expression suddenly becoming serious. "I'll tell you what Pathfinders do. Pathfinders are the first in and the last out. That's the Pathfinder motto!"
"We work in two- or three-man teams, sometimes even alone. We either parachute, rappel, or helicopter into an area to guide the rest of the forces into the drop or landing zone." He pointed to the flaming torch embroidered on his Pathfinder badge. "That's what this torch symbolizes, we light the way for the rest of the Airborne."