Paratroopers bleed the same color – red, white and blue

This year the 82nd Airborne Division is celebrating its 100th anniversary. The 82nd is a great unit, and I learned a lot while serving there. Lessons that have served me well over the years. For a three-week period, I am sharing the top three life lessons I learned while serving as an All-American paratrooper in the 82d Airborne Division. Two weeks ago I wrote about the first lesson – leaders go out the door first. Last week I wrote about the second lesson – train until it hurts. Below you will find the third lesson.

In our country right now, there is a lot of discussion about diversity and division. Racial tensions are high. We are having a debate about our history. Who should we honor? How should our shared past be remembered? What about the Confederacy, and its leaders? What about the founding fathers? Can we have monuments to those who built our country without erasing the ugly parts of US history? How do we move forward without tearing the country apart? Great questions that do not have easy answers. Diversity is a tough and complicated topic. I do not pretend to have all the answers. I do understand diversity because I have seen a successful model before while serving in the 82d Airborne Division which is also known as the All American Division. It was constituted, originally as the 82nd Division 100 years ago, shortly after the US entered into World War I. Since its initial members came from all 48 states, the division acquired the nickname All-American, which is the basis for its famed “AA” shoulder patch that is pictured below.

82d Airborne Division patch
82d Airborne Division patch

When I arrived in 1991 it was still known as the All-American division because its members came from all parts of the US. We had paratroopers from every state, every US territory, various education levels, economic backgrounds, race, gender, creed, and religion. You name it and there was probably someone in the 82d that came from that background. You saw diversity in all parts of the division. I am not going to pretend that everything was perfect. Nostalgic perspectives are not helpful. We had our challenges, but somehow our diversity was not a stumbling block. Rather it was a strength. Everyone brought their best to accomplish the mission. It was an important phase of my life when I learned that people of very different backgrounds can work together successfully. When I reflect on that time I think there are three reasons why diversity was and is a force multiplier in the All-American division.

1. Leadership can be learned – the leaders in the 82d Airborne division come from all walks of life. The first battalion I served in, 1st Battalion of the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, had officers from several sources. There were numerous West Point graduates, many ROTC officers, and prior enlisted soldiers who were commissioned through the Officer Candidate School. The diversity of our Non-Commissioned Officers was even greater. It did not matter much where you came from because leadership is not an inherent trait that only a few possess. There is not an elite segment of American society that provides leaders for the rest of us. No, our leaders come from all over the country. Leadership can be learned. I saw this first-hand in the 82d. I learned about leadership from numerous mentors and watched others learn and grow during their time in the division. We were taught important lessons like leaders set the example, and leaders go out the door first. Leadership lessons that stayed with me over the years. The good news is that any of us can learn to be an effective leader – no matter what you background. If you don’t believe me, then watch this short video.

2. Standards are standards – all US Army paratroopers are expected to meet stringent standards. No one gets any slack. When I say no one, I mean no one. Does not matter if you are enlisted, an NCO, or an officer. Does not matter if you are black, white, yellow, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Wiccan, male, or female. You either meet the standard, or you don’t. If you don’t, then you are sent away. It starts in Airborne school, continues with Jumpmaster school, and various other airborne training events you are required to complete in order to be a member of the All-American Division. These demanding standards cause an interesting effect. It builds trust. You trust everyone else on the plane during a jump because you know that they have what it takes to be a paratrooper. In case you are not familiar with what it takes to become a paratrooper – this video explains the training. It is old but still accurate.

Nowadays it seems like some people are always looking for shortcuts to success – hacks for life. I am a big fan of trying to figure out ways to improve my performance by working smart versus just working hard. Many experts can help teach you better ways of doing things. But, make sure you are not cutting corners to get around standards. They exist for a reason – to make sure you are proficient. You build trust with your team members, and demonstrate that you have what it takes.

3. Paratroopers bleed the same color – red, white and blue. I have served in other US Army units, and they just don’t have the same camaraderie as the All-American Division. It is a special place. My observation is that paratroopers understand that we all wear green uniforms, maroon berets, and bleed the same color. When I was at Fort Bragg, the community experienced several tragic events to include two planes colliding that resulted in the untimely death of numerous paratroopers in the 82d. I recall the sadness of that event and the heroic deeds of many during and after the accident. It was difficult days for the Division. Everyone came together in a special way to make it through. Nothing new for paratroopers – we have been doing this for over 100 years. The current Division Commander recently gave a speech about the unit that is well worth watching. It sums up what I said above. Paratroopers bleed the same color – red, white and blue. Airborne, All the Way!!

Train until it hurts

This year the 82nd Airborne Division is celebrating its 100th anniversary. The 82nd is a great unit, and I learned a lot while serving there. Lessons that have served me well over the years. For a three week period, I plan to share the top three life lessons I learned while serving as an All-American paratrooper in the 82d Airborne Division. Last week I wrote about the first lesson – leaders go out the door first. Below you will find the second lesson.

Lesson two – train until it hurts. The mission of the 82nd Airborne Division is to, within 18 hours of notification, strategically deploy, conduct forcible entry parachute assault and secure key objectives for follow-on military operations in support of U.S. national interests. In other words, the division goes wherever it is needed to deal with the enemies of our country. Simply put – you have to be prepared to deploy anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. You are constantly preparing for war. It is what you do day in, and day out. This short video shows what the 82d does.

I mentioned in my last blog post that my father served in the 82d as an Infantry Lieutenant. When I arrived at Fort Bragg, I did know what I was supposed to do. I was school trained but lacked experience. I had completed the Infantry Officer Basic Course, Ranger School, and Airborne School at Fort Benning and was Jumpmaster certified. I was as prepared as you could be as a young officer but lacked confidence, so I called my dad seeking advice about how to be successful at Fort Bragg. My father emphasized above all else that “if you take care of your troops they will take care of you”. I asked him what is the best thing you can do to take care of troops. His answer was clear – don’t coddle them. Train them hard so that they are prepared for war. You must learn to train until it hurts, and then keep going.

Training became a major emphasis for me. First, I increased my physical training. Paratroopers have to be in shape. Jumping from an airplane can be physically demanding. You must be able to jump with your equipment (which weighs well over 50 pounds with a full combat load) and carry it with you wherever you go after landing. My unit conducted physical training every single morning. We did lots of push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, other calisthenics and ran. We ran a lot – miles and miles every week. I worked for one company commander who had the officers perform physical training separate from our troops. At first, I thought it was odd. Shouldn’t we train with our platoons to make sure they were in top physical condition? He said the NCOs would take care of that – he was right. What I learned is that he trained us even harder than the troops. Many mornings we would start a run without knowing how far we would go. He didn’t know either. We simply ran until he got tired…which felt like never. All this physical training worked. I ended up being in the best shape of my life, fully prepared for the physical demands of airborne operations. I did not enjoy the pain of all that physical training, but it was necessary. As this video shows, running is a tradition for everyone in the 82d Airborne Division.

Next, I focused on operational training. We spent a lot of time in the field and performed many airborne operations. It is difficult to simulate what it is like to jump out of a plane fully loaded with equipment, so we practiced on a regular basis. When I served as the Division Assault CP Commo Platoon Leader my platoon jumped a lot – much more than most units. And when we jumped – it was almost always with our combat equipment. Sometimes a unit will jump with only their parachutes, not their field gear. These jumps are referred to as “Hollywood” jumps. They are worthwhile since you are still performing an airborne operation. But, as you would imagine, they are much easier than combat equipment jumps. My platoon jumped with our equipment because I wanted to make sure they could handle the heavy loads we had to carry. The more practice the better was my approach. Occasionally I would hear grumbles from my platoon, but all that training paid big dividends when we performed full-scale airborne operations. My platoon was always prepared and performed magnificently when it counted. As an added bonus I was able to earn my master parachutist wings in less than four years.

I also pushed the envelope when it came to the equipment we used. We would experiment with our gear to try and get the best performance possible. Once I remember that we were having trouble getting a strong connection with our satellite radios on the drop zone, so we decided to jump in a much larger antenna than normal. The larger antenna would not fit into a normal rucksack or equipment bag. We had to pack it inside a Dragon Missile Jump Pack (DMJP). That meant somebody had to jump the DMJP, so several of us went through the special training required to jump this piece of equipment. In case you are not familiar with what the DMJP looks like – there is a pictures below. It is a big piece of equipment, and awkward to jump.

Dragon Missile Jump Pack
Dragon Missile Jump Pack

Well, it came time for our next airborne operation and it was decided we would jump the larger antenna. I volunteered to jump the DMJP since leaders go out the door first. Man was that jump an adventure. I immediately went into a rapid spin after exiting the aircraft door. My risers were twisted all the way down to my neck. I bicycle kicked and pulled at my risers to clear the twists. That step seemed to take forever. It was hard for me to tell how high off the ground I was. I decided to go ahead and lower my ruck and then the DMJP to avoid landing with it which would have been painful. When the DMJP reached the end of my lowering line I started oscillating more than normal. Swinging back and forth like a pendulum – not good for landing. I heard my equipment hit the ground and I hit next. Ugly landing – hit like a ton of bricks. Damn that hurt. I stowed my chute, and then humped my way over to our assembly point. The antenna worked well and the operation was successful.

Afterwards several of my troops asked me about the jump. How did it go? I lied and told them that it went fine and the landing did not hurt much. Why would I stretch the truth…because I had been taught to train until it hurts, and then keep going. What can you learn from this lesson? Training counts and makes a big difference. Figure out what kind of training you need to be successful, and then get after it. One final thought – don’t jump the DMJP. It sucks – trust me. All the Way!

Leaders go out the door first

This blog post is my 82nd one. The number 82 has a special meaning in my life. When I hear the number 82, I think of one thing…the 82 Airborne Division also known as the All-American Division. This year the 82nd Airborne Division is celebrating its 100th anniversary. The division was created way back in WWI. It is a famous unit with a storied history. It also has a special place in my family’s history. My father served in the 82nd Airborne after graduating from West Point. It was his first duty assignment as an Infantry Officer. Many years later I followed in his footsteps. I joined the 82nd in 1991 as an Infantry Officer. My first assignment was rifle platoon leader in Bravo Company, 1/325 AIR. After that role, I transferred to the Signal Corps and joined the 82 Signal Battalion. While there I served as a Signal Node Platoon Leader, Division Assault CP Platoon Leader. Yes – I was a platoon leader three different times. I finished my time at Bragg as a Company Executive Officer. These jobs were with the same unit, A Company, 82 Signal Battalion. The 82nd is a great unit, and I learned a lot while there. Lessons that have served me well over the years. For the next three weeks, I plan to share the top three life lessons I learned while serving as an All-American paratrooper in the 82d Airborne Division. Below you will find the first one.

Lesson one – leaders go out the door first. The 82d has a somewhat unique culture, full of traditions that have been created over the years. One tradition regarding their leaders is that they jump first during airborne operations. This tradition started back in WWII. What does that mean – leaders jump first. Basically, the most senior leader of any airborne operation will go out the door first, before anyone else. For example, if the Commander of the 82d (a two-star general) is part of a jump, he will jump first followed by the rest of the paratroopers. During WWII legendary commanders like Matthew Ridgway and James Gavin jumped and fought along side their paratroopers. No cushy office for them. This act is not one of privilege, but rather of leadership in action. This tradition visibly shows all the paratroopers in the plane that you are willing to lead them by jumping first. The 82d expects danger when they jump into combat. Its leaders are expected to face this danger first. This tradition clearly demonstrates that the leaders are willing to do what they are asking their followers to do. It is a powerful way to show others that I am with you and fully committed, just like you.

General James Gavin getting ready to jump
General James Gavin getting ready to jump

I learned this lesson firsthand while serving as the Division Assault CP Platoon Leader. My platoon’s mission was to support the Division Command Group with communications capabilities. We jumped in the radio equipment the Divison Commander and other senior leaders used on the drop zone during airborne operations. Many times we jumped from the same plane as the Division Commander. He would go out the door first, followed by his Aide, and then members of my platoon. For larger airborne operations that involved many planes, my platoon would be split into small groups and jump from several different aircraft. Usually, we would be one of the first to leave the plane so that we would land near the command group members. I remember one mission where jumping first was somewhat troubling to me. For this operation, we were jumping into Puerto Rico. The drop zone was not big so we jumped from C-130s. The Division Commander was in the first plane. I was in the second plane and would be the first jumper from that aircraft. Everything en route went fine. As we approached the Puerto Rico, the Jumpmaster gave me the command to “stand in the door”. That means I am positioned in the door, waiting for the jump light to turn green. When it does, you jump. Usually, you stand in the door for less than 30 seconds. As you stand in the door of a C-130 you can see out of the aircraft. When I looked out I noticed a potential problem – all water, no land. I am a good swimmer, but I certainly did not want to experience a water landing. I peered at the jump light – it was still red. Thank God. I watched and waited, hoping that the light would not turn green until we were over land. I kept waiting for what seemed like well over a minute. Eventually, I saw land, then the drop zone, green light, and I jumped, followed by my fellow paratroopers. What I learned later was that the jumpmasters decided to put the first jumpers in the door earlier than normal because there was real concern that all the jumpers would not be able to exit the aircraft in time because the drop zone was so small. They did not want any paratrooper to miss the drop zone, and have to ride all the way back to Fort Bragg.

After the operation was complete I thought to myself what would have happened if the light had turned green while we were still over water. I knew the answer – I would have jumped. I would have done what paratroopers have been trained to do for decades. The light turns green, and then you jump. I could not turn to the paratrooper behind me and say why don’t you go first, it looks kind of dangerous with all that water. No – I had been trained as a leader in the 82d that you jump first, and deal with whatever happens next. You lead from the front, not from the rear. That lesson has served me well in many other situations. Sometimes when I find myself in a somewhat scary situation I think of my days in the 82d, and what it taught me as a leader. You go out the door first. Airborne.

For more about the 100th Anniversary, see this video below from All-American Week.

Master your craft – lessons from a Jumpmaster

This week our country celebrated the 73rd anniversary of D-Day. Despite many challenges the invasion was successful and turned the tide of WWII. Many brave men participated in this operation to include multiple US Army Airborne Divisions. Paratroopers actually jumped into France the day before D-day to secure critical roads, bridges, and other strategic objectives. Their bravery, valor, and courage contributed greatly to the success of the invasion.

My first duty assignment as a brand new Army Infantry Officer was with the 82 Airborne Division. My job title was rifle platoon leader, and one of my roles was serving as a Jumpmaster. A Jumpmaster’s job is to make sure all the paratroopers aboard the planes exit the aircraft safely so that they can land and complete their assigned mission. Jumpasters play a critical role in every airborne operation. It is expected that all leaders in the 82d complete Jumpmaster training, and serve in that role. I learned a lot as a Jumpmaster. Below are the top three lessons.

1. Master your craft. The title Jumpmaster says it all. You are expected to become a master parachutist. Jumpmasters are required to complete intense special training to earn the title. The training includes multiple hands-on tests during which you have to clearly demonstrate you know your stuff. I remember being extremely nervous before one of my exams because so many students did not pass it. Once you complete that training, you are required to serve as a Jumpmaster on a regular basis so that your skills stay current. Over time, Jumpmasters earn special awards (senior parachutist badge, and master parachutist badge) to recognize their expert skills and experience. I think it is important that you master your craft over time. Become the best that you can at whatever it is you decide to do. Don’t be satisfied with just getting by.

2. Realistic rehearsals enhance execution. Before every airborne operation Jumpmasters walk everyone that is jumping that day through several realistic rehearsals. The first rehearsal takes the paratroopers through the steps involved when jumping. As the Jumpmaster talks the paratroopers simulate exactly what will happen to them during the jump. The rehearsal also covers things that could happen such as your parachute does not open, or you have to land in the trees. In case you are wondering – tree landings are scary. Next, everyone practices landing…BTW it usually hurts when you land. After that, all jumpers practice “actions in the aircraft” as a group. During this step, you literally rehearse everything that happens in the air on the ground. The reality is that everyone has jumped before, so you are not teaching anything new. Rather, you are practicing as a group so that every jumper knows exactly what they are supposed to do once you get in the air. No one wants any surprises in the aircraft.

I have jumped over 50 times, and I can tell you that all these rehearsals work well to enhance execution. On more than one occasion something went wrong in the aircraft, or during the jump. For one operation the Air Force pilots flew along the edge of the drop zone thinking that the wind would blow us over the target. It didn’t. In fact the opposite happened. Every jumper was forced to land in the trees. After exiting the aircraft, I gave the pilots a middle finger salute thanking them for their incompetence, and then executed all the steps required for a successful tree landing. I recommend that you use realistic rehearsals to enhance execution in your own life. Practice every step as realistically as you can. It will pay dividends. I know from my own experience that rehearsing before any presentation is a really good idea. It prevents gremlins from showing up.

3. Confidence calms fears. Jumpmaster are trained to be calm at all times in the aircraft. You job is to set the example for the jumpers to follow. Jumping out of a perfectly good plane at 800 feet with over 50 pounds of equipment, many times at night, is not a natural act. In case that does not scare you – every piece of equipment used in the operation, to include the plane, was built by the lowest bidder. It makes perfect sense for every jumper to have fear and/or anxiety as you prepare to jump. I know that I was nervous during every jump I ever made.

To counter this fear, the Jumpmasters guide the paratroopers through a series of steps using loud and clear commands. The way it works is that the Jumpmaster yells the commands to all the jumpers along with a visual signal. The paratroopers all echo back the command indicating they heard it, and then perform the action. These steps are completed so that everyone is ready to jump when the doors open. Once the doors open, the Jumpmaster inspects it and gets the first jumper ready. The pilot will turn on the green light and everyone exits the aircraft. It sounds simple, but it can be scary. Reality definitely hits you when the doors open and the light turns green. No time for fear at that point.

The final lesson to learn from this old Jumpmaster is that it is okay to have fear. What you do with that fear is important. If you master your craft, and conduct realistic rehearsals, then you will have the confidence needed to overcome any fear. You will be able to jump when the time comes.

For anyone who is not familiar with airborne operations – this video is a nice summary. All the Way, Airborne!!

If you only have a minute, try this one. It is about Jumpmasters.