People...A US CENTCOM Perspective (A Second Place Award Winner in the Tampa Writers Alliance Annual contest nonfiction category)
This is a recollection of a jump with the US Central Command, brought to mind as I listened to General Wayne Downing speak several years ago at an Association of the United States Army luncheon, telling us about US Special Operations Command’s new mission — to combat proliferation of weapons of mass destruction — a real mouthful, and some of the new hardware used in this war. We all laughed when he passed on the crew motto of the new AC-130U with its enhanced sensors and fire control systems. "You can run but you can’t hide; and you will die tired." He spoke further about the new technology used by the force. But soon he got back to the people, reminding me of that sultry summer night over South Florida, and other far and exotic lands.
When I first came to Tampa in 1981, assigned to the Rapid Deployment Task Force and later the US Central Command, I was one of many that had an opportunity to visit those far and exotic lands, expecting that we were fine-tuning for the deployment of forces. First Operation Desert Storm and now Operation Iraqi Freedom, among many, many others less well known, was the results of our efforts.
Almost three thousand men and women stationed with the Commands at MacDill continue to train and deploy on exercises and operations that are exciting, hazardous — and usually tedious after the novelty of exotic locales such as Iraqi Kurdish villages or the Peruvian jungles wears off. This is an account of just one of these training missions. It probably was not as exciting as I remember it now, but paratroopers have a lot in common with fishermen when it comes to telling old tales.
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The feeling of brute force pounded from the airframe up through my feet as the pilot man-handled the powerful C-141 low over the tropic sea. The combination of flying low for an undetected approach and maneuvering the airspeed to put us on the drop zone at the precise instant slewed the plane back and forth across the sky. The pilot’s actions at the controls were transmitted back to the line of paratroopers as an unpredictable series of lurches and jerks as we prepared to jump.
Cold condensation dripping from the air ducts up in the darkness of the cargo compartment soaked the shoulders of my camouflage fatigues. The chin strap locked my jaw tight, the straps across my chest kept my heartbeat under control. The roar of the four engines and the grind of the flap servo motors blocked all attempts to talk. The physical discomfort and the tension of the wait were broken when the jumpmaster stood and began the jump commands, hand signals penetrating the roar. All other thoughts were put aside for the final equipment checks; we all knew one twisted strap or miss-routed static line could be disaster.
Check and count-down completed, the line of troopers were hooked up facing the rear doors, like meat hanging in a locker. Several of the troopers began the chant, "Go, go, go, go....," stomping the deck with each word. It was infectious, even the old hands began to pick up the beat, the cry slowly building in volume until it could be heard over the engines. Down the line a young soldier threw up in a paper bag, then looked around, a sheepish grin on his pale face. No one laughed.
The crewmaster, distinctive in his white flight helmet, stood on the tail ramp in the red glow of the night lights, lips moving as he talked over his headset, words smothered by the roar of the four big turbofans. He flipped his safety line clear and stepped down to the left side door, a cue for the row of men and women to brace. The sudden G-forces dragged the loaded paratroopers toward the deck as the pilot hauled back on the controls, the plane climbing up to jump altitude. Like a group of dancers trying to keep our place in the line, we all swayed together as the plane banked to the north, lights of the coastline passing unseen below.
When the plane leveled off the crewmaster rolled the side doors into the overhead; hot and humid air buffeted the stick of paratroopers as we closed up tight. The looser we were on the plane, the looser we go out, the further apart we are on the ground, putting the end of the stick in the trees, or powerlines, or swamp, or God knows where in the dark. So we compressed to a tight bundle of intense smells.
Almost every trooper was busy, looking up for a final check of the static line clenched in one hand. The other hand was locked over the emergency chute release handle, guarding against a snag and disastrous billow of nylon caught in the gale blowing through the open door. But here and there a trooper stood, seemingly oblivious to the noise and wind, eyes focused in the distance, trusting in God that all was well.
I felt and heard the deceleration as the crew coordinated the dance in the cockpit, flaps extending as the whine of the big fans increased, cutting the airspeed to less than two hundred knots and settling the plane back on its haunches.
The crewmaster put two fingers in the air, a signal that we would be over the drop zone in two minutes. The jumpmaster slid his hands around the doors frames, checking for sharp edges that could slice away a static line, then knelt in the open door, leaning far out into the wind blast, searching for the drop zone lights.
He had the final decision, go or no-go. He stood and gave us a thumbs up. We go.
I was first in line. The jumpmaster pointed at me and then the door, his yell of "Jumper in the door." sucked away by the wind. I stepped up to the edge, the red light a steady glow by my side. Out over the distant sea the heat lightening put on a show, a mosaic of orange lines muted by the intervening clouds. An occasional silver streak brought the hair up on the back of my neck. We were racing the storm to the drop zone.
I braced against the wind, first threatening to suck me out, then trying to push me back off my feet, holding firm with my hands clamped to the sides of the door. The red light registered in the corner of my eye as I focused out into the black night, fractured by the distant lightening. It was too late to care about rain, or lightning, or anything else. The jumpmaster had a death grip on my pack to keep me from jumping before we were over the drop zone. All I wanted was out.
Green light! As I leaped out into the blast I barely heard the jumpmaster's "Go" screamed into the night. No need, it would have taken a steel cable to stop me when the red light turned to green.
Suddenly it was quiet, the howl of the engines diminishing in the heavy night sky. In the distance the lights of a small town glowed through the mist. As I dropped under the thin clouds I could see a stream of lights going up and down a nearby highway.
Relax, relax, I kept telling myself, the ground will be here all too soon. The one constant that a paratrooper can count on is landing. And at night, when the ground is at best a blur of trees and fences and muddy potholes, the thirty seconds or so that you hang suspended from the parachute is enough to remember the jumps of long ago, in other tropic lands. You know better, but unconsciously start watching for green tracers. Now that the roar of the plane is gone, you listen for the voices of the other troopers floating in the air around you, hoping that the soft night is not broken by the pop of small arms fire or the rip of machine gun bursts. Then, with a soft roll, I was on the ground, chute settling down over my head, damp from the light rain that had followed me down, along with a string of open chutes over soldiers, sailors and air men and women.
As General Downey said, "People is what makes technology go."
I looked around me as the others rolled up to the check point. Grins, an occasional scratch or bruise, but:
These are good people.