I have been standing here now for two hours in this cold, dark field. It is about 35 degrees outside. My fingers are starting to go numb and my eyes are heavy. I look around for familiar faces and wait for everyone to arrive. All that can be seen is the soft glow of cigarettes and street lights in the distance. I think about all of the things I was supposed to bring, quickly checking my pockets for reassurance.
As more and more people show up, leaders start to organize everyone into groups and call off names from a roster. Everyone’s equipment is checked for accountability and serviceability. Eventually the trucks show up to cheers and excitement. We quickly move all of our gear and get it loaded inside the trucks. Afterwards, we all file on to a school bus that is barely warmer than outside and let our bodies rest. Most of us quickly fall asleep, snoring and moaning. Others tell jokes and make small talk while some, including myself, stare blankly into the distance.
A few short moments, or was it hours later, the bus stopped and the driver turns the lights on. We eventually all get off of the bus and onto the snow covered parking lot. We quickly moved inside a large building, where we were greeted by hundreds of others. The atmosphere was chaotic and busy. We were received and quickly directed to our specific seating areas. The building was filled with columns of large wooden benches. We were called up to the front of the room where we received several briefs, as well as our time line for the next few hours.
I spent some time talking to my people, making sure everybody was on the same page and was doing the right things. A large, single file line began to form on the opposite side of the room and people shuffled about. Eventually it was our row’s turn to join the line. We got up and shuffled into a side room, where we each received our parachute and weapons case.
We got back to our seats and hastily rigged up our equipment and helped each other don parachutes. Once people had their gear on and were ready for inspection, myself and other jumpmasters would roam the room and do our Jumpmaster Personnel Inspection (JMPI) of the Soldiers. This is a very specific sequence of events that leaves no room for error. Once we were done inspecting the Soldier and his equipment, and were satisfied that there were no deficiencies, we would sign our names off on the persons 3x5 index card. This was our seal of approval, and a way to keep accountability of the inspection process. No pressure, just someone’s life in your hands. The slightest mistake or overlooking of a deficiency could cause major issues once airborne.
Once everyone was ready, we loaded up into our respective aircraft. In this case, a C-17 Globemaster that holds nearly 100 paratroopers. Following a short brief with the jumpmasters, pilots, and loadmasters, we took our seats and prepared to take off. This is where things get real. You realize that, besides some sort of weather hazard or emergency, the only way you are leaving that aircraft is through the small troop door on the side, 1000 feet in the air. You can usually tell who the experienced people are, and who is still relatively new at this. Anxious faces, restlessness, and small talk fill the air.
We take off and are able to sleep, however uncomfortably, for the next hour or so. Those asleep are awoken to the jumpmaster’s commands. We received a ten minute warning and move to our feet, 100 pounds of equipment and ruck sack weighing us down and grinding on our shoulders. The doors open up and the cabin is filled with freezing wind and a loud roar. It all happens so quickly. Your heart races with excitement, no matter how many times you have done this before. Your brain focuses on a proper exit and you give the jumpmaster all of your attention. Then you start to think about what ifs. Is my harness on right? Is it too loose? What if it doesn’t open? I look calm and collected, smiling at my buddy. We fist bump and nod at each other. We receive the last of our commands and the file of Soldiers in front of me start moving towards the door. They take a 90 degree turn and disappear into the night, one by one. I reach the door and make eye contact with the Jumpmaster who stares with approval. I hand him my static line, turn into the door and jump.