As a veteran, there are two questions that people always seem to ask. Well, okay, there are three. First, “Have you ever killed anyone?” More than halfway through the school year and my students still ask me at least every other week. I always refuse to answer, so they try to come up with clever ways to ask.
“Mr. Taylor, are you good at shooting?”
“Yep, I’m a pretty good shot.”
“So then, have you ever fired your gun in combat?”
“Did you ever shoot at someone…and not miss?”
“Still not answering, let’s get back to history please.”
The next question is a toss-up. It will either be some form of, have you ever been shot, or have you ever jumped out of an airplane.
I end up explaining, that yeah, I have been shot at. Thankfully, the guys who were shooting in my direction were never very good. I’m not sure what that says about the nighttime marksmanship training at Fort Campbell. A Rakkasan soldier, from the 101st Airborne Division, once sent a few tracers in my direction. They went right between me and a buddy of mine, who was standing only a few yards away. The Rakkasans were walking by only 20 or 30 yards down the mountain from us. We knew they would be passing through, but they must have missed the memo that they would be passing behind a friendly unit. I broke noise discipline and yelled, “What the fuck!?!” Someone responded, “Oh, sorry…” and they continued trudging past. Sadly, I cannot even ask my buddy to share what he remembers from that night. He died about a year later.
We were all cold, tired, and hungry. I can’t speak for the 101st guys, but I think a lot of us 10th Mountain soldiers really learned about misery. We were stuck in the Shah-i-Kot Valley without enough food or water. Temperatures dropped below freezing, and it snowed. We packed lightly for our three-day mission, in fact that we were told to take the protective plates out of the back of our body armor. Our mission kept changing, and we ended up staying out for about nine days. We finally got resupplied, but it wasn’t much.
There were other times that I came close to getting shot. I swear I felt a bullet pass by my arm in Iraq. I heard the snap. I felt something on my arm. When I looked around, I found the bullet hole just behind me; another close call. It passed through two unopened spools of detonating cord, and our tool bag, before passing right between the guys in the back of my Stryker. Det cord is used to blow shit up, if you didn’t know. There were other times too, but I’ll get to those later.
On to the other question…
“Have you ever jumped out of airplanes?”
I have jumped out of airplanes. I did five jumps to earn my wings and never had a chance to jump again. I enjoyed it. I would have been fine with being a paratrooper. Instead, I was a “5-jump-chump;” the nickname given to all of the ground-pounders like me who got our jump wings and never jumped again.
This week, I told my students about my first jump at Airborne School.
It was finally week three of jump school, “jump week”. By this point, I am sick. I have a sinus infection or something, and it seems that there is a constant stream of green slime running from my nose.
We had been through “ground week” with all of its boring classes and lots of running. “Jumpers hit it! Recover.” Every time we heard that from a black hat (airborne instructor), we had to assume the jumping position; feet and knees together, knees bent, chin on chest, and hands protecting our reserve parachute.
Tower week was a little better. I hate heights, but there I was on the swing landing trainer, getting dropped, slamming into the ground over and over. “Today, you will practice demonstrating a dynamic PLF.” PLF stands for parachute-landing-fall. The army has an acronym for everything. In this case, PLF is the acronym for the proper way to slam into the ground at about 15 miles per hour without breaking any bones. 15 miles per hour might be a slight exaggeration, but I believe that the type of parachute I jumped with was supposed to fall at approximately 18-21 feet per second. That translates to somewhere between 12 and 14 MPH.
Before you do this for real, they hook you up in this nice harness that is attached to a pulley system. At the other end is one of your classmates. You jump off of a platform, trusting this guy or girl to hold you. You jump, swing out, and then the person holding the end of the rope lets go. You slam into the ground, do your little roll, and then it is your turn to hold the rope. It sucks.
Then there is the 250 foot tower. They hook an opened parachute into this ring on a big tower. They strap you into the harness that is attached to the parachute. Winches on the tower hoist you up, and then they drop you. It is a peaceful trip, unless you are one of the unlucky guys that hits the tower. Those guys ended up dangling from the tower waiting to be rescued by a pissed off instructor. My ride was uneventful, but it was a lie. I slowly drifted to the ground. I landed on my feet so softly that an instructor had to remind me to do a proper PLF. I quickly threw myself to the ground and rolled the way that I had been taught. Those towers lie to you! Jumping from a plane at 1,250 feet is nothing like the peaceful trip from the top of those towers.
Finally, we reach week three; jump week. We run the mile or so to the airfield, and go in to start getting our parachutes on. I don’t remember much about the process, but I do remember how the parachute harness felt. Imagine beating up an elementary school student and stealing his backpack. Now, instead of putting your arms through the shoulder straps, you need to put your legs through them. Now that your legs are through the shoulder straps, have someone help you also get your arms through them. Don’t forget to cinch them down nice and tight. If it feels like your junk is in your throat, then you’re just about there. Give it one more good tug.
Okay, now that we are sharing the same pain, go ahead and sit on a bench. You cannot put your legs together, and you cannot actually get your ass on the bench, because your parachute is behind you. This part of the process takes hours. You wait for everyone to get their chutes on and inspected. Then, you wait for the aircraft to be ready. Then you wait for the weather to be just right. Hope you don’t need to relieve yourself because it involves unfastening things, redoing everything, and then getting inspected again.
We finally get word to board the aircraft. By this time it is the middle of a hot ass July afternoon in Georgia. Our uniforms are wet from sweat, and we are all tired. The gray C-141 has been sitting in the sun for hours. It is like an oven inside, and we are crammed in like sardines. Don’t forget that we are all about to jump out of a plane for the first time ever.
Everyone gets in and settled, and the plane starts to taxi. We finally get into the air, and I am suddenly feeling nauseous. I have never been airsick before, but I am feeling horrible all of a sudden. The plane is hot. It smells like fuel and exhaust. We are so cramped that we can hardly move.
After flying around for what seemed like hours, the doors finally open. The jump master starts doing his thing. “Get Ready! Outboard personnel, stand up! Inboard personnel, stand up! Check static lines! Check equipment! Sound off for equipment check! Standby!”
At this point, we are all standing and waiting. As soon as the light turns green we will start shuffling toward the door. I cannot wait. I am thinking that I would do anything to get off of this plane. I am feeling so sick, that I just want out.
The light turns green. “Go! Go! Go!”
As the jumpers in front of me move toward the door, I can see out. The cool air hits me, making me feel a little better. It is finally my turn to jump. I slide my static line into the jump master’s hand and turn to the door. I step out of the door and into the wind. All of the snot in my head is ripped from my sinus cavities at 130+ miles per hour. “One thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thou…” I reach the end of the slack in my static line, and the parachute is yanked from its pack. The straps running between my legs pull, making sure that manhood is still in my throat. As my parachute opens, I swing back through the gallon of green mucus that was just violently suctioned from my sinuses. A thin green film of slime covers my face and upper body. My sinuses are as clear as can be, but I’m covered in sticky green goo.
If my kids weren’t afraid of jumping out of planes before, they are grossed out by it now.