Friday, March 12, 2010

The Night Eagles Soared, from the Chapter "Rape, Kill, Pillage and Burn"

“Twenty minutes!” shouted the jumpmaster as he stomped forward onto the floor of the aircraft with his right foot, knees bent. He held out both of his hands, palms opened and fingers extended and spread. Then he closed his fists, pulled his arms into his chest, and then protruded them outwardly once again with his fingers extended and spread, indicating with hand signals that which he had just moments earlier announced so authoritatively. My knees were shaking a bit; and I prayed, as I did every other time I jumped out of a perfectly good aircraft, “Father, give me the courage and strength to do that which I must. And, Father, please help us all make it without getting hurt. Amen!”

The aircrew started moving around as the jumpmaster turned to us, stomping his right foot forward and giving the hand signal. He shouted, ‘Ten minutes!”

The clamshell on the back of the aircraft began to open, and I could hear a loud roaring sound over the drone of the aircraft’s engines. Then the load master began to lower the ramp, and sunlight beamed into the rear of the plane. Over the edge of the ramp, the ground could be seen. The aircraft made a sharp, right-hand turn. The ramp floated up and down at an angle, making the earth appear as if it was spinning out and away from us. The sight made my stomach a little queasy for a moment, so I looked out and up at the sky.

The jumpmaster kneeled down, his back toward us, his rucksack splayed out in front of him. He was looking out and down for the drop zone. Soon, he stood up and turned toward us and stomped his foot, signaling with his hand as he shouted, “Three minutes.” With both of his hands, index and middle fingers extended and joined, he pointed to the skin of the aircraft and shouted, “Outboard personnel stand up,” as he motioned upward over his head with his hands and fingers. The earth continued spinning out of control behind him.

The sergeant, acting as the jumpmaster’s safety, stood, holding the yellow static line, keeping it from getting tangled. The roar of the wind rushing past the opening was deafening. It completely drowned the sound of the C-130’s powerful prop engines. The jumpmaster signaled, “One minute!” I noticed that the jump command lights in the aircraft were already green, which was a standard procedure for a jumpmaster release. It also meant that this was it; it was time, and we were going to do it.

My rucksack hung upside down in front of me, attached to the D-rings of my parachute, which were also used to connect the leg straps of the parachute harness around the buttocks and thighs. With a quick thumb press, I checked them as the Jumpmaster gave the command, “Check equipment! Sound off for equipment check!” I checked my chinstrap and the paratroop shock pad in the back of the helmet of the man in front of me. Giving a quick glance at his static line, I could see that it was not tangled; and I felt the man behind me slap my right thigh as he shouted, “All okay.” I repeated the gesture on the thigh of the man in front of me and shouted the same and listened as each of the soldiers in front of me sound off.

At that moment, the jumpmaster shouted, “Standby,” and I could feel the aircraft level off as the earth seemed to be rocking back and forth underneath our feet outside the tailgate.

I focused on the horizon and the jumpmaster as he turned toward the rear of the aircraft. He was still looking down to his right as he signaled with his thumb and index finger, ten seconds. He was making a sort of pinching motion with his thumb and finger; then suddenly, with his left arm swinging around, palm out, fingers extended and joined, he pointed to the rear of the aircraft and shouted, “Follow me!” and disappeared off the ramp.

This was my first jump, right out of jump school, a tailgate, C-130 day blast into Camp McKall to start Special Forces training. Following the jumpmaster out, the troops in front of me began to do the airborne shuffle to the edge of the ramp. I felt a nudge from the man behind me. He was as anxious as anybody. The sound of the aircraft was deafening, but I could still hear the metallic sound of the static line snap hooks running down the anchor line cable and the sound of the pack trays opening; and suddenly, I was in midair. “One thousand, two thousand,” I counted, keeping my feet and knees together, eyes closed. “Three thousand, four thousand. Come on. Open up, you son of a gun - Oh, thank God!”

Hanging there quietly, I could see the aircraft as it trailed off black exhaust into the distance. A silent breeze filled the nylon of my canopy. Drifting slowly toward the ground, heart pounding, the adrenaline rush subsided and I realized that I had several twists in my risers. I was also running with the wind, so I began to make a bicycling motion with my feet while reaching up to grab the risers above my head. I pulled them apart and made a bicycle motion with my legs. Spinning out of the twists, I gained control of the parachute. I was running with the wind, so I looked around and didn’t see any other canopies in my way. So I pulled down hard on the right toggle; and that brought me around, facing into the wind. I could feel the canopy drop a little air and then regain it.

Looking down, I could see that I was out over the middle of the triangle-shaped airfield; and I noticed the yellow smoke blowing directly toward me—a good sign. I was doing it right. As I approached the ground, I had to force myself to look at the horizon. Looking down made it seem as the though the ground was rushing up very fast. Looking out over the tops of the pine trees, I tried to keep my feet together, knees bent. Suddenly, I could hear someone yelling, “Drop your rucksack! Drop your rucksack!” I reached down, found the yellow pull tab on my lowering line, pulled it, and my rucksack fell away, downward, and then suddenly came to the end of its tether, jerking me around to the left a bit. I countered by pulling on the right toggle slightly, and I heard my ruck hit the ground.

I looked down just in time to see my feet hit the ground; and I crumbled to the earth, and the wind blew my canopy over onto the ground behind me. Still filled with air, my canopy began dragging me across the ground like a sled. I reached up to my right shoulder and pulled out the quick release snap and felt for the canopy release assembly. Finding the cable ring, I shouted, “Riser,” and pulled it as hard as I could. It made a distinct ringing sound as the riser on my right shoulder was released from the parachute harness. The canopy collapsed to the ground.
I laid there for a second, eyes closed, trying to collect my senses. One of the instructors began yelling, “Get the hell off my drop zone, Airborne.” And the C-130 swooped in, landing as it screamed past me only a hundred feet away. The roar of its engines was amplified as the sound reflected off of the tall pines that surrounded the airfield. The plane spun around, lowering its ramp, ready for another load.

My platoon was forming up. The sergeant gained accountability as we turned in our parachutes and reported back. Once we were all together, we marched back to the camp, singing slowly in a low baritone voice, keeping rhythm with our steps. The sun slowly sank behind us, below the trees, as we marched through the dust and into the shadows.
The heart of a soldier is the soul of a man. He is a knight without armor in a war-torn land. A fast gun for hire is an SF soldier. SF soldier, SF soldier, where have you been? Around the world and back again!

Our first day in the Special Forces was almost over as we marched in the darkness down the hill and into the camp. There were lights on in the large classroom; and the mercury light on the telephone pole outside the camp headquarters was already on, lighting up the gravel parking lot but blocking out visibility of anything beyond that.

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