One of the first major training exercises I did was a night jump with a platoon, follow-on mission. Now, forgive the Tim O’Brien list that follows, but the weight of the things I carried was important:
For the mission, I carried a squad automatic weapon (SAW), which was a belt fed, fully automatic rifle that weighed approximately sixteen pounds. I carried my body armor with two fifteen-pound ceramic plates for my front and back and two five pound plates for my sides. I carried my night vision goggles (N.V.Gs), attached to my helmet, which, together, were maybe, five pounds. And I carried my rucksack, an old ALICE pack that weighed about three pounds, plus the weight of water and other things inside it that I can’t now recall. This brought my total weight to around sixty pounds, and if that isn’t right, who’s to say I’m a reliable narrator? Sixty pounds is the weight it’s going to be.
Anyway, the plan was to jump from the plane at night. I’d be in one of the first passes, meaning I’d hit the drop zone (D.Z.), the plane would circle, and another group would jump. We couldn’t all get out at the same time. The D.Z. was only like 500 yards, east/west north/south. It was big but not that big. After we hit the ground, we were supposed to find guys in our platoon, move together to a rally point (R.P), drop our rucksacks, and proceed to conduct mock raids on a training town—no issues. That’s how the training was supposed to ideally play out. This is how it actually did:
Inside the aircraft, a C-130, we (you, the platoon, and I) took a seat on benches, either on the outside row along the aircraft’s skin or the inside row down its center. There were two rows down the center, positioned back to back, so the outer and inner rows faced each other. This made four total rows, each seating one squad (eight to twelve guys), or altogether, one platoon.
We wore a main chute on our back, a reserve chute near our gut, a rucksack in between our knees, and a weapon’s case on our leg. A jumpmaster stood near the door. After the aircraft took off, he indicated the time before we jumped. “10 minutes,” he yelled and signed by flashing five fingers on each hand. We repeated this to each other in case anyone was unaware or sleeping, which was common. I’d often sleep. The hum of the props and the aircraft’s rocking had a lulling effect.
“5 minutes,” the jumpmaster yelled, and one row, our row, stood up, and we gripped the hook at the end of the static line, which was the yellow chord attached to the parachute. We hooked the static line to a cable that hung near our head and ran the aircraft’s entire length. The jumpmaster gave two other commands; we checked our equipment. “Sound off,” he yelled, and we sounded off, front to back, each person, one number. When the last guy said his number, he slapped the guy in front of him on the butt, and that guy slapped the guy in front of him, and so on, until a slap hit the first person who gave to the jumpmaster a thumbs up, “Okay.” “Standby,” the jumpmaster yelled. There were approximately ten seconds to the green light. Then 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Go! We started heading out the door.
From your perspective, this is how things began to go. As soon as you exited, you tucked into a tight body position; otherwise, the force from your opening chute would have spun you in circles, twisted the risers to your canopy, and turned you like a top all the way down. Also, immediately following the exit, you started counting one-one thousand, two-one thousand, all the way to four. This is about the time it took for the static line, now attached from the chute to the bird, to open. If you counted to four and didn’t feel the force-- a sudden jerk-- from the chute opening, you would have pulled the reserve.
In this case, the chute did open. “Airborne,” you yelled and began to look around, to try and avoid fellow jumpers. Of course, this was at night, so you did not see one fellow jumper until he was, like, five feet away. “Watch it, jerk,” he politely called out, and you pulled a slip, that is, grabbed the raisers to one side, which caused your canopy to dip and you to drift into another fellow jumper.
Once you got to treetop level, you could have done this thing. There was a tab attached to your rucksack that you could have pulled, causing your rucksack and weapons pouch to release from your body and swing below you on another chord that you rigged up earlier. This would have been useful to prevent landing painfully or awkwardly on your equipment, but you were too busy avoiding your fellow jumpers to pull the tab. “Oh well,” you thought and assumed a proper landing position---legs together, knees slightly bent. You hit the ground.
Now, it’s back to me:
Upon hitting, the first thing I did was pull the parachute riser release on my harness so a strong gust of wind didn’t inflate my chute and drag me across every rock on the D.Z. Then I opened my weapon’s case, took out and loaded my SAW, reached into my rucksack, first grabbed my body armor, put it on, and second grabbed my N.V.Gs, which I tore from their protective bubble wrap and fitted to my helmet. The world, thereafter, was viewed though a green lens. Finally, I started rolling away the parachute into this bag that I would run to a drop point on the D.Z.
But, about this time in the process, I just finished getting my chute inside the bag, this guy landed-- or crashed rather-- next to me. He just started screaming, so I ran over to him. Turns out, this guy’s buddy, who jumped in front of him, had to pull his reserve, which was spring loaded. The chute shot back, right into this guy’s face, knocking him unconscious. He regained consciousness, however, as soon as he hit the D.Z., because landing all wonky legged resulted in a compound fractured fibula. His bone was sticking out of his leg. Being the nearest to him, I did what I was supposed to do: I broke out a red chem-light, which was tied to a string and started whirling it around my head. A medic saw this and drove over in a van. I helped get this guy’s chute untangled--it was all twisted around him-- and I helped load him into the van.
All this has the effect of making me late for the platoon, follow-on mission. Keep in mind too, that I was new. Just about everyone in the platoon was senior to me, and there was incredible pressure not to screw up. So, I had to navigate my way to the rally point, which was in the woods, off the D.Z., approx. 300 yards away. It was dark, everything was green, and because the whole company was doing this, I only saw a few guys from other platoons going in separate directions. What I didn’t see, were any guys from my platoon. So, I pulled out this crummy, little map and tried to orient where I was at on this big, open DZ, I start hauling butt, alone, to where I thought the rally point was located, and somehow I made it.
When I got to the R.P., my whole platoon was there, and they were just about ready to go. I ran up, and my squad leader was like “where the heck were you?” and I was out of breath trying to explain this screwed up thing that happened, but I could only get out a few words out like, “This guy. Fell. Broke leg. Crap.” And my squad leader cut me off like “Whatever just get in position.” I mean, he did have ten other guys to worry about, not to mention a platoon sergeant coming down on him, so all this was reasonable. I got into my position, and a minute later, we rolled out.
Here’s the thing though. When everyone else rolled out, they dropped their rucksacks. The plan was to return to them later. I did not drop my rucksack, because one, I didn’t have much time to think about it and two, because the guy in front of me, a medic, had on his big medical bag, which, through my night vision, looked exactly like a rucksack. I just followed his lead. This screw up amounted to them: running around, clearing rooms inside these training buildings like ninjas. And me: sucking wind with a big rucksack, my body armor and machine gun like this massive, lumbering thing.
None of this was fun, to say the least. At one point, too, I had to climb up a ladder through this narrow opening to a rooftop, which may have made for good tactical placement, but I’m pretty sure my team leader actually made me do it to teach me a lesson, because not five minutes later, I had to go back down. Add on to this, that when we got back to our barracks I ended up doing push-ups for an hour because I slowed my teammates down, and I still had on all my gear, including the rucksack, and yea…I learned a lesson that day: Drop your rucksack at the R.P. before a raid unless the plan you paid very close attention to earlier specifically states otherwise.