Path to wings: Cadet pushes through final phase of Air Assault School
September 19, 2013
- "As I prepared myself for my exit, I focused on my instructor. You can't really hear the instructor talk over the helicopter, so we look as the instructor gives the command "get ready." I unattached from the helicopter and then he signaled me to "get in the position." I felt a tap on back of my helmet that told me to go. You kind of duck walk toward the edge, put your hand on the rope and rotate away from the Air Assault instructor - and then I slid down. That was probably one of the best experiences I had while I was here." - Cadet Jeff Garner
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. -- "UH-60 hoverin o'er the strip, Air Assault Soldier on a one-way trip, Kneel forward, hook up, slide into an L, Out you go, down the rope, rappel…"
Since 1974, hundreds of thousands of Soldiers have earned the coveted Air Assault badge. Entering his eighth day at the Sabalauski Air Assault School, Cadet Jeff Garner was determined to join the ranks of that illustrious group.
As Garner entered his final phase of Air Assault School, he realized the blueprint for his success has been in his hands all along.
"Everything we do, every drill, every repetitive command, every move we make seemed to have a greater purpose later on in the course," said Garner. "Every day is a building block for the next, preparing us for success."
With a newfound determination, Garner chronicled his experiences as a student at Fort Campbell's Sabalauski Air Assault School, detailing his last three days of the course.
Phase III, Day Eight -- Cadet Garner
After entering the schoolhouse arches this morning, we conducted some warm-up exercises in and went on a four-mile PT run. They told us not to bring any GPS watches. I don't know why, maybe they didn't want us to see how far we were really running. Then again, it could have been a mental thing. All I know, is it seemed like a lot more than four miles - more like five and a half to six. Anyway, I don't know if I was in shape due to what I had been through the past couple of days or if it was just a really good pace, but I really enjoyed the run. It was a lot of fun. They were real hype and real loud with the cadences which just motivated me.
After the run - we were released for breakfast and to get ready for the day's events. Once we returned, we went into our fast rope, rappelling portion of Phase III. This was a lot of fun, especially from the higher platform on the tower. After fast roping we had a short break and then followed with free rappelling, with no walls, to simulate a helicopter. We had to do three rappels - two without combat equipment and one with combat equipment. Having equipment definitely made it harder to balance your weight, but with the instructors' guidance I was able to complete it. I felt very confident in my rappelling and swiss seat by the end of this day.
I feel like the instructors have gotten a little bit more lenient with us and we started to have more fun. I think they were just really tough in the beginning to weed out the weak ones who probably didn't prepare as well. There were people here that didn't really want to be here. You could tell, they weren't even trying, didn't even care. I'm just grateful to still be here.
Day eight of the Sabalauski Air Assault School begins with four-mile run, and while previous PT runs were used as a measure of endurance and stamina, this run was strictly for fun.
"On this day, it's more of a motivational run," said Staff Sgt. Donald Davenport, an instructor at the Air Assault School. "Its four-miles at a nine-minute pace - the standard here at Fort Campbell. No Interceptor Body Armor, just something to get a little more PT in and get them loose."
After physical training, the students are introduced the Fast Rope Insertion Extraction System, also known as FRIES.
"They start off with two "small FRIES" which are performed on the 15-foot platform," said Davenport. "They are introduced on how to actually position their hands, their feet, how to control their descent down the rope, and how to lock into the rope in case the aircraft has a malfunction and has to move an take them to a safer place, get them out of harm's way."
After performing their "small FRIES" descents, they move to the 34-foot wall to perform two additional descents.
"One of the descents is just what we call a Hollywood descent, where they just come straight down the rope," said Davenport. "Their next descent is their lock-in. We want to ensure they can lock-in from that height, so they have an understanding of what that feels like."
During the rappelling, students performed three rappels: lock-in rappels; rappel without combat equipment; also known as a "Hollywood" rappel, with three controlled brakes; and combat equipment rappel with three controlled brakes.
"The lock-in rappels feel kind of unnatural [to perform] because you have to take your hands off the rope and reach around and grab two ropes and bring them in front of you, and then hold the ropes in front of you," said Davenport. "It's a trust issue - you have to trust your equipment."
Students continue to practice for the remainder of the afternoon in preparation for Phase III testing the next morning.
Phase III, Day Nine -- Cadet Garner
This morning was our Phase III testing. We were tested on a combination of things we had learned the day before. I was kind of nervous because of the fact that it was an easy day. If I failed something like this … it would be crazy for me to get through all these days and then fail a test on something as simple as rappelling. I think I made myself nervous but I always think that's a good feeling. When I'm nervous, I usually do better, because I'm being more attentive - pay more attention, so I got through it. I passed with no issues.
After returning from chow we got the opportunity to fast rope out of a Black Hawk. This was probably my favorite event at the school, so far.
I've been in a Black Hawk before but it was in a seat with a seat belt on. This was my first experience getting on, actually flying around a little bit, being on your knees and looking straight out of it while it was flying…it was a lot of fun.
I realized today that we've been training for this since day one - everything the "Black Hats" did during the course led up to that Black Hawk. We used the same commands throughout the course. Like when we would sit in the bleachers and we had to get in formation, our instructor would yell "get ready!" and give the hand signal for that command. Then we would yell "get ready!" repeating the commands just like we would have to do in the Black Hawk.
For fast roping, I was first in my chalk, which made me a little nervous (being the first one to come out). As I prepared myself for my exit, I focused on my instructor. You can't really hear the instructor talk over the helicopter, so we look as the instructor gives the command "get ready." I unattached from the helicopter and then he signaled me to "get in the position." I felt a tap on back of my helmet that told me to go. You kind of duck walk toward the edge, put your hand on the rope and rotate away from the Air Assault instructor - and then I slid down. That was probably one of the best experiences I had while I was here.
After the fast roping, my thoughts turned toward tomorrow. I was really nervous about the 12-mile road march. I had been drinking a lot of water, trying to keep myself hydrated in preparation for the march. The instructors gave us some CeraSport to help replenish our nutrients and electrolytes and then I went to the DFAC. I ate a lot carbs, and then I drank a lot of water, I was just hydrating, hydrating, hydrating -- getting ready for day 10.
Students begin day nine at 6 a.m. with Phase III testing and as they begin performing their mandatory descents, the true reason for their daily "five and dime" morning ritual becomes clear.
"You have to have that arm and upper body strength to be able to perform in this school," said Davenport. "Even on the FRIES. You wouldn't believe how much core and upper-body strength it takes to hold the rope and get yourself down. It's a lot. You could do five-to-six descents and at the end of the day, you're spent."
Students are allowed two practice rounds, in which they are given 90 seconds to properly tie their swiss rappel seats and 15 seconds to hook up the rope and get locked in. After the two practice rounds, students are tested. If they do not pass, students are retrained and retested.
Immediately following, students form a line at the base of the 34-foot tower for their rappel testing, which takes up the remainder of the morning. The afternoon continues with fast roping.
"We don't test fast roping," said Davenport. "This is something that they just get to do. At one time we did rappel, but rappelling is getting phased out. Fast-rope is more practical."
Once the UH-60 Black Hawks arrive, students are split up in chalks of 10 personnel.
"We send a chalk at a time to load the aircraft," said Davenport. "Once the FRIES master in the aircraft makes sure they are hooked up and secure, the aircraft takes off and then hovers about 40-feet off the ground. He then starts letting them descend out of the bird, using the skills that they learned on the small and large FRIES rope from the tower."
And with each event performed on day nine, students continue to piece together the reasoning behind many of the repetitive drills they have performed during the first eight days of Air Assault School.
"When they're called to each and every formation -- the [student in charge] does a hand-and-arm signal for "get ready," which is echoed by the students," said Davenport. "This is the same signal used in the aircraft that lets the ropers inside the aircraft know that they're getting ready to go out, they need to unhook their safety line and get ready to go."
"Bringing the class out to formation and positions is pretty much getting yourself in the door, ready to go," said Davenport. "There's a method to the madness. A lot of things we say and do - it's just a building block process from day zero to day nine, to their testing, and then day 10 is all on them."
Phase III, Day Ten -- Cadet Garner
I didn't sleep well. Kept waking up, anxious about the 12-mile ruck march. I went to bed way too early. I've always been told you need seven-eight hours of sleep at night to be fully rested so I did the math - I had to be in bed at like six just to get all the sleep I needed to fully rest up for the ruck march. That wasn't such a good idea.
I got up at 1:45 a.m. I had to be at the schoolhouse at 2:50 a.m., in formation. I had set my alarm for about five or six different times, three minutes separating each. I didn't want to oversleep or be late. As soon as I woke up I grabbed some Gatorade chews for energy.
When I arrived at the school house, I knocked out my "five and dimes" and fell into formation where they gave us our safety brief. The instructors had us take our body armor body plates out of our IBA and put them in our assault pack. About 3:15 a.m. is when we began the ruck.
Before we took off, two students in my platoon gave me some helpful hints, like how to rig my assault pack in a certain way so that the weight was distributed better, or turning my IBA plates around in my assault pack so they would curve with my back…just little things that helped.
They told me what they did their practice ruck in - they finished in like 2:30 or 2:40. I knew if I had that time, I wouldn't have to worry about anything. If I could keep up with them, I would be good, and I didn't want to take any chances. So I told them I would stay with them and I did ... for about six miles.
When we came in at the six-mile mark, we were at about an hour and 15 minutes. It was tough trying to keep up with them. They basically ran the whole thing, walking just a little bit. They were going pretty fast. I was 15-minutes ahead of pace already so I went with them for a little more but it got to the point where I had to break-off and do my own thing because I wasn't that good yet.
I felt some really bad blisters start coming up on my feet. And even though I hydrated really well, my body started cramping - to the point where I couldn't even run. I would try to run a couple feet forward and then my leg would start to cramp up. I had to walk a lot more for the final three miles, which was fine because I made so much time up going with them at the beginning. In the end, their initial pace had really helped me. I was still 10-minutes ahead of pace when I crossed the finish line.
I was hurting pretty bad when I got done with the ruck. When I went to turn my weapon in, I began cramping up really bad. I fell over a little bit and someone grabbed me and made sure I got up. He told me to keep my legs straight out - stretched out.
What was great, though, was this group of people that were at the finish line. I don't remember what foundation they were from, but they had a little stand there. They had lemonade there, muffins, bananas. I quickly grabbed some lemonade and two bananas and then I started feeling a lot better. I was so appreciative.
One thing I do remember is when I finished I was walking around looking and I spotted one of the two guys I initially kept pace with. He was in the bleachers and it was nothing big - but I just kind of looked at him and he looked back at me and just gave me like a head nod - like saying "good job - we all got to finish and we all did it."
I think, in the end there were like four or five people that didn't make it on the road march. One guy ran for the last part and was right at the end - he had like a few seconds left, so he had to sprint and as soon as he got past the finish line, he passed out. He graduated but I don't know if he was at the graduation. The ambulance had to come take him away.
Crossing the finish line - I was just happy that I did it. I mean, I was so tired at first, all I could think about was, man, I'm worn out. So I really didn't enjoy it yet, but once I got some food and sat down at the bleachers, and I realized - I'm done - I did it, it was a good feeling. And even though I wasn't doubting myself, I was unsure, a little bit, but I had a lot of people that were very supportive of me and kept me going and kept telling me I had no worries, so for that to happen and for me to succeed, it was a good feeling.
"This is the one they all look forward to but then dread when it gets here," said Davenport.
Day 10 has finally arrived, along with one final test of endurance - the 12-mile road march, a graduation requirement for Air Assault School.
The 12-mile road march has the same weight and equipment requirements as the previous road march. The only difference is the distance.
"To mitigate heat casualties, we had the students remove the [armor plate] from their IBA and place them in their Air Assault pack," said Davenport.
During the road march, a cadre member is placed at the rear of the formation and designated as pace and straggler, keeping a 15-minute pace.
"As long as you stay in front [that cadre member] there is no way your going to fail," said Davenport.
"This is the final test of endurance, the last and final obstacle," said Davenport. "It demonstrates how much these students have put forth to prepare themselves, because it's not just a one day event. Throughout these 10 days they've had to take care of themselves. They've had to hydrate, eat right, do all these things to prepare for that final mission to get their wings."
"Students that didn't do the things to prepare themselves fail the 12-mile foot march event," said Davenport.
At the finish line, students are welcomed across by local, non-profit organization, Eagle's Nest. The organization is present at every Air Assault School 12-mile road march, providing students with fruit, snacks and beverages.
"They are an amazing group of people," said Davenport. "They're always here, providing a service to the students."
After the students turn-in their weapons, instructors conduct a quick equipment inspection to ensure students have their packing list items. Students are then released to get cleaned up and prepare for their graduation.
Graduation - Cadet Garner
I felt really good at graduation. None of my immediate Family members were able to be there (my mom is in Korea), but my cousin and high school JROTC commander came. He brought the Fort Campbell High School vice principal with him to show him that even though there is a lot of bad that goes on in high school, the JROTC program really does have a good impact on kids - that they can be doing good, and that made me happy, for him to chose me as an example like that.
We started with 230 and then we ended with 174. Standing in formation, I realized everything we did seemed to having a greater purpose later on in the course. As Staff Sgt. Davenport pinned my wings, I felt really proud standing there -- I had finally graduated. Air Assault!
Students return to the schoolhouse and perform a short rehearsal before conducting the official graduation.
"This is where they get pinned and recognized by their units, family and friends," said Davenport. "They are awarded the Air Assault badge."
"Today is a culmination of all their hard work, fortitude," said Davenport. "They worked hard, persevered, didn't quit on themselves. All their hard work has led them to this day, this moment."
At 10 a.m. sharp, the ceremony begins and as the graduates stand at attention, "black hats" approach each student, pinning the coveted Air Assault badge to the left side of the chest, signifying their achievement and becoming a newfound source of pride for the Soldiers. Through 10 days of arduous physical and mental challenges, these Soldiers have finally earned their "wings." Air Assault!
Editor's Note: This is the final article of a series detailing a daily account of Cadet Jeff Garner's experience as a student at Fort Campbell's Sabalauski Air Assault School, which he attended Aug 6-21. Portions of his journal appear and have been edited for syntax.