West Point Parachute Team jumps, trains with French Foreign Legion
March 31, 2011
WEST POINT, N.Y. (March 31, 2011) -- For the first time in 38 years, the American flag was raised during morning reveille alongside the French colors at Camp Raffalli, just outside the coastal town of Calvi on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. The 2nd Regiment Estranger de Parachutistes, an elite airborne regiment of the French Foreign Legion, hosted the West Point Parachute Team March 11-20.
The objective was two-fold, to conduct joint free fall training, and to provide an intercultural exchange between the West Point Parachute Team, or WPPT, and the soldiers of the 2nd Regiment Estranger de Parachutistes.
A C-130 from VMGR-452, a Marine Aerial Refueler Squadron out of Stewart Airport in Newburgh, not only transported the team across the Atlantic, but was also the platform for all airborne operations during the week. Training was very intense and productive, a testament to the professionalism and enthusiasm of the aircrew.
"This definitely ranks in the top three things I've done," loadmaster Gunnery Sgt. Philip Baldridge said. "The training was great for us, good for (the cadets). We got 704 (jumpers out) this week and in my past 17 years leading up to this I'd only sent out 1,100 jumpers."
The cadets used the freefall time to practice the events they compete in for collegiate nationals. This included four-way and six-way relative work, where groups execute numerous formations in a horizontal position, as well as vertical relative work where teams fly in either a sit position or a head-down position.
"This trip was unlike any other training my classmates and I have had thus far on the team in that we tried everything from four to 15 ways during the day. Plus, we got to immerse ourselves in a completely new and different culture on the ground," said West Point Class of 2013 Cadet Christian Beckler.
Cadets and legionnaires often jumped together in joint teams. The soldiers from the 2nd Regiment Estranger de Parachutistes are trained in high-altitude, low-opening infiltration techniques, and do not often get an opportunity to hone their freefall skills. Similarly, cadets were afforded an opportunity to teach relative work techniques to their hosts.
The result was a productive professional development experience for all parties.
"In the four years since I have been on the jump team, we have traveled all over the U.S., but never abroad. The training with the French Foreign Legion was incredible, both for the sport and our professional development," explained West Point Class of 2011 Cadet Christina West.
The joint jumps turned out to be a high point for the week for many cadets.
"Jumping with the French Foreign Legion has been a privilege. It's something I'll tell my grandchildren about," West Point Class of 2012 Cadet Nick Luis said.
An important training tool for incoming members of the WPPT are tandem jumps, which allow them to experience and practice free fall techniques while safely attached to an experienced tandem master. WPPT coaches used this week to exercise their skills by taking select members of the 2nd Regiment Estranger de Parachutistes on tandem jumps.
When not executing jump operations, cadets were able to learn firsthand about the rich and proud history of the French Foreign Legion and about the unique Corsica culture. The team got an intimate view into the day-to-day lives of the legionnaires.
"We come from a lot of different backgrounds. One of the guys from my class came from living on the street to knocking on the (Foreign Legion's) door. You get people from high (social) classes and low," explained Cpl. Mike Jones, an American who joined the legion three years ago after previously serving in the U.S. Navy.
Probably the best way the team was able to bond with the hosts was on the fields of friendly strife. Activities such as an hour-long run on a high ridge overlooking the bay, soccer and American football provided the needed ice-breaking.
Cadets also learned about the unique Corsican culture by exploring the nearby towns. Rich in history and beauty, the island was the birthplace of both Christopher Columbus and Napoleon Bonaparte. Usually a tourist destination, the island was quiet due to the off season.
"The island has everything you need: beaches, mountains, hiking, skydiving, good food, good people. You can't beat it," West Point Class of 2013 Cadet Ben Garlick said.
Such a complex undertaking did not occur without the help of many people. Col. Brice Houdet, the French military attache in Washington D.C., and a former commander of the French 2nd Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment, first proposed the idea of the WPPT training in Calvi. He was also instrumental in guiding the proposal process through the French government.
In addition, a detachment from the Airborne Mobile Training Team, based out of Quantico, Va., assisted the team during the week.
They performed a drop zone survey, which was required prior to airborne operations. Additionally, they provided tandem jumps as well as shooting video during training jumps, enabling the coaches to provide feedback to cadets.
"(It was) phenomenal training," Marine Gunnery Sgt. Shane Denna said, "a great pleasure training with the West Point cadets and the French."
As the week drew to a close, the WPPT exchanged memorabilia with the legionnaires (including pins, unit patches and berets), took their last look at the splendid snow-capped mountains to the east and the deep blue Mediterranean to the west, and hoped that the novelty of this week would soon grow into an ever-appreciated annual event.