Learning to attack from above at Schweinfurt
September 7, 2011
SCHWEINFURT, Germany -- The menacing black wings signifying Air Assault worn on a Soldier's left side, just above the U.S. Army tape aren't distributed freely, but earned through sweat, toil and pain during a two week long qualification course that sees a sizable attrition rate along with its final triumphant graduation for the select few. Recently, just such a grueling course took place here.
Over a stretch of 10 late-summer days in August and September, 240 Soldiers from across U.S. installations in Europe congregated at Schweinfurt's Pfaendhausen Training area -- a 6,000 acre parcel of woods nestled in the hills near Ledward Barracks that plays host to a variety of training exercises. They were there for the rigorous course to qualify for Air Assault, a combat style which demands that Soldiers rappel into combat from helicopters hovering high above the ground.
"It was hard from the start," said Pvt. 1st Class Keith Harrel of Schweinfurt's 1st Battalion, 77th Field Artillery Regiment. "It left me physically and mentally exhausted."
The course, which combines exhausting physical fitness, extensive technical knowledge involving hauling capacity and tensile strength of lifting harnesses, lowering yourself from dizzying heights and old-fashioned Army discipline was brought to Germany by the Warrior Training Center from Ft. Benning, Georgia. Sgt. Robert Summers of the WTC helped lead the training here.
"The best part about this is the opportunity to travel and teach Soldiers from around the world," said Summers. His hulking stature, Georgia suntan and "triple-stacked" badges (Air Assault, Airborne Parachutist and Pathfinder) make him an imposing instructor, and the Air Assault qualifiers didn't share the rosy outlook.
"The scariest part about it was for sure Sgt. Summers," said one nameless Soldier who would rather face the 100-foot plummet from a helicopter than the in-your-face yelling of the muscular, sunglasses-wearing instructor. Most attendees of the course agree that Summers physically worked them the hardest of any instructor there.
USAG Ansbach, the lead garrison of the Franconian Military Enterprise -- of which Schweinfurt is a member -- provided air support for the course through their tenant unit, the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade. Capt. James Wolf, a pilot from the 12th CAB, was happy with the chance to come to Schweinfurt's training area.
"This is good training for us," said Wolf. "There are not too many opportunities to conduct training for pilots and crew chiefs."
At the end of the course, who mattered most were those destined to wear the wings they had been working so hard to earn. Of the initial class, only 146 earned the right to graduate -- a daunting 60 percent graduation rate. The time they spent at Schweinfurt's training area may turn into a memory of pain and toil, of achievement and pride or most likely a mixture of the feelings. But walking away from Pfaendhausen with a uniform a bit heavier than when they arrived is something they're not likely to soon forget.