SAN DIEGO - There's a rush of adrenaline for an airborne soldier when the jumpmaster shouts, "Stand by!" That means the soldiers are seconds away from that final command of "go!" But what if the jumpmaster shouted these commands in Italian? Would soldiers still make that jump?
For Army Reserve soldiers of the 416th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne) based here, the answer was an unequivocal "yes!" before they safely descended to the drop zone in the Californian desert on the Naval Air Facility El Centro under their jumpmaster, Italian army 1st Capt. Paracadutisti "Folgore" Alberto Spinelli.
Parachuting or "jumping" under a foreign jumpmaster is an honor not many soldiers get to enjoy and with it comes the ceremonial exchange of jump wings, which soldiers can wear on their dress uniform.
About 100 soldiers from the 416th and a few other units, including the 351st Civil Affairs Command, their regional command headquarters, took part in that time-honored tradition and donned their Italian jump wings during a post-jump ceremony.
"I have always considered being a commissioned officer and a paratrooper one of the greatest honors that has ever been bestowed on me," said 1st Lt. Rocco Santurri III, a civil affairs team leader with Charlie Company of the 416th. "I can't imagine being in the service and not being in an airborne unit. The history is rich and one that I want to be a part of, even if in a much smaller fashion than the paratroopers of World War II."
Like most events in the Army, this airborne operation took months of planning and preparation. Typically, planning an airborne operation starts with reserving aircraft and identifying a drop zone. Then planners will draft a concept of operations or an operations order for the mission.
"At this point coordination with other resources and personnel can begin," said Master Sgt. James Marrello, the noncommissioned officer in charge of airborne operations.
"In my experience, planning airborne operations continues right up until the point soldiers start exiting the aircraft, and one has to be prepared for unexpected changes that are more likely than not going to happen," he said.
Marrello said getting a foreign jumpmaster involved took extra effort and planning when the concept was approved by the battalion commander Lt. Col. Vince A. Rice.
Headquarters Element Chief Maj. Jason Hetzel contacted Spinelli through Special Operations Command for the jump. It was then the operation would be possible under a foreign jumpmaster.
"Safety is our number one priority whenever conducting an airborne operation," said Marrello. "Our senior jumpmasters work very closely with our newly trained jumpmasters to ensure they are performing their duties safely and to standard."
Jumping under a foreign jumpmaster is possible due to standardization and operations that exercise international military interoperability. Though the commands may be presented to airborne soldiers in Italian, the hand signs and procedures are the same.
"The language barrier meant a greater reliance on hand signals inside the aircraft," said Santurri, who was among the American soldiers that jumped under Spinelli's supervision.
Foreign jump wing exchanges don't happen very often at larger military post known for airborne operations like Fort Bragg, but for this kind of operation in the Californian desert is exceptional. This was rare opportunity and fulfilling experience for both the American soldiers and their Italian jumpmaster.
"I love to share my experience, learn more and jump with American units again," said Spinelli. "I am in the process of setting up other jumps with special operation units next fall and I am looking forward to helping and keeping the spirit high of all [these] strong and brave soldiers."