By Yvette Smith, Courier staffSeptember 6, 2013
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is the first in a three-part 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.
Cadet Jeff Garner is no stranger to Fort Campbell.
Having graduated from Fort Campbell High School in 2011, Garner fondly considers the installation his home. His Family lived in the Werner Park housing community during the time his mother was assigned to 101st Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, which encompassed most of his high school years.
During his time as a Falcon, Garner played both defensive end and running back for the 2009 state champion FCHS football team and participated in the JROTC program. After graduation, his Family found themselves relocating again, this time to Fort Sill, OK.
"We've been moving all my life, even before my mom joined the military," said Garner. "You think it would make you more enclosed, not wanting to build relationships because you move so much, but it actually makes you even more open, meet more people and get out there and network and build relationships. It just makes you more resilient."
It is that resiliency that has continued to help Garner succeed - earning a full-scholarship to the University of Kentucky after graduation. Now a junior and member of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps at the university, he recently returned to Fort Campbell to attend Air Assault school as part of his ROTC program.
"I felt like I was coming back home," said Garner.
Day Zero -- Anticipation
Started [zero day] at 3:30am outside of the Sabalauski Air Assault School training grounds. Everyone was split up into their respective brigades and accounted for before the Air Assault sergeants came out. There were 230 of us. [On] this day we were told to bring one water bottle, an MRE, a pair of running shoes, our PT belt, and be in full Army Combat Uniform. Waiting for the "Black Shirts." At this point the anticipation was finally getting to me and I began to feel a little nervous. When they did finally step out of the Arches they instructed us to sound off with a "Loud and thunderous AIR ASSAULT!" After standing in line and getting our roster number we were instructed to enter the school grounds. As soon as we stepped inside the school grounds we were surrounded by black shirts. Some yelling at us and telling us to sound off with "Air Assault" every time our left foot hit the ground, others smoking us. Eventually we made it to our destination - phase one ropes. In just the first ten minutes some people became so exhausted that they had to visit the medic.
Our first event of the day was a two-mile run. After that, they smoked us some more and led us to the obstacle course. We were given a detailed walk through of every obstacle and then told to begin. I was really confident about it - maybe not my rope climbing as much, but the O-course was not bad at all and I did not fail a single obstacle. I could have tried to skip all the last ones, because they weren't mandatory, but I went on and did them anyway. A few people got stuck up on the rope a little bit, so we would say "Come on! You got to go!" The only help you can really [offer] is motivation, but I saw two or three, at least from the obstacles I was at, that didn't pass. We were smoked one more time that day and then dismissed until the following morning at 0330.
The Fort Campbell Sabalauski Air Assault School is a physically and mentally challenging two-week course designed to train Soldiers in Air Assault operations, sling-load operations, and rappelling. During the 10-day course of instruction, Soldiers are pushed to their limits as they learn not only the technical and tactical aspects of Air Assault training, but also the importance of attention to detail.
Soldiers who fail to exhibit thoroughness and meticulousness upon arriving at the schoolhouse do not advance.
"Day zero is actually in-processing - the Soldier's not actually enrolled in the course yet," said Staff Sgt. Donald Davenport, Air Assault sergeant also known as a "Black Hat." "Before they come through the arches, they are pre-inspected by our first sergeant and chief of operations. We start processing Soldiers through the arches at 5 a.m."
Davenport, assigned Air Assault sergeant to Garners platoon, has instructed at the Air Assault School for a year and sees day zero as a necessary tool in course admission.
"The first thing we do on day zero is a 2-mile run," said Davenport. "This is … the process of identifying the ones who are determined enough that want to be here … who are physically fit enough to complete standards before we actually get started with the instructional period of day one. If they don't make the run, they are dropped."
Immediately following the run, the candidates are introduced to the Air Assault School obstacle course. Designed to test a student's upper body strength, endurance, confidence, agility, and ability to perform at heights, the course is a critical indicator in determining if a student will be able to complete Air Assault School without becoming a safety risk to themselves and others.
"There are 9 obstacles - two mandatory and seven minor obstacles," said Davenport. "They have to pass the two mandatory ones, which are the Tough One and the Confidence Climb. They have two attempts. If they fail at those two attempts to negotiate the obstacles, they're automatically dropped."
"After the obstacle course, those that make it get their six-mile foot march brief, getting them ready for the next day's events."
Phase I, Day One-- Cadet Garner
Day one was pretty tough. It started around the same time as day zero, but this time we needed to have our entire packing list. As we entered the arches we were told to do "five and dimes" which was 10 elevated pushups and 5 pull-ups. After that we got into formation and were briefed on our six-mile ruck march. Soon after that, we began the ruck march. I had to complete it within one hour and thirty minutes. Because I was smoked the day before, this ruck march seemed harder than usual to me. I trained on hills before coming here ... I had a plan. Walk up the hills and run down the hills. That didn't work because most of the ruck march was on flat land … I wasn't use to that. At first I was just going off my body...so I would run when I was ok and walk when I was tired, but I kind of caught on. Everybody pushed through. I didn't see too many people struggling. Everyone else seemed pretty resilient, they were walking pretty hard, fast and determined. Some people you could tell, were hurting a lot more than others. Other people were more natural - they had that experience. It was a little tougher for me. Other students helped me. [They] told me, 'run two light poles and then walk one,' or 'run one and walk two, and use that.' That really helped me a lot. I was able to finish the march with five minutes to spare.
Immediately following the ruck march we had ten minutes to layout our gear to be inspected. About six people were cut for either not having their gear or not having it laid out correctly. Luckily I managed to get my equipment secured with one minute remaining.
After the inspection we were led into our first classroom session. In this class we were taught about the different types of helicopters and their capabilities. We were also taken outside and taught hand and arm signals. Following this we had another [physical training] session and were finally able to leave.
As students begin their first official day of Air Assault School, they are already familiar with the "Five and Dimes" exercises, which they perform as they enter and exit the schoolhouse arches each day.
"They are required to ground their gear, do five pull-ups, then don their gear and then perform 10 elevated Air Assault push-ups, with their feet above their body and thumbs and fingers together forming a diamond -- working the muscle groups needed to excel in Air Assault School," said Davenport.
After entering the arches, students prepare for their first event of the day -- a six-mile road march.
"After formation, we give them a brief, equipment check and then right around 3:30 [a.m.] is when we actually step off for the 6-miler," said Davenport. "After the six-mile march, they have approximately 15 minutes to get their gear together, get water and make sure their canteens are topped off. We then get them back in formation and get them prepared for their "Ten Layout.""
During this inspection, students have 10 minutes to layout all the inspectable items on their packing list, in a specific format. The emphasis of this timed event is attention to detail.
"During this course we continuously harp on attention to detail," said Davenport. "The smallest mistake, in a real-world situation or in a mission, can cause that mission to fail. We [tell] the students when they come through, 'think of this as a 10-day mission. We are giving you exactly what you need for this 10-day mission."
After the layout, students begin their aircraft orientation portion of Phase I.
"We've been able to get the students aircraft to be able to actually see, hands-on, what aircraft they're going to be learning about in class, so that's something that's beneficial, that's been added to our course now," said Davenport.
Phase I, Day Two -- Cadet Garner
I woke up at five o'clock in the morning and arrived at the school by 6 o'clock, which gave me time to make sure I had all my equipment and prepare for the day. Today began with us doing our "five and dimes" and then [physical training] after our roll call. The physical stuff - like day one and day two, where we would go out to formation and we would do about 100 or 200 overhead arm claps and then push-ups and then side straddle-hops - I trained for that, so that wasn't a problem. What was harder for me, was understanding the classroom stuff -- and this day was almost entirely classroom time. I could memorize [the information] but trying to picture it or visualize it was difficult. I don't have that experience. A lot of guys didn't have to pay attention - they knew that stuff by heart so they didn't even need to study - they just knew it. And because I didn't have that experience I had to stay in my books and write things down and highlight.
On day two, students at the Air Assault school can be seen moving about school grounds with extreme urgency. Echoes of "Air Assault!" are heard at every turn as more than 200 students quickly move from formation to their classroom.
"As far as [physical conditioning], we are really getting them to move with a purpose," said Davenport. "From getting their water, getting in formation, getting their gear on, making sure every buckle is buckled, every snap is snapped, every zipper is zipped - attention to detail."
Classroom time covers all of Phase I training, which includes aircraft orientation, aero-medevac procedures, pathfinder operations and combat assault. Students spend much of the day committing information to memory in preparation for phase one testing, which is to be administered on the morning of day three. Students that have excelled in the physical aspect of Air Assault School now become uneasy at the thought of the next day's written exam.