By Capt. Stephen Von JettAugust 1, 2016
FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- Knuckles bloody, hands red and swelling, one Soldier sits alone. His eyes are closed but he isn't asleep. He is shadow boxing, his tired hands precisely moving against an unseen foe. He prepares for a deadly serious match, and the stakes are nothing short of a life. His opponent is not a rival boxer, it is imperfection -- and the life in the balance is not his own.
The perfect is the enemy of the good. A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow. Army culture is steeped in adages that forgo perfection for action, but these Soldiers must give no quarter to good enough.
For three blistering weeks here in July, 39 Paratroopers trained to be jumpmasters during the U.S. Army Special Operations Command Static Line Jumpmaster Course administered by 4th Military Information Support Group.
Half way through the course, 1st Sgt. Julio Torres, the committee chair for the jumpmaster personnel inspection, JMPI in the airborne lingo, moved between clusters of candidates passing words of encouragement. Many had just been through their first timed evaluation of JMPI and none had passed. Right off the line, all were out of breath and many were nursing injured hands from the process.
"Get your heads up!" Torres shouted. "Not as easy as you thought it would be, is it? Definitely not. But keep those heads up."
Torres carries himself with the gruff and disciplined demeanor that is quintessential to first sergeants everywhere, but this day he worked to break the tension coursing through these stressed candidates. To the clusters he cracked jokes. To the loners he provided quiet words of encouragement.
Jumpmasters have many duties, and the success of an airborne operation rides on their shoulders. Their responsibilities include everything from pre-jump training to the controlled exit of all parachutists, but according to Torres the most important of these duties is the JMPI. During JMPI, the jumpmaster inspects and corrects deficiencies on the parachutist's equipment.
"JMPI is the toughest portion of the course for the students," Torres explained. "If you're not JMPI'd correctly you can have everything from a bad landing to loss of life. When you leave this course we want to make sure you won't cause loss of life."
There are 107 points of inspection. That means there are 107 different deficiencies that the jumpmaster candidate can encounter. To pass, they must complete JMPI on three jumpers within five minutes without missing a major deficiency.
To get through this the candidates learn to shadow box. Like conductors leading an unseen orchestra their hands dance in the air, working to commit to muscle memory the process, the lifesaving steps, of JMPI. They trace invisible equipment as the movements must become second nature if the candidate hopes to pass.
One candidate completed her first evaluated practice in just over five minutes. She missed a few deficiencies but was solidly on the glide path to success. When asked how she visualizes this process, and deals with so many variables, she cut right to the chase.
"Stop thinking about deficiencies and passing tests; think murder," she said stoically. "Soldiers' lives are in our hands."
USASOC jumpmasters have an excellent safety record. There has not been a loss of life on a static line airborne operation in over a decade and 99 percent of jump-related injuries are attributable to jumper error, things that jumpmasters can mitigate but cannot prevent.
Still, that grim sentiment about murder raises a question. In an organization with a lion's share of qualified jumpmasters why are so many Paratroopers striving to take on such a burdensome mantle?
To best answer this question, one can answer another. When is a leader not a leader? When they're jumping, but aren't a jumpmaster. These Soldiers who bear the responsibility of the welfare of their subordinates take their leadership seriously. To be the whole package they need to be able to lead in the skies as well as on the ground.
Of the 39 who began JMPI, only 23 progressed. Perfection is illusive and the standard is rigorously enforced. After this trial, for those blistered and bloodied few who mastered the dance, the remaining challenges fell like dominos. Aircraft were inspected, drop zones were made safe, panels were spotted, and jumpers were given the command to exit an aircraft while in flight.
At Bank Hall the morning of July 29, those same 23 crossed the stage with their heads held high as the newest U.S. Army jumpmasters; as leaders in the sky.