EAST POINT, Ga. -- Many people set high goals for themselves, but one Army Reserve Soldier here set his goals higher than most, aiming at an achievement that would take him more than 12,500 feet above the ground.
Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Justin P. Morelli, a combat cameraman assigned to the 982nd Combat Camera Company, 335th Signal Command (Theater), turned his goals into reality recently when he became the first combat cameraman to earn the coveted Freefall Parachutist Badge after successfully completing the four-week military freefall course in Yuma, Arizona.
To earn the badge, a service member must first earn the Parachutist Badge, complete all necessary ground training, and then complete all of the course required freefall jumps, which include night operations, jumps with full combat equipment, and jumps using an oxygen system.
"When I first started in this specialty, I read ... that the combat camera field had military freefall qualified personnel," Morelli said. "But as I started to meet people and talk to them about it, I never met anyone who had actually been through the course. So about a year ago, I dug deeper into the regulations and began making a case that we need to start a freefall program."
The next step in the process was convincing his command to approve the idea. He also had to reserve a seat in the school and ensure funding was available for it. But before he could attend the course, he had to pass several in-depth physicals.
For one of the physicals, Morelli had to travel to Fort Rucker, Alabama and spend time in a hyperbaric pressure chamber to ensure he could withstand the pressure and oxygen changes at high altitudes. He also had to travel to Fort Benning on three separate occasions to complete the qualification physical.
Once he was medically cleared and had a seat in the course, he showed up at the school and began in processing. "It was very evident to me early on in the course, that the instructors and the personnel in charge of the school were very supportive and really wanted to make this capability available to combat camera," said Morelli.
The first week of the course is "ground week," during which students spend a lot of time in the classroom, but also train in a wind tunnel, where they learn how to properly position their body in the air during the freefall.
"All of the main freefall fundamentals necessary to complete the course are covered during that first week," said Morelli. "You learn about your equipment, your procedures, and how to pack a parachute."
The second week of the course, the students make their first freefall jump and then continue jumping and practicing their skills two to three times a day until the end of the course. Each jump is a progression, Morelli said.
"You start off jumping with just a parachute, your plate carrier, and a helmet, so that you learn what freefall feels like," he explained. "By the end of the course, you will be part of an entire team of freefall personnel jumping at night at a high altitude with oxygen, full combat equipment, and your individual weapon, with the goal of landing on a target no more than 100 meters from the first person to the last."
Morelli, who made 20 freefall jumps during the course, said that successfully completing the course has added an essential capability to his career skillset.
"As a combat camera operator I'm supposed to document a mission from start to finish," he said. "But if I can't get to work that day because I don't have the qualifications to jump with the rest of the team on a mission, then I don't have a complete story."
Now that he has completed the course, Morelli is looking to the future. He predicts more of his fellow combat camera Soldiers will follow in his footsteps. "I believe that information can win wars without bullets, and what better way to provide information than through still and video imagery?" he said.
"I want my combat camera operators to be looked at as what they are: force multipliers and enablers that can move around the battlespace and provide the best product possible to battlefield commanders," he continued.
To do that, he believes, combat camera Soldiers will need more tactical training, additional infiltration capabilities, and a solid understanding of an operational environment.
With his graduation from the course now behind him, Morelli plans to continue taking to the skies. He hopes to eventually log 200 jumps.
"I'm just going to continue jumping and learn as much as I can about my new capability," he said.