MSG Gary Qualls will graduate from Airborne School today, just three weeks shy of his 51st birthday.

"I just believe in living a colorful life," said Qualls, public affairs officer for 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. "The Army has let me do some interesting things. I've traveled all over the world. I've done amphibious landings with the Marines. I've flown in Harrier jets. I've washed my clothes in the Euphrates River. I want to be able to tell my grandchildren someday that I jumped out of an airplane."

Qualls was quick to add that he doesn't have any grandchildren yet - his kids are still in high school, but the "Rambo-type, hard-charging" training will be something he'll remember long enough to pass on to the next generation, he said.

For Qualls, the three-week course wasn't without its difficulties.

"It's challenging because you're trying to hang with a bunch of 18- to 21-year-olds. Your body doesn't bounce back as much as it used to," he said. "It really is a different world to me. I'm surprised how well I'm doing it."

Qualls said much of his success in training depended on the support of the cadre and fellow students. As a senior NCO, he is encouraged to always try his best since he is an example to younger students.

The success of those Soldiers who are "the future of the Army" matters, and leadership
plays a large part in their success, Qualls said.

Certain NCOs stand out in every class, and this cycle, Qualls is one of them, said SSG Alberto Villacorte, an Airborne instructor who works closely with Qualls.

"He's an inspiration for the rest of the students, especially the younger kids," Villacorte said. "He has the experience in life and in the military. They see Master Sergeant Qualls really trying, and they see that he's a good example.

"You can tell who the determined people are. They don't quit. They just keep going. You can tell by the way they conduct themselves. They do what they're told. They don't complain ... the kind of students we prefer to have. I wish that there were a lot more Master Sergeant Qualls in the company as a whole."

In a course that is "80 percent mental," overcoming any fears associated with heights is critical, Villacorte said.

Qualls was nervous about his first jump Tuesday, but the experience will help him in his role back home at Fort Bragg, N.C., he said.

After knowing what it feels like to be suspended 1,250 feet above the ground and then make one decisive leap, trusting in his prayers, training and parachute, Qualls said he has gained a "deeper understanding" of what the Soldiers in the 82nd Abn. Div. go through on a regular basis.

"I was scared, but I was determined. And once I looked up and saw I did have a parachute above me, then I had fun. It was peaceful," Qualls said. "It's good to try new things - that's how you grow. I'm definitely a better person for having overcome my fears and doing it.

"And I lived to tell the tale. I've had an interesting and exciting ride so far in the Army. Who knows what new adventure is around the corner'"