CAMP ARIFJAN, KUWAIT --There was no shortage of sweat and tears during the Air Assault course hosted by the 29th Infantry Division here April 3rd-14th, 2017. Air Assault candidates came from all over the Operation Spartan Shield Area of Operations and included U.S. Soldiers, Airmen, Marines as well as members of the Kuwaiti Military.
Throughout the 10 day course, Air Assault cadre assigned to Fort Benning, Ga. instilled a warrior mentality within each candidate through a combination of physical fitness, technical skill, and practical application.
The first step was indoctrination. In place of their ranks and names, candidates were given a roster number plastered on their Kevlar helmet to identify them during the course. Barred from simply walking from place to place, they were directed to run everywhere during training while calling out "Air Assault" every time their left foot hit the ground and to refer to each instructor as "Air Assault Sergeant."
Then came the dreaded Zero Day -- the day when the majority of unsuccessful Air Assault candidates fail the course. It serves to weed out those who lack the right stuff to graduate. Staff Sgt. Thomas Presutti, the course's chief rappelling instructor, explained how grueling that first taste of Air Assault was.
"Zero day is less than 24 hours," he said. "But we work them like it is three days in one." A two-mile run in uniform must be completed within 18 minutes with a short lunch break followed by the infamous air assault obstacle course full of ladders, ropes, and concertina wire. Those that get over, under, and through all of these obstacles are admitted into the course.
Pvt. Zarafina Human, a Patriot missile operator for Alpha Battery, 11th Brigade, 1-43 Air Defense Artillery Regiment, admitted the introduction was trying.
"On day zero, after I finished and got on the bus I started crying," said Human. "I was so happy to have made it that far."
Human felt Zero Day was one of the most strenuous portions of the course, but the young Soldier didn't have her wings yet. After zero day, the following 10 days continued to test, not only the physical abilities of Human and her peers, but also their mental abilities and attention to detail. Phase One consisted of classroom time, Pathfinder operations, and hand and arm signals, with PT sessions scattered throughout.
Phase Two included a 50-question exam followed by sling-load tests where recruits learn to prepare, and more importantly inspect sling-loads on a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. Each student was required to identify three out of four preparation deficiencies to pass.
"This is where we get a lot of no-gos," said Presutti. "Yet on the retest we saw a lot of improvement."
Once sling-loads were behind them, the students moved into phase three, referred to as the fun part: rappelling. Candidates first learned and were tested on tying their hip rappel seat, commonly called a "Swiss seat", the rope that serves as a harness while descending from a platform or a Black Hawk. From there, the students practiced their new skills on the ground, and then on a slant wall before graduating to a tower and ultimately a helicopter. Each of these events presented an opportunity to move on to the next task, but also the risk of dismissal from the course.
For Human, every day was a challenge. She said she felt a sense of relief at the end of each benchmark event. While experiencing physical and mental exhaustion, the Soldiers had to retain proficiency on all requirements.
"We had to pay really close attention to detail," Human said. "Even a small slip or loss of a seemingly insignificant item could get you dropped from the course. It happened daily."
The last major challenge Human and her fellow trainees had to overcome was a 12 mile ruck march that had to be completed under three hours while carrying a 45-pound pack. It was here that Human felt the most significant sense of accomplishment.
"At the 9-mile point of the ruck [march] they gave us our wings as our turnaround item," she said of the token that the marchers were given to prove they had passed the turnaround point. "It gave me this adrenaline rush and the extra motivation to keep stepping."
Not that she necessarily needed that extra push. When Human went to join the military in culmination of her long-running determination to serve her country, she encountered several people who didn't believe she had what it took to be a Soldier. She encountered a similar skepticism when she expressed interest in earning her Air Assault badge, and took it as a personal challenge. More than a decoration, Human said the wings now displayed on her uniform dispel the doubts of her fellow Soldiers had of her and provide tangible evidence that she has conquered her fear of heights.
Some were not as lucky, or as determined, as Human. Of the 269 troops that showed up for Zero Day, just 213 received their wings. Drops were due mostly to failed tests and safety violations. According to Staff Sgt. Presutti, even though he and his fellow instructors start out by acting hard and unforgiving, he is proud to say he sees a lot of leadership potential in the graduating group that will contribute to the overall success of the Spartan Shield mission.
"These are our leaders of the free world, passing on the information they learned here to their junior Soldiers," said Presutti. "They will be applying skills they learned here in theater. If equipment needs to be sling-loaded, they would be the people to run the show."
Even though she is only starting to rise through the ranks, Human said she feels like she has more confidence in her skills as a Soldier and a leader. She thought she will likely have the phrase "Air Assault" stuck in her head for a while every time her foot hits the ground. But that is a small price to pay for the fact that she learned vital lessons.
Human also felt a sense of accomplishment for putting in the work required to successfully complete the challenging course. She attributed her success to encouragement from fellow students, having a goal, and not accepting defeat when faced by obstacles.
"It was rigorous and physically demanding; I was sore everyday" Human said, then looking down at the new wings pinned to her uniform added, "I did my best to stay motivated, because I was determined to get my wings, and I did it."