Sainte-Mere-Eglise, France -- Modern warplanes intrude the legendary Normandy horizon. With stoic precision, they seek a solemn grassy and remarkable clearing amidst fabled farmland and patchy woods. The six French and U.S. planes are carrying special cargo: over 300 Paratroopers, excited, focused and looking forward to following in the footsteps of their forefathers.
On June 6, 1944, the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions jumped into Normandy to initiate the liberation of France, leading the way to victory in Europe and the end of World War II. At the time, over 13 thousand Paratroopers in full combat gear were carried in C-47s across the English Channel and dropped in a single lift overnight into enemy territory.
On the eve of the 73rd anniversary of Operation Overlord, also known as D-Day, two senior U.S. Army Paratroopers are also getting ready to mark milestones of their own. 173rd Airborne Brigade Command Sergeant Major Franklin Velez and the 173rd Brigade Support Battalion Command Sergeant Major James LaFratta are conducting their 100th static-line jumps at this historic event.
Jumping into Normandy on the 73rd commemoration of D-Day is not only an event of personal significance, but also a milestone that brings Paratroopers back to the beginning of their careers.
"It doesn't matter what unit you are currently with, because all Paratroopers started their time with the 507th [Infantry Regiment] at the Airborne School, and the 507th jumped here in Normandy," said Velez. "We are all connected."
Reflecting on the start of his airborne career, Command Sgt. Maj. Velez vividly remembers his first jump with his unit -- the sixth jump of his career, after conducting his first five at the U.S. Army Airborne School in Fort Benning, Georgia.
"My sixth jump was in July of 1991 with the 82nd Airborne Division," said Velez. "I was a private back then, following the orders of my team leader. Now, I am jumping with all of my Sergeants Major for the first time. To be able to conduct my 100th jump with the 173rd Airborne Brigade on this drop zone is very honorable."
Like Command Sgt. Maj. Velez, Command Sgt. Maj. LaFratta has no trouble recalling his sixth jump and its significance throughout his career.
"In October of 1994, I jumped with my unit for the first time on Juliet Drop Zone in Italy," said LaFratta. "Years later, I came back to Italy and had the opportunity to perform my duties as the Battalion Command Sgt. Maj. and jumpmaster on the same drop zone from all those years ago."
For a historian like Command Sgt. Maj. LaFratta, the opportunity to participate in the commemoration is momentous.
"This is my 100th jump and it's in a significant location where the 101st Airborne and the 82nd initiated Operation Overlord," said LaFratta. "Today, I'm especially excited to be a part of the airborne community."
Reflecting on the day's festivities, both Command Sergeants Major had similar thoughts and feelings.
"When I landed, I was excited to complete my 100th jump," said Velez. "It is an even bigger honor to be able to complete it at an event like this."
"It was surreal," said LaFratta. "I looked over the drop zone and thought of all the folks that came through before. One hundred jumps is an achievement, and to do it here is even more significant."
To future generations of Paratroopers, Command Sgt. Maj. Velez offered one piece of advice: "Enjoy everything you can and do your best, because you never know where it will lead."
The 173rd Airborne Brigade (Sky Soldiers) is the U.S. Army's Contingency Response Force in Europe, providing rapid forces to the United States European, Africa and Central Commands areas of responsibilities. Forward-based in Italy and Germany along with a National Guard-partnered battalion in Texas, the Brigade routinely trains alongside NATO allies and partners to build interoperability and strengthen the Alliance.