Warrenton, Ore. - "Safety is the number one priority," nearly 50-Soldiers from across the country were told while attending Oregon's annual summer Rappel Master Course, held June 10-14, 2018 at Camp Rilea, near Warrenton, Oregon.
"The Rappel Master Course is a safety course that teaches young leaders how to properly run a rappel tower or rappel operations out of a helicopter using a rappel system," explained Massachusetts Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Thomas Presutti, an instructor with Company B, Warrior Training Center.
Army National Guard instructors, broken down into three companies and assigned to the Warrior Training Center (WTC) located at Fort Benning, Georgia, serve as the point-men for training service members in a variety of specialty skills to increase and maintain the operational readiness of the Army National Guard. Company B, is tasked with instructing the Air Assault, Pathfinder and Rappel Master Courses, and regularly travels as a Mobile Training Team. Instructors have already made the rounds this year, completing courses in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma before starting the June course in Oregon.
While any highly qualified Soldier between the ranks of E-4 and O-2, may be selected to attend (regardless of military occupational specialty), Soldiers must also be a graduate of Air Assault, Ranger, Sapper or the Military Mountaineer Course. Often times, Soldiers come straight out of an Air Assault Course to attend Rappel Master.
"They come right in, it's tough on them, but we don't beat them up like we do in Air Assault. It's more of a gentleman's course," said Presutti.
Nevada Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Jared Hale, with the 3665th Explosive Ordnance Company in Henderson, believes that doing Air Assault and Rappel Master back-to-back benefitted him.
"One of the good things about it is that it's all fresh," said Hale. "I didn't have to come back like some of my other Nevada counterparts and re-learn. I've been doing this stuff for the last two weeks."
Hale said the 12-day Air Assault Course, which wrapped up on June 8th at Camp Rilea, was "more like basic training...more dress-right-dress, show-up at four-o'clock in the morning, being smoked on zero day, the obstacle course, it's like that all the way through."
But he said, having some of the same instructors from the Air Assault Course (for Rappel Master) made things easier, "You have trust, it was actually a great transition."
Oregon Army National Guard 1st Sgt. Isaac Engle, with Bravo Battery, 2nd Battalion, 218th Field Artillery Regiment, went through his Air Assault qualifying course nearly 11-years ago.
"Relearning everything was a bit of a setback. I had to relearn all of the commands," said Engle. But he said regaining that confidence was important. "I'm a little intimidated by heights. I do like scaring myself. Coming down a 60-plus foot wall to overcome a fear, and instilling confidence and belief in oneself, it's something that I want to do personally and share to enhance unit morale and retention. My unit wants more hooah stuff."
The five-day Rappel Master Course is broken down into three main categories, the Rappel Master Personnel Inspection (RMPI), Basic Rappelling and Advanced Rappelling.
Ideally, all students would pass, however it rarely happens. Typically, instructors see around a 10-15-percent attrition rate, which rang true at the Oregon course at Camp Rilea. They started with 46 students and dropped down to 40 for graduation. While the Rappel Master Course doesn't necessarily have the physical events like Air Assault that knock people out, it is academic and failures typically occur during the RMPI portion.
"These are good Soldiers; they were sent here for a reason and they are going to be leading operations from a tower, where safety is so important," Presuitt said. "But we all don't think the same way. Some people can just see where the rope goes, and how the knots work, for others it's much more difficult."
Day one starts off at a quick pace, consisting of three exams on knots, hook-ups and equipment familiarization. Each exam is timed and only one re-test is administered for individuals that do not meet a passing score.
Day two focuses on what is routinely known for being the most difficult, the RMPI. Instructor's drill in what errors or common mistakes to look for and Soldiers are rigged-up "dirty" with an error meant for the inspecting student to catch and correct. These checks are mandatory, and without them could lead to a serious injury or even death. During the RMPI test, students have three minutes and 30-seconds to inspect three rappelling Soldiers in different configurations and must identify all major deficiencies, missing no more than two, and use proper terminology. Many students choose to become familiar with the RMPI process prior to attending the course by memorizing deficiencies in the Rappel Master Hand Book and by becoming more familiar by watching video materials provided by the schoolhouse.
Student-Soldiers utilize these skills from the classroom when they move outdoors onto basic and advanced rappelling and their aircraft command and control testing, where they must be able to successfully send rappelling Soldiers down from at UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter hovering more than 90-feet above the ground.
"When you are running the helicopter, that's the most rewarding part," Presuitti said.
However, Hale looked forward to rappelling out of the helicopter, "It was definitely the high for me. I got to do it three times today, whereas with Air Assault you do it once."
Engle also was most excited about rappelling from the helicopter, but had a unique situation when acting as the Rappel Master, "In a testing situation, you want to have the proper terminology, proper sequence, proper hand and arm signals. Me being a first sergeant, I love talking with my 'knife-hand' and so when I was in the bird, I had to keep my hands behind my back at parade rest, because when you knife-hand that Soldier they are jumping. I probably messed that up on almost every single practice."
Students closed out the course by completing Advanced Rappelling, also known as rescue rappelling, where one Soldier would role-play the person in distress while another would rescue them. The last task to complete the course is a cumulative written final exam.
Hale said he recommends the Rappel Master Course. "It teaches you a lot more in depth, especially techniques, things you're going to see and need to know than just the Air Assault course on its own."
But Hale warns future students who start with Air Assault Course, to "check their packing lists, get documents off the website, have everything. You will suffer less."
Company B instructors will finish the year with their final Rappel Master Course in Grafenwoehr, Germany, in September. The Oregon Army National Guard has hosted the Rappel Master Course at Camp Rilea, on the Oregon Coast, for more than 10-years.