By Jennifer Mattson, TRADOCJanuary 13, 2012
FORT BLISS, Texas (Jan. 13, 2012) -- The Blue Angels, the Thunderbirds and the Golden Knights perform across the United States in recruiting efforts for the Navy, Air Force and Army, respectively. But only one such demonstration team relies solely on their noncommissioned officers, or NCOs, to demonstrate professionalism, compete internationally and jump out of airplanes with VIPs strapped to them.
While the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds highlight their officer corps by placing officers in key positions -- mostly pilots -- the demonstrators of the Golden Knights are all enlisted.
"This organization is comprised primarily of enlisted personnel," said Sgt. 1st Class Joe Jones, team leader of the Golden Knights' tandem section. "And we travel independently of the team. A sergeant first class takes his team on the road and will perform these parachute demonstrations or tandem jumps away from Fort Bragg (N.C.)."
"For a battalion commander to release those guys to go do airborne operations only under the supervision of the NCO says a lot about the leadership and the trust in the NCOs in this unit," Jones said. "Jumping out of a plane is an inherently dangerous job, but through the emergency procedures and training done under the supervision of the NCOs, the officers in the unit have the full trust and confidence in their NCOs to go out across the country and perform demonstrations."
Performing demonstrations is important, Jones said, but it's only a small fraction of what the Golden Knights do. Their primary mission is to act as a recruiting and retention tool, to engage with the American public and to tell their Army story to people who don't normally interact with service members. To do that, these professionals live and breathe the Army Values as they represent the whole Army to an American public who might have little daily interaction with any branch of military service.
"Jumping out of the plane is only 10 percent of what we do. That's how we get to work," Jones said. "Once we hit the ground, we do the rest of our work. We engage with these people. We share our experiences and our Army story, and share all of the opportunities the Army has to offer -- educational benefits, leadership opportunities."
THE AIRBORNE ROOTS OF THE GOLDEN KNIGHTS
The Golden Knights began as the Strategic Army Command Parachute Team in 1959. At the time, the Soviets dominated the international competitions in sky diving, and the Army developed a team that could compete with them.
In 1961, the Strategic Army Command Parachute Team became the U.S. Army Parachute Team. And in 1962, the Golden Knights earned their nickname: "gold" for the medals they won, and "knights" because they had "conquered the skies."
In the 53 years the Golden Knights have served the Army, they have appeared in more than 16,000 shows in 48 countries and all 50 states. These professional Soldiers play one of three roles when assigned to the Golden Knights -- as a demonstrator, a tandem jumper or competitor.
Regardless, these professionals are often given responsibilities above their rank. For example, before the whole team arrives, a junior NCO will make arrangements for the rest of the team -- from deciding where they'll stay to coordinating media engagements.
"A lot of times, an advance representative will get on the ground two days before the rest of the team and find out about media, where to park the aircraft, our hotels, lodging and rental cars," said Staff Sgt. Thomas Melton, a parachute demonstrator. "Oftentimes on a team, we're working a couple pay grades above the pay grade that we have."
Melton has been with the unit for more than a year. Before coming to the team, he was a parachute maintenance technician with the 82nd Airborne Division. In both roles, he's seen NCOs act as professionals, but with the Golden Knights he's seen that level of professionalism rise in proportion to the amount of responsibility charged with each individual Soldier.
"It's the only place in the Army that I've seen where they rely solely on NCOs," said Sgt. Richard Sloan, a demonstrator with the Golden Knights' Gold Team. "There is a chain of command like any other unit. On the airborne operations, there's at least a field grade officer, but here you don't see that. What you'll see here is basically sergeants first class and below running the entire operation."
JUMPING WITH VIPS
Some of the NCOs in the Golden Knights jump tandem with local government, business and military leaders. This role requires NCOs to be the professional face of the Army as they represent the entire service to the VIPs who place their lives in the jumpers' hands.
When the team arrives to a tandem jump, they often link up with the local recruiting office, which gives them a list of VIPs who are interested in parachuting in tandem with the Golden Knights. Some of the VIPs who have jumped with the Golden Knights are Bill Murray, President George H.W. Bush and members of Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders.
"I've been everywhere from rolling in the mud in a Ranger regiment to having Bill Murray strapped to my chest," Jones said. Through the experience, the Golden Knights want jumpers to feel more comfortable with the Army and its mission, Jones said. In addition, they act as ambassadors for NCOs across the Army.
"I want them to leave at the end of the day feeling that they just put their lives in the hands of a Soldier," Jones said. "They allowed me to throw them out of an airplane and to bring them down safely. We put our lives in the hands of Soldiers every day, we just don't think about it. When I take someone up for a tandem jump, I basically earn their trust and confidence. They're putting their lives in the hands of a Soldier."
Sloan said the recruiting efforts of the tandem jump help the Army open doors previously closed to Recruiting Command's efforts.
"They take high-profile personnel to give them the opportunity to see what it's like to be in airborne operations," Sloan said. "They'll be strapped to you. They'll exit the aircraft at 12,500 feet off the ground, a 120 mile-an-hour [wind will be] in your face, and you'll feel what it's like to be a Golden Knight for a day."
DEMONSTRATING AND COMPETING WITH THE KNIGHTS
Two teams of demonstrators -- the Black Team and the Gold Team -- travel across the United States appearing at football games, air shows and recruiting events. Members of the Golden Knights also compete in national and international parachute competitions. In both roles, NCOs represent the high professional standards of the Army.
"The noncommissioned officers in the Golden Knights are the demonstrators. They are the competitors," said Sgt. 1st Class Greg Windmiller, a competitor in the U.S. Army Parachute Team. "[NCOs] actually make up the meat and potatoes of the team."
While the two demonstration teams perform in towns across the United States, the Golden Knights' competitors perform on the national and international stage in parachute competitions. The competitors serve on separate teams from the demonstrators, and usually have served on the Golden Knights longer than the temporary three-year assignment.
Windmiller has competed for the Army for 11 years and has won several national and international competitions.
By highlighting the Army and its capabilities at the national and international level, Windmiller demonstrates the professionalism of its NCO Corps by earning medals that demonstrate the Army's competence.
"My primary job is to be an ambassador for the U.S. Army and to tell the American public what it's all about," Windmiller said. "In a nutshell, I'm a recruiter. But I also get the privilege and the fun of competing in competitions."
Windmiller competes in canopy piloting, the ability to manipulate a parachute for power and speed. He competes in three separate events: speed, distance and accuracy.
"Having a noncommissioned officer, and even a junior noncommissioned officer, with that trust, that experience and that capability is a really unique thing in the military," Windmiller said. "We require our noncommissioned officers to be extremely professional and to conduct themselves in a manner that's appropriate for the Army as well as the team."
REPRESENTING THE ARMY
Sgt. Maj. Stephen Young, sergeant major of the Golden Knights, said he takes the responsibility of representing the Army seriously. When Golden Knights parachute in to places around the United States, many citizens don't see Soldiers on a regular basis. To them, the Golden Knights are the Army.
"We represent 1.2 million Soldiers -- active, National Guard and Reserve," Young said. "We're representing each of those Soldiers individually because we have a variety of MOSs (military occupational specialties) here. We have an Army story. We can tell that Army story, and we can connect with those people."
Sgt. Austin Bowman, a crew chief on a C-31A Troopship, one of the Golden Knights' aircraft, has served with the team for almost two years.
"We have a very senior NCO, who has been an NCO before I even came into the Army," Bowman said. "And then there are NCOs who were just promoted before they came here. There are different levels of experience. Our focus as NCOs on this team is to mentor one another."
Sgt. Shawn Holland, another crew chief, said the majority of his job is preventative maintenance of the aircraft, acting as the load master and coordinating jump operations. Before being assigned to the Golden Knights, Holland served with the 82nd Airborne Division for five years, deploying twice.
"We're all considered leaders," Holland said. "The ability to take our own initiative is always in play, and the ability to organize a chaotic situation is a must."
The NCOs on the U.S. Army Parachute Team lead by example, and they set the example for more than the Soldiers in their unit, Young said.
"They are leaders, mentoring not only the Soldiers who are here -- each other and their peers but they're mentoring Soldiers we come in contact with at air shows or at military bases," Young said. "They're maintaining the standards of discipline and the Warrior Ethos. It may not be downrange, [and] we may not be in Afghanistan or Iraq, but we're still following and trying to set that example for the Soldiers out there and for the American public."
THE MORE JUMPS YOU HAVE ...
Sgt. 1st Class Dustin Perregrin, a 19D cavalry scout who serves as a demonstrator with the Golden Knights, said though the team adheres to military rank structure, there are times when experience matters more.
"I'm an E-7, and I work for an E-6," Perregrin said. "It's more based on your experience with the team and how long you've been here. Just because I'm an E-7 doesn't mean I know how to sky dive better than a guy who's been here four or five years who might be a rank lower than me. Everybody here is really determined and motivated, and that's why they're here -- because everyone is a team player."
Being a team player is important to the esprit de corps of the Golden Knights; the camaraderie is why most of the Knights continue to serve in this capacity, Perregrin said.
"It's a nominative assignment. Everyone on the team has been deployed, worked in Iraq and Afghanistan," Perregrin said. "We're not here because we wanted to be here, but because they chose us to be here. Most of the guys do three or four years here, but then they go back down to the line."
WORKING WITH THE COMMUNITY
Sgt. 1st Class Felix Gomez, an aviation NCO for the Golden Knights, coordinates the maintenance and crew chief jobs and works as a liaison for the civilian contractors. He's been with the team for more than three years.
"We have to show the community, wherever we participate in, the image of the Army, show what the Army is all about," Gomez said. "We have some key things that have to be in the spotlight -- professionalism, dedication, commitment to the nation and to the Army."
The Golden Knights have different challenges than other NCOs, Gomez said.
"There are a lot of responsibilities in a different way," he said. "You're not dealing directly with other Soldiers. You're dealing more with the public. It's representing a big number of Soldiers before the community."