FORT BRAGG, N.C. (Feb. 17, 2012) -- As Robert "Bobby" Ricketson looked out over Sicily Drop Zone, Wednesday, he ruminated what it was like to have been a paratrooper 37 years ago.
"They were the best years of my life," he said.
Ricketson, who served in Company A, 82nd Signal Battalion, and the battalion's Headquarters Company, from 1975 to 1978, came back to Fort Bragg to fulfill a dying wish -- to see paratroopers jump from their aircraft one last time.
"I came back just to say goodbye," said Ricketson, 54, who has been diagnosed with terminal esophageal and lymphatic cancer and traveled from his home in Homosassa, Fla.
By Wednesday, he hadn't eaten or drank anything in days, said his wife, Susan. But, airborne means so much to him, she explained.
"He'd cut out our roof for a drop zone if he could do it," she said.
Pierre Bouthiller agreed.
He and Ricketson were roommates when they served in the 82nd Sig. Bn. It was Bouthiller who contacted Frank Hanan, Fort Bragg Community Relations chief Feb. 1, when he learned that his friend wanted to see a jump. Although there wasn't much time to plan, Hanan said there was no question about supporting the request.
"How can you not support this (event)? He's one of ours," said Hanan.
"It's important because he's my best friend," Bouthiller said. "My sacred and solemn duty is to fulfill his last wishes," said Bouthiller who traveled from his home in Maine to be by Ricketson's side and to capture the moment on video. "I know that he would do the same for me."
Long before the paratroopers landed, Ricketson did something he had not done in 34 years. He raised the beret to this head, adjusted it and donned its maroon color.
"It feels good, wish I could still wear it all the time," Ricketson said. "This is a badge of honor."
Ricketson was a senior in a Florida high school when he decided to join the Army, choosing to become a paratrooper because, from an early age, he liked a rush of adrenaline.
In retrospect, Ricketson said he often wishes he had stayed in the Army, and is proud to have served honorably as a United States paratrooper.
Ricketson remembered his first jump. It was from a C-123 Boxcar, also known as "the Flying Brick," he said.
"It was the first time I'd ever flown in my life. The adrenaline was rushing and I loved it," he recalled.
Ricketson logged in 20 static line and five free-fall jumps during his Army career, and even remembered his last jump.
"The last one was a C-130 static line and I loved it."
After leaving the Army, Ricketson packed his parachute and stepped into the next stage of his life -- building two companies (one in construction and another in auto repair).
"He always said that the Army gave him structure and discipline to succeed in life," Susan said.
It also gave Ricketson something he said he has never lost -- "you never lose the brotherhood," he said, as illustrated by the fact that Bouthiller temporarily relocated to Florida for a month last October to take Ricketson back and forth to chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Pfc. Sarah Adams, of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, stood nearby and watched paratroopers make their descent. A military brat who joined the service 14 months ago, Adams said she understood the significance of Ricketson's return.
"I think it's awesome that he's doing it," she said. "In a way, 82nd becomes people's lives."
What advice does Ricketson have for Adams and other young Soldiers like her?
"Do what your superiors tell you to do and you'll get out okay," he said. "You do in life what you can do and you don't step on anybody while you're doing it."