By Amy Newcomb (Fort Leonard Wood)March 15, 2012
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. -- The Missouri National Guard held the first Air Assault training course at Camp Crowder in Neosho, Mo., Feb. 28 to March 9. More than 160 active-duty and National Guard Soldiers and several Airmen began the course, but only 105 students earned their Air Assault wings.
During graduation, Missouri state Command Sgt. Maj. James Schulte told graduates he never thought he would see the day they would have an Air Assault graduation in
"I want to congratulate all these warriors standing out here in formation," Schulte said. "When I went to Air Assault School they touted that it was the toughest 11 days in the Army, and I suspect it still is, and I also know with the attrition rate we have there are a lot fewer people standing here than started this course. This is a badge you earn -- they don't give it to anybody. You can wear this proudly the rest of your career and know that you don't have to explain it to anybody that's wearing it -- they all know that you are an Air Assault Warrior."
Company C, 2nd Battalion, 10th Infantry Regiment Company Commander Capt. Shaun Young, said he waited seven years to attend the Air Assault Course, and appreciated the Missouri National Guard for affording him the opportunity to earn his wings.
"The most exciting part of the course was working with the Missouri National Guard," Young said. "We, as active-duty Soldiers, don't have the opportunity to work with our National Guard counterparts a lot of times, and it's very invigorating to see the motivation, camaraderie and the bond that those guys have."
Young said he was not only proud of the three Soldiers from Fort Leonard Wood that graduated with him -- Staff Sgt. Jose Chacon, 2nd Battalion, 10th Infantry Regiment supply NCOIC; Staff Sgt. Ariel Romero, 3rd Battalion, 10th Infantry Regiment drill sergeant and Staff Sgt. Jason Cassiday -- but was also proud of every student that completed the course.
"Just to see a group of Soldiers come together for two weeks and struggle through a very difficult and challenging task, I am really at a loss for words," Young said. "The Missouri National Guard guys really stepped it up. Them allowing us to tag along for not only this Air Assault school, but also the qualifier back in January which was an excellent opportunity."
Over the 10-day course, students underwent strenuous training, starting on "Zero Day," which began before sunrise with a timed, two-mile formation run. Following the run was a nine-station obstacle course that tested the students' endurance. Double-timing in between obstacles, whether crab-crawling or high stepping completing push-ups and flutter kicks, kept students at a constant pace between challenges, while each loudly shouted "Air Assault!" when their left foot touched the ground.
Romero said Young worked with the Missouri National Guard to secure 10 slots for active-duty Army Soldiers from Fort Leonard Wood.
"You had to be able to do the 12-mile road march in three hours and you had to have a 275 or above on the (Army Physical Fitness Test)," Romero said.
For Romero, the hardest parts of the course were the written tests, but achieving this goal has been a long-time dream since he joined the Army nine years ago.
"Now that (the Army) has given me the chance to actually do it -- and being a drill sergeant is a challenge because as a drill sergeant you supervise privates and not actually physically do more like you do in a regular unit. I am proving to myself that I am still in the great shape I was in before I became a drill sergeant," he said.
Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Wade, Air Assault noncommissioned officer-in-charge, said there is speculation on whether standards are compromised at off-site Air Assault courses, but the same point of instruction and standards apply to every Air Assault course, whether they are taught at Fort Benning, Fort Campbell, Fort Drum or at an off-site course like the one at Camp Crowder.
"The only differences would be more on the (administration) side, as far as what days we do what and the order of the course, but everything else has to remain the same," he said.
Wade and his team of instructors teach four to six Air Assault courses annually at Fort Benning and another 10-12 off-site courses in states that have confidence courses built to Air Assault standards. Approximately 70 percent of their students are active-duty military while about 30 percent are National Guard.
The 126 students who made it through "Zero Day," attended several days of Phase I classroom instruction and tested on aircraft orientation as well as air assault, pathfinder and aero-medevac operations.
Sgt. 1st Class Damon Russell, previously a Phase II, Phase III and Pathfinder team chief, said each phase requires students to pass written and hands-on examinations with a grade of at least 70 percent in order to progress.
During Phase I, after students completed the written exam, they took a hands-on test using hand and arm signals to bring in and control aircraft.
Only 116 students progressed to Phase II slingload operations, which used cargo netting to move heavy equipment via rotary-wing aircraft.
"When they do the slingloads, they are again tested over two things: a 50 question exam, and they will have two minutes to find four deficiencies on each load they are tested on and they are tested over four of the six loads they learned," Russell said.
The last section of training prior to graduation was Phase III -- training on slant wall and wall side rappelling. One hundred and eight students went through the rigorous process of rappelling from a 40-foot tower, with and without equipment, and 30 miles per hour winds under the watchful eye of Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Van Holland, Phase III team chief.
"First of all, it builds their confidence as far as exiting the tower correctly, so they start on the ground learning the basics; then they move to the slant wall and they will learn a little bit more there and then move to the tower," Van Holland said. "For the most part it's the same as the aircraft, so by the time they get to the aircraft they have about six or seven rappels and should be good to go."
The single most important thing students learn during Phase III is safety. Fatal hook-ups are the most dangerous safety violation a student can make and will get them dropped from the course, Van Holland said.
"With a fatal hook-up, the ropes are in their snap link in the opposite way they should be … if they go down the ropes like that, their snap link could become inverted … if that becomes inverted, the ropes could spin the barrel open, and if their barrels open, then the gate opens and the rope could fall out of the snap link," he said. "So, if they're not attached to the ropes, they will free fall to the ground."
Due to high winds and sleet, the Missouri National Guard UH-60 Black Hawks were unable to make the trip from Fort Leonard Wood to Camp Crowder. Fortunately, every Air Assault course has a UH-60 mock-up, which simulates an aircraft. In order for Soldiers to qualify, they had to simulate a hook-up with the mock UH-60 with no safety violations and conduct two additional rappels.
Staff Sgt. Charles Mangone, 1st Battalion, 138th Infantry Regiment, of Booneville, Mo., and the oldest Air Assault student at age 51, said the 6-mile road march during Phase I was hard, but he anticipated the 12-mile road march to be his toughest challenge.
"I weigh 140, so I am not only the oldest, but probably the smallest guy here," Mangone said. "The 12-mile coming up -- that is my nemesis. That is my big challenge -- I have to try twice as hard."
On graduation day 106 students struck out before daylight on a 12-mile road march with three hours on the clock and a 35-pound rucksack strapped to their back. Every student completed the road march, but they still were not cleared for graduation. Air Assault instructors inspected student's packs for deficiencies, and another Soldier was dropped due to missing items on the packing list.
Wade said most students fail the 12-mile road march because they did not pay attention to detail.
"If they are missing an earplug case at the end of the road march, they are dropped at the end of the course, even if they complete it," Wade said. "They have to meet the standard and the standard is to finish the road march in less than three hours with the prescribed packing list, and if anything is missing from that packing list they did not meet the standard that was set."
Wade said Air Assault is a difficult course that is a proud Army tradition still being utilized today and everyone who successfully completed the course should be proud of their accomplishment.
"I think the biggest thing is being a part of that history and doing something the average person could not complete," Wade said.