College Prep in High School
I went through the college prep track in high school. I also worked in the grape fields of central California in the early 1970’s, and I knew I was not cut out to be a farmhand. I did like being outdoors, but I had plenty of pruning and picking grapes for a while.
Before graduation, I spoke with my high school band teacher who had been in the Army. The Army would be a good place to get some adult experiences, be around male leaders, and also get the G I bill benefits to help pay for college.
Confused by more than 300 possible job options, I thought I would try something basic: Infantry. Well, I did not want to be just any infantry soldier, so I opted for Airborne training, and the recruiters were overjoyed. The conversation went something like this:
Recruiter: “Hey, kid, do you want to see what the real Army is like? How about trying the Infantry branch? You get to be with your buddies, go hiking and camping, and shoot rifles! Does that sound good?”
Bernie: “That sounds good, sign me up.”
Recruiter: “If you want to be a cut above, apply for Airborne school. Only the best soldiers get to try Airborne school.”
Bernie: “Only the best? Airborne all the way! Sign me up.”
Recruiter: “Listen. If you want to be the very best, Airborne Rangers get to jump out of planes, ride in helicopters, go in submarines, big guns, big explosions, lots of foreign travel!”
Bernie: “I certainly want to be one of the best. Big guns? Helicopters? Big explosions? Sign me up!”
Those recruiters are probably still laughing at that naive 17 year old.
Basic Combat Training
Basic training at now closed Ft. Ord, CA was actually not bad. We were right on the California beach, nice ocean breezes, sunshiny days, and I did not see it as an overwhelming or bad experience.
Running, pushups, sit-ups, but also shooting the legendary M-16 rifle! I was a shooter in high school, so I did well. I eventually shot 40 out of 40 targets, earning the coveted “Expert marksman” qualification.
All Rangers are Expert marksmen. I enjoyed running and being with the guys, similar to other team athletic events back in high school. Most of us were just out of high school, or within a few years of it.
Infantry school was at Ft. Benning, GA. Four months of advanced training similar to basic training: group exercises, running, pushups, sit-ups, hiking, camping, I was enjoying this.
I liked being in the woods; I liked being “part of the team.” Airborne school was also at Ft. Benning, so no travel was involved. Airborne school starts before dawn with a group of sergeants yelling at you to get going.
Physical exercises are designed to weed out those who cannot handle the stress of being pushed hard. My thought was, “These are fellow American soldiers, trying to see what mental toughness we bring to Airborne school.”
Everybody was pushed to their limit by the sergeants. When it was my turn to be pushed, I just did some more pushups, and went back to work. This helped us learn that we were stronger than we may have thought initially.
A number of soldiers quit, but I needed to prove to myself that I could do this. Everyone else who was wearing Airborne wings had gone through this, so I hoped I could do it as well.
In addition to other infantry skills, we focused on parachute jumping. This was, after all, called Airborne school for a reason. Remember seeing those guys jumping out of airplanes in all those World War II movies?
The first week is continuous, strenuous physical exercise, and many soldiers do not continue the Airborne course of 3 weeks. The next weeks included static line jumps and jumps off of a 250 foot tower.
As I stood in line, I watched all of the soldiers in front of me. We each hooked up to a body harness and then we were winched up 250 feet to the top. The parachute was released from the tower and you floated down to the ground. I had just completed my first parachute experience! I was very excited.
I was a bit distraught at fellow soldiers who stood in line, watched others hook up and parachute down. I was amazed when they would get to the front of the line, and then decide not to complete the exercise.
I silently wondered, “What were you thinking? It is called ‘Airborne school’ for a reason.” So we lost another group of soldiers to the ‘straight leg infantry’ units.
The last week of Airborne school, no surprise, we go up in a C-130 Hercules airplane (you may have seen them in movies), ready for our first true parachute jump. We rehearsed this moment repeatedly on the ground:
“Stand up, check your equipment, check your static line,” the jump master would roar. Again, this is Airborne school, what did you think you were here for? It is no secret; you will jump out of an airplane with a parachute. No surprise.
I was again surprised at the number of guys who got to this point, got to the front of the line, and would not jump! Did you see the dozens of guys in front of you who jumped out of the door? Did you spend weeks on the ground watching jumpers hit the silk parachutes, wishing you were one of them?
When you get to the front of the line, the jump master looks at you, points to the door, and shouts “Go!” If you hesitate, he shouts “Go!” a second time. If a soldier does not jump at that point, he is pulled out of line, and does not graduate from Airborne school. This is called ‘Airborne school’ for a reason, fella!
I will admit that I did take a big gulp, looking at 3,000 feet of sky above the ground, but I told myself, “This is why you volunteered for this, so just take one step, and it will be okay.” That moment of panic was overcome, and I did take that one step. To calm my nerves, I consciously honored our Native Americans, by silently saying “Geronimo,” but I was too scared to actually vocalize anything.
In less than one second I was out of the door, and immediately the parachute was deployed; the static line sees to that. My panic moment was over, and I remember recalling how calm it was to just float to the ground.
As soon as I hit the ground, I wanted to go back up and do it again. I was now a member of the elite Airborne corps. 13 years later, I had 38 qualified jumps. I needed just two more to be recognized as a Senior Parachutist. I did not get those two jumps, but I will always be proud of my Airborne wings displayed on my chest in uniform.
I also went on to Ranger School and served with the 2nd Rangers at Ft. Lewis, Washington. I don’t have any funny stories from Ranger School. It was not fun. It was just hard. (Fellow Rangers know what I mean.)
College after the Army
I did use my high school college prep track, and funded my college work with the GI Bill. Although I do not do any sky diving, I did dive into the academic world. I am now a Professor at a local university.