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Aviation played a role in my life early on, although in a different fashion. I was 17 years old when I graduated from high school in 1972. At that time my one burning desire was to get out of Dodge. The home and family situation I was in, was highly dysfunctional and even at 17 I knew I had to get out. When you're 17 and basically penniless, there aren't many options and I took the only one that I thought would give me a semblance of structure and support because at my age I wasn't close to taking on the world.
So I joined the US Army and for some unknown reason, other than it seemed to be a swashbuckling move, I signed up for the Paratroops. Little did I know that the lessons learned during my three year military carreer would tell me a lot about myself, more about others, would last me a lifetime and have a major impact on making me the person I am today.
So after a few months of Basic and Advanced Training at Fort Dix, New Jersey and Fort Jackson, South Carolina, I was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, for Jump School. I was 18 now and ready. When I joined the army I weighed 124 lbs, and here it was 5 months later and I was about 150 lbs...still growing, but I was in great shape. And I would need to be, Jump School at Benning is some of the most intense physical training a person can undergo. The mental challenge is staying focused and not allowing the neverending physical rigors to get the better of you.
Jump School was a challenge from start to finish, but I did well and won Distinguished Honor Graduate of my class. To this day it's one of the proudest moments of my life.
From Fort Benning I was shipped to the 1st Battalion of the 509th, the only Airborne Unit in Europe. I was stationed at Lee Barracks, in Mainz, Germany.
Part of being a Paratrooper is being the best you can possibly be. It is drilled into your head from the moment you get to Jump School and it follows you throughout your military career. Second best is never good enough. In retrospect, I don't know if we actually were "the best", but we certainly believed we were and that's all that mattered.
Have you ever heard the quote from Henry Ford, "Whether you think you can or whether you think you can't...you're right." We definitely thought we could and truly believed there was only one outcome possible and it was never good for the other side.
I was in the Infantry and more specifically my specialty was Anti-Tank. My weapon was a TOW Missile, which was shot from an Armored Personnel Carrier or a Jeep. It was wire guided and could hit a moving target a mile away. It was a devastating weapon and is still used today.
After eight months in Germany our unit was transferred to Northern Italy. Our post was called Boscomantico (The Rock) and was on the outskirts of Verona, the city of Romeo & Juliet, about one hour west of Venice. Our post was a small airfield previously used by the Italian Air Force. The Combat Support Company of which the Anti-Tank Platoon was a component consisted of about 300 men and we had Verona all to ourselves. It was a wonderful assignment. This pic to the left is what I saw every morning when I looked out my window.
Although soldiers, we lived an idyllic life. The camaraderie and closeness I felt with this group of men I have never duplicated in my life. We were truly a Band Of Brothers. It was a special bond and there are still several I am in touch with today.
There is no greater feeling in the world, and I mean none...without exception, than getting to your 4/1000 count...looking up and seeing this sight...because at that precise moment you know... you will live to see another day.
As I said our base was a former Italian Air Force Base, (pic to right)...our barracks were the buildings at the upper right side of the large white asphalt rectangle. We were stationed here because the Riggers were part of our Company and they used the large hangars to pack the chutes and rig our vehicles for heavy drops...not all of which worked ( pic to left).
Along the way I became a Squad Leader. It didn't take me long to figure out the concept of "team" and I have taken that with me through life. No individual can be more important than the group. Individually people may be vulnerable and susceptible to outside forces. Put individuals together who have different strengths and a very strong group emerges; the group will make up for the lack of individual strength in certain areas. To me, the whole of the team was always greater than the sum of the individual parts. I never forget that.
There was a period in my life that although I went flying all the time...I never landed. We jumped from a variety of aircraft, C-141 Jets, C-130's (lots of these), Huey Helicopters and one jump from a Chinook Helicopter...which was my all time favorite because it was my only stand up landing. Our chutes were not designed to drop slowly, otherwise in a combat jump you may not reach the ground. I believe the descent was something like 26 feet a second, so mostly we landed like sacks of potatoes. There were no style points.
At Boscomantico we jumped from Huey Helicopters and the airfield was our drop zone. I never like things out of my control and one thing that made me nervous about Huey's was, the Jumpmaster hooked up your static line...not you; because you sit on the edge of the door and can't reach far enough behind. I recall one jump, watching from the ground, as the Huey's crossed the DZ and the jumpers started going...the third guy out, we could see the static line trailing behind him, everyone watched breathlessly...counting...at 4/1000...your chute should be open...we counted 5/1000, 6/1000, 7/1000...the jumper finally realized he had a problem and we saw the reserve chute come out. WOW!!
The 509th no longer exists, it was absorbed by the 82nd Airborne. The base at Boscomantico is no longer occupied and is mostly grown over with weeds. I will never forget the time I spent there. The local Italians were wonderful people and several of my friends married there. Today, there is an Italian flying club that operates the small airport and gives flight lessons. Soon, I plan to go back; I will bring my log book and take a lesson from a local Italian CFI.