As some of you know, once upon a time I was a Ranger. Matter of fact I was part of the reactivation of the 3d Ranger Battalion. We did a lot of things and I did a lot of neat and nifty stuff, some of which I’m paying for today.
We’d been activated for a couple of months but weren’t “real” yet – weren’t eligible to go play if things got real. One of the required steps was an ARTEP. Now for you non-military types, the ARTEP is where you play wargames for a grade. For what it’s worth, ARTEPs for ‘elite units’ are a bit more intense than those for ‘regular units’. But I digress.
Rangers theoretically open their games – play and real – with a mass airborne insertion. That is, we fall out of perfectly good airplanes carrying everything we own upon our backs, and wander around till we find the enemy or the way home, whichever comes first. (Yeah, joke. feh – let’s get a bit serious.) For those who’ve not done it, some background.
When you jump static line, you actually (usually) go with two parachutes. You have the one that is attached to the plane by a static line (a tether). In the event something goes wrong with that you have a reserve – smaller, attached to your chest, and pulled open with a handle. Now in training there is a certain minimum altitude to allow you time to realize you’ve got a problem, pull the cord, and the reserve to fully inflate and save you. In wartime situations we drop our rangers (and, I believe, everyone else) at altitudes a bit too low for that safety. Yeah, we lose a few people from failed parachutes, but a lot more aircraft stay up that way. Anyway, keep the altitude in mind for a bit.
The other thing you need to realize is that line about carrying everything on our backs isn’t really a joke.
When we jumped, we carried three days of supplies. That’s a few hundred bullets, extra grenades, food, water, etc. Plus, of course, weapon, uniform, helmet, and so forth. Almost everyone also had to carry either another belt for the machine gun, another rocket for the anti-tank, or another couple of mortar shells – those got burned up FAST in the event of combat, and were a bit too heavy for a hanful of men to carry it all. I said “almost”. Some people got to ‘shirk’ because they were carrying extra due to their assignment. I, for example, “only” carried some extra M-60 belts because at this time I was a gunner. Which meant I was carrying my M-60 machine gun and my .45 pistol.
To save a bunch of boring detail, some of us put our gear on a scale and found we were carrying between 120 and 150 pounds. Eventually that got reduced, but that’s another story.
We also had our parachutes. 27 pounds for the main harness plus another 12 for the reserve – just under 40 pounds to cap it all off.
Now obviously you can’t put this all on your back. That’s where the parachute is, and your reserve is on your chest. The harness itself is pulled as snugly as possible so when the parachute suddenly slows your hurtling body the straps can’t shift around and jerk hard on sensitive parts of the anatomy – or come loose, which for some people may not have been worse. Anyway, what happens is you’ve got most of your gear stuck in a rucksack which is clipped to the bottom of your parachute. Take a bag and hook it to your belt to get a feel for this. Anyway, the theory (and practice) is that when you get somewhat close to the ground you pull a couple of quick releases, and the bag slides to the end of a ten foot tether. That way when you hit the ground you don’t have this bag of weights trying to push your knees backwards.
Finally there’s your weapon. It’s in a stiff board-like bag that’s hooked to your side. It stays by your side and USUALLY won’t interfere with your plf. That’s Parachute Landing Fall, and it’s a basic stunt fall to keep from breaking knees and ankles when you hit the ground at (snicker) 22 feet per second.
22 feet per second is the descent rate of the T-10 parachute with 250 pounds of weight dependent. More weight, faster fall. Less weight, slower fall. Look again at the load – 120 pounds of gear, 40 pounds of chute and harness. If the soldier only weighs 40 pounds he’s golden. Me, I weighed 190 pounds. And as I said I carried a bit of heavy gear – my pack was closer to 150 pounds. Just shy of 400 pounds headed for the ground hits a tiny bit harder. But that’s not where I need to start the tale.
It was a dark and moonless night. We’d bounced around for almost an hour getting to the drop site, harnesses pulled tight and monsters on our laps. Finally the calls started. Outboard stand up. Inboard stand up, and I fought my way to my feet. Hmm, rough flight – the C-141 is bouncing a bit. That’s ok, I’ve got a decent grip on something. “Hook up” – hook the static line hook over the metal cable and pull down firmly – the detent clicks in place. Slip the cotter pin through the hold and give it a quick bend and that sucker isn’t coming off.
Check static line – careful tracing to ensure it’s not gotten wrapped around an arm or something. Whoops, the plane’s sure shuddering – that’s ok, been here before, and I’ve got a good grip on the static line just below the connector.
Check equipment – mine a bit, but mainly the guy in front of me. SSG Flores isn’t big, normally, but loaded with gear he’s another giant. Still, I can trace his static line down to the bag, and make sure everything is tucked and snug. Polly, my assistant gunner, is being me doing the same. I make a quick push on the bag holding the M60, and while I’m at it nudge my pack with each knee in turn to ensure both clips are in place.
A couple more calls and we start shuffling forward. The Airborne shuffle – foot that’s away from the wall moves six to eight inches forward, trail foot moves forward till the toe is even with the heel, stomp-slide-stomp-slide no tripping and it puts you in position for …
Stand in the door. Not me but the first person in line. When “go” calls we’ll shuffle forward, pivot on the trail foot which puts us on the platform (sticks out a few inches from the hull of the aircraft), step/jump forward, snap the feet and knees together, hands on reserve, elbows tucked and head down while we count a delay waiting for the tug of the chute opening. Or at least that’s the way it’s supposed to go.
“Go.” I shuffle, pressed hard against my squad leader’s back and Polly pushing me, airplane swaying not only from winds but from the rapidly shifting center of gravity. I reach the door, and start, and feel the plane shudder – crap, that was a fall, not a jump. Still, feet and knees together, hands on reserve, elbows tucked, chin down – it’s my 40th jump and it’s a ingrained habit and
kersnap. Crap, that was my LEG and my back instead of the harness – ouch and wtf? I look up and it’s pitch black. Look down and – that’s the CHUTE? Something is tugging at my right boot. Sit up hard, grab the boot – hey, that’s one of my risers, or is it two. Give a tug and a twist and it yanks away – just one, it’s off my boot and out of my hands. Bend down to grab the ruck drop and
WHAM. Huh, even surprised I did something that pretended to be a PLF. Leg is screaming, back is talking, but not only is there instinct but I am a Ranger and “Never shall I fail my comrades.” pop loose the chute, uncase the rifle, bag the chute and gather everything and There’s the assembly point signal, let’s move…
Yes, I did the rest of the ARTEP, pain and all. Heck, I didn’t see the doc about it for another three months – when my PT score was a bit too low (under 300) because of the interference from the pain in my back. And today my back aches and my knees ache – especially my right – when I get to working them hard. shrug – it’s a thing. I’ve later figured out we were a tiny bit below altitude on our drop – I told you to keep that in mind. I’m to this day not certain how much of the bounce was air, how much pilot, and how much just the nature of a bunch of heavily laden men running out the back of an airplane. I know it was a bit of all three, just not how much goes where. It really doesn’t matter.
Still, no other jump I ever made was as bad as that one. Given what some friends went through – and the potentials I faced myself – I’ll count myself ahead of the game.