A Tiny Girl with Paratroopers’ Wings

That’s the title of an editor’s note from a February 1968 issue of Life Magazine. I heard about it on a recent episode of On The Media (link below).

Before the Vietnam War there was a law that banned women from reporting on the frontlines of any war for the U.S. When President Johnson refused to officially declare a state of war in Vietnam, an opening appeared: no war, no ban. A handful of pioneering women bought one-way tickets into the battlefield. They had no editors, no health insurance and little or no formal training. This week, Brooke spoke about this time to reporter Elizabeth Becker, formerly a Washington Post war correspondent in Cambodia, NPR’s foreign editor and then national security correspondent for the New York Times. Becker is the author of a new book: You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War.

“You Don’t Belong Here” | On the Media | WNYC Studios

While the profiles of all three women were impressive and fascinating, I was struck by the story of Catherine Leroy. The lines that grabbed my attention are below:

Brooke: The photographs that she took were legendary. Of course, later tremendously celebrated. You mentioned in passing, she was a parachutist, she was the first photojournalist to take photos from the air.

Elizabeth: She was the first and only because that was the first and only airborne assault of the whole Vietnam War. She was the only one in Vietnam at the time who was even qualified. You can imagine this teeny woman jumping with these big American airborne helmet, boots, she jumps and she’s got three cameras around her neck and you’d think one of them would have flown in her face but no, she managed to get gorgeous photographs that they almost look like ballet. Then, she lands in a combat zone. I get shivers when I think about it.

There’s also this retrospective from the New York Times: The Greatest War Photographer You’ve Never Heard Of.

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The thrill of the infil

A love-letter to the magic of the helicopter infiltration.

The infil, though, was something different. To me, this was a sacred time. I was 100% invested and prepared, leaving the confines of mission planning for the unknowns of the combat experience shared by warriors of all breeds for millennia. Infil was a critical transition point between two-dimensional PowerPoint concepts and visceral lethality. Once we touched down, it’s back to work again.

Army Special Forces officer talks about helicopter infiltration

An NCO once grinned from ear-to-ear talking about the magic and power he felt when riding in a Blackhawk en route to a landing zone, and looking out the open door, wind blowing, to see a half dozen other Blackhawks, all carrying members of your unit.

“Shit’s about to go down,” he said.

I always loved riding in a UH-60 late at night during training, flying low over Fort Bragg and looking out at the houses out in the distance and seeing the soft glow of amber lights, warm and comfy inside.

And I felt a similar feeling when looking out the rear of a C-17 as the heavy drop deployed, sucked out, and seeing the other C-17s in the trail as the sun dips below the horizon. Hundreds of paratroopers about to land at the same place.

It’s unique, and addicting.

Credit: Twitter

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Army Myths: Unhook your chest strap and you get 10% more inflation

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Before a jump, paratroopers spend a lot of time waiting around. The airborne timeline is notorious for having you show up at 0300 for a 2359 time on target, and most of the time inbetween is spent talking with the guys next to you.

Invariably, talk will turn to how much jumping sucks, and how to make it suck less.

A myth that I heard over and over from “senior” E4s and junior NCOs was that if you unhooked the chest buckle of the T-10D parachute during your descent, your canopy would get a little extra inflation. On more than one occasion I heard that it would give you 10% “more lift.”

I remember being skeptical upon hearing this at first. I understood the theory, that by unhooking the chest buckle it would theoretically allow the risers to expand out more, thus allowing the canopy to also expand, letting in more air and slowing the descent.

I dismissed their claims, and they dismissed my dismissals as naive.

The only way I’d know for sure, they said, was to try it out myself.

New paratroopers are unlikely to risk touching any of their equipment during descent out of fear – better to just ride it all in than to touch something you shouldn’t touch and risk a gory way to die.

After making a certain number of jumps and feeling confident that I kind of knew what I was doing, I decided to finally test the claim for myself. During a “hollywood” (no equipment, day time) jump on a pleasant day, I unhooked my chest strap during my descent to see if it would do anything.

It didn’t.

I fell to Earth, at more or less the same speed as I was before I unhooked the buckle.

Airborne.

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Do we really need airborne forces?

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When I was still in high school an Army recruiter visited and gave a short presentation to a bunch of disinterested, super-cynical New York Public School students. The recruiter, in his sharply pressed BDUs and shiny black boots paced back and forth in front of us. He spoke about the Montgomery GI Bill and the opportunity to travel abroad. When those carrots didn’t pique anyone’s interest, he spoke about the opportunity to jump out of airplanes for a living. I shot my hand up and reminded him that this was 1999, and asked him if the concept of airborne forces weren’t outdated, because, you know, missiles. Like a true professional, he fielded my question and spoke at length of the esprit de corps of the airborne community and he explained the importance of maintaining the airborne “forced entry” capability. I felt smug, having bested the poor recruiter.

A couple of years later I would be jumping out of airplanes.

When Failure Thrives, which explores the concept of airborne forces in the Soviet Union, the UK, and the US, is the inaugural publication of The Army Press, which just recently popped up. As their mission states:

The Army Press is a single organization that serves as the Army’s focal point for identifying, encouraging, and coaching prospective authors to publish original contributions on history, policy, doctrine, training, organization, leader development, and the Army Profession. The Press’ programs and products enable scholarship, facilitate professional dialogue, and promote a fuller understanding of the Profession of Arms for uniformed and civilian members of the DoD and JIIM communities.

It’s a fascinating examination, and it captures a lot of the barracks banter that will be familiar to anyone who served in the airborne, only, it’s backed up with facts. In the case of the American airborne community, its ability to exist is in large part due to the initial investment of talent and resources during World War II, the ongoing redefining of the airborne’s mission (The Pentomic Division, lol), and the strong patronage of current and former paratroopers.

What I found really interesting is just how unsuccessful airborne forces have been over the past century (more failures than successes) and even when measured by historians aiming to gauge combat efficiency, airborne forces don’t perform any better than their conventional counterparts. For all the shit-talking that goes on, there just really isn’t a lot of data to back it up.

And as a friend and mentor once said to me, the hurdle to get into your traditional airborne units isn’t very high – it’s 3-weeks of airborne school and you’re in.

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173rd Airborne Jump Iraq

Dietz print 173rd

Week ending December 15, 2013

The top search of the week was ‘173rd airborne jump iraq.’ Those searchers were surely looking for information on the March 26, 2003 combat jump into northern Iraq by elements of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. I wrote about that event from the point of view of a disgruntled All American, waking up on a stale cot in Kuwait to hear the news.

For a paratrooper, earning a combat jump device, or “mustard stain” is the pinnacle of airborne service. You have to be at the right place at the right time – in history. Combat jumps happen infrequently – they are cosmic events, one every 20 years or so. Recently I met someone in my unit who jumped with the 173rd in Iraq, and I couldn’t help but get giddy and ask “What was it like?”

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French paratroopers earn their mustard stains in Mali

Jealous.

Lots of action going on in Mali. Here’s the story behind the jump.

The ‘combat jump device‘ is one of the rarest awards in the US military. Right place, right time. I almost got one (not really).

I’m not sure if there is an equivalent award for the French. If anyone knows if they get any special recognition for participating in a combat jump, I’d love to know about it.

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Valentine’s Day Deployment

January 2003

Once upon a time on Ardennes Street…

Another morning like any other in the 82d Airborne Division. A company run at a nice, easy pace. A run designed to build esprit de corps and unit cohesion.

I had been in the Army for almost two years. The entire division had deployed to Afghanistan since 9/11 with the exception of the 325th AIR, the Falcons. War with Iraq seemed more likely with each passing day and each week brought news reports of units being tapped for deployment to Kuwait. At the time, the rumor was that we were being held back to serve as a strategic response to any worldwide contingencies. Paratroopers from the 504th and the 505th were cycling back to Bragg, chests puffed out at the Airborne PX, showing off their new CIBs. Our fear was that this whole thing would pass before we got our chance in the show.

As we beat feet, singing cadence, the company I was running in started rumbling loudly. I looked up and saw that we were passing a company from the 504th who had just returned from Afghanistan.

“Three Two Jive!” someone shouted from the passing formation.

“No war Oh-Four” someone responded from our formation.

“We got ours! You guys missed it” we heard.

A junior NCO from our formation got out the last word “They’re saving us for Iraq” which was said with more hope than fact.

We passed the formation and continued running, wondering if we would ever get our shot.

14 February 2003

Worst. Valentine’s. Ever.

Wearing my brand new desert uniform and maroon beret, I stood outside on a browning grass field, worn down from sweat and mountain climbers. Hundreds of paratroopers were busy all around me checking and double checking serial numbers, burning 550 cord, loading trucks, and making sure duffel bags and rucksacks were nicely lined up in formation. I called my girlfriend to tell her that I was leaving to deploy “somewhere” and that I didn’t know when I would talk to her again.

For weeks prior, we trained and prepared for a deployment to Iraq, although no one told us that is where we were actually going. We all suspected it was Iraq, and I am sure our command new that was where we were going, but that word didn’t filter down to my level. The war hadn’t started yet and everything was a secret.

Instead of finalizing romantic plans for the evening, I made sure she knew where she could find my will. I tried to sound as confident and reassuring as I could as I finished up the call like it was any other night. “All right, I’ll talk to you later. I love you. Bye!”

I powered down my phone and turned it over to my squad leader who placed a piece of white tape on it with my name and date. I let out a deep breath of air and turned my attention to the best Valentine I could get – my team, my squad, my platoon. We would spend the entire year together in a hot, exotic locale. Romantic for all the wrong reasons.

I wouldn’t hear her voice again for three months.

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