JOINT BASE CAPE COD, Mass. – Pfc. Demetrius Patterson limped off the parade field. With the wings of an Air Assault graduate just pinned on his uniform, the motor transport operator assigned to Massachusetts’s 1060th transportation company grinned. “I’m just glad that’s over,” he said.
Patterson was one of the 178 Soldiers who graduated from Air Assault School held at Camp Edwards here, Aug 19 – 30. The 10-day course puts Soldiers through a slew of mentally and physically exhausting evolutions designed to weed the weak from the pack and see who was truly willing to do whatever it takes to join the ranks of Air Assault.
At the start of the course, 257 potential students from National Guard and Reserve units all over the country had descended on this sprawling base. Thirty candidates left by the time “Zero Day” had ended – an 11 percent drop rate. By the time the graduates took to the parade fields on a sunny, clear Friday morning, only 69 percent remained and earned the right to wear the Air Assault wings.
Air Assault candidates volunteer for the school to acquire the skills and knowledge required to be competent in Air Assault combat operations. Those operations are represented by the school’s three phases. During Phase I, students learn about aircraft orientation, aircraft safety, aero medical evacuations, combat assault, and hand and arm signals. Phase II is the sling load phase, where students learn to prepare, rig, and inspect loads attached to rotary winged aircraft for transportation. The third and final phase is the rappelling phase, where students learn to tie a rappel seat, hook-up techniques, belay procedures, and combat rappelling.
However, before the students can even begin the course, they must pass Zero Day.
“No one is in the class at the start of Zero Day,” said Sgt. 1st Class Wesley Colinger, the class noncommissioned officer in charge. The successful completion of the nine-obstacle course was the final hurdle to earn admittance to the course.
The morning of Zero Day, “they woke us up and pretty much smoked us. They followed that with a two-mile run,” said Spc. Kyle Merrill just after he finished the obstacle course. The obstacle course “was difficult, but I gave it 100 percent – I’m going to give everything 100-percent while I’m here – and now I have a spot in the class.”
Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis Flynn, the senior noncommissioned officer for the Regional Training Institute here, watched on the sidelines as candidates attempted the course. “The cadre will put these Soldiers through the motions. They’re not just handing these badges out.”
By the end of the day, 30 candidates had not passed Zero Day and did not earn a spot in the class.
For those that did earn a spot, however, the most challenging aspects of the course were still ahead of them.
“We usually see quite a few drops during the sling load phase,” Colinger said. “Starting on Zero Day, you hear the cadre say it all the time: ‘attention to detail.’ That is supremely important in Phase II because it’s a hands-on inspection of a sling load.”
What that means is the students are responsible for ensuring that very, very heavy cargo is secured to the aircraft properly. If it’s not, catastrophe, ranging from dropped loads to aircraft crashes, will surely ensue. Sling load inspection places enormous responsibility in the hands of the inspector. “You have to look at every single little piece of the load,” Colinger said. “We tell them time and again: ‘pay attention to what you’re doing. Look only at what you’re touching, and touch only what you are looking at.’”
“Phase II was very nerve racking,” said Patterson. “When you inspect the sling load, it can be so difficult. You have to make sure you see everything – every little detail. If not… man, it’s going to be a bad time.”
“Especially being in a Guard unit, the sling load training is something we can use,” said 2nd Lt. Brandy Warner of the Massachusetts National Guard’s Company C., 126th Aviation Regiment. “Part of our mission is response to natural disasters. We just learned how to transport a water buffalo. Now, if there is a situation where people need to get water, we can get it to them.”
In fact, Sgt. 1st Class Elliot Franklin, part of the class cadre, applied sling load operations in exactly that manner. “Back in New Mexico, we had a big winter storm and a bunch of ranchers were about to lose their cattle because they couldn’t get any food to them. The local Guard performed sling load operations, dropped in some hay and food, and were able to save the rancher’s cattle. It’s situations like this where you can really see the utility of this skill.”
While putting their new skills to use is something the Air Assault students look forward to, most were just happy that the grueling course was over, and they earned a few days off.
“I can empathize with the pain all of you have endured,” said Col. Francis McGinn, Massachusetts National Guard, the keynote speaker at the graduation and also an Air Assault graduate. “I remember when I was going through, there was a Special Forces Soldier who didn’t make it through Zero Day, which was – to me – a little disconcerting. If he couldn’t make it through, how would I?”
McGinn had this advice to the new graduates: “You shared misery together, you shared accomplishments. Cherish these memories, and laugh at the humorous moments, but build on the foundations of your recent training.