Camp Edwards, Mass. – More than 150 Soldiers from across the country earned the privilege of wearing the Army’s coveted Air Assault badge through completion of an intensive 10-day school at Camp Edwards last month. The school trained Soldiers methods of harnessing equipment and personnel to helicopters for expedited transportation to and from the battlefield.
The Camp Edwards Air Assault school began on Aug. 11, 2009 with more than 250 students. Army Staff Sgt. Scott Corbin, an Air Assault instructor with Company B of the National Guard Warrior Training Center, said that within the first few hours nearly 50 of those students had already been excused from the training; victims of a rigorous obstacle course recently built to specific Air Assault standards. The attrition rate continued to climb as 50 more students were dismissed for failing to complete the six-mile and 12-mile ruck marches in the allotted time and improper procedures for passing the sling-load test.
Army Spc. Brett Smith of the 116th Infantry Regiment, Virginia National Guard, agreed that the most difficult part of the school was the sling-load test, wherein students had to identify proper techniques of affixing large pieces of military equipment to a helicopter. He also asserted that his favorite part of the school was rappelling out of a helicopter hovering 80 feet above the ground.
Army Sgt. Miranda Carter, Virginia National Guard, who graduated from Air Assault school last summer said, “Repelling out of the aircraft is the most fun – it’s the adrenaline of the moment.”
This year, it was Carter’s responsibility to provide administrative assistance to the 55 cadets attending the school. The cadets, all of whom are drilling members of their respective state’s National Guard, demonstrated a higher graduation rate than the general ratio in the class.
“I think their college studying skills have a lot do with it,” said Carter. She also noted that the cadets were in particularly good physical condition because they had recently completed their leadership development camp.
The cadets hailed from colleges in South Dakota, Montana, Virginia, and North Carolina. Some Soldiers traveled even further than that to attend the Air Assault school here. National Guard Soldiers from as far west as Washington and Oregon supplemented the members of the Massachusetts National Guard participating in the training.
Simultaneous to the Air Assault training taking place on Camp Edwards, non-commissioned officers from the Warrior Training Center were also instructing 37 National Guard Soldiers on Pathfinder operations elsewhere on the same Army installation.
Army Staff Sgt. Benjamin Raudszus, a Pathfinder instructor, said, “Pathfinder school is similar to Air Assault school, but more detailed.”
Pathfinder school is four days longer than Air Assault school. It also includes a two-day culmination exercise in which students are evaluated on their knowledge of the course material, ability to apply that knowledge in a field environment, ability to devise a proper plan and leadership skills. The course includes procedures for harnessing military equipment to helicopters, but mainly focuses on teaching Soldiers to set up drop zones for individuals and equipment parachuting out of aircrafts.
“I would say right now the focus of Pathfinder operations is leaning toward Afghanistan for aerial resupply missions,” said Staff Sgt. Troy Richardson, a Pathfinder instructor.
Richardson said that the two hardest parts of the training are the written drop zone test and the practical sling-load inspection.
The difficulty of the sling-load test is a recurring theme linking the Pathfinder school and the Air Assault school, but it is also may be the most important part.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Crookstan, a member of the 141st Military Intelligence Battalion, Utah National Guard, and one of the Air Assault school students at said, “The ability to properly use sling-load techniques is the most important part of the school because it will allow Army forces to transport Soldiers and equipment over natural and enemy-emplaced obstacles.”
Army Spc. Sterling Hacker, another member of Virginia’s 116th Infantry Regiment, was among the 153 Soldiers who graduated from Air Assault school at Camp Edwards on Aug. 21, 2009. Hacker has only one regret regarding the training he received; “if only they’d let us do the Aussie repel,” he said, referring to a face-first form of repelling.
The Air Assault and Pathfinder students learned a lot over the past two weeks. Among those lessons learned were methods of integrating air assets into ground maneuver operations and knowledge of the first class training facilities available on the Massachusetts Military Reservation.