By Tech. Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa
Florida National Guard
CAMP BLANDING JOINT TRAINING CENTER, Fla. (3/17/09) – More than 150 Soldiers recently earned the right to wear the Army’s coveted Air Assault specialty badge during an intense ten-day course here in North Florida.
The Air Assault course was the first of its kind for the Florida National Guard, mirroring similar courses taught to Active Duty Army Soldiers.
During the three-phase course the students studied techniques for rappelling from helicopters, learned principles of “sling-loading” equipment under helicopters, and tested their physical and mental stamina.
Course Commandant Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis Rhoden said the course started with 200 students, but by graduation day only 152 remained to earn their Air Assault “wings.”
“It has been a physically demanding course,” he explained. “It is the first time in the Florida Army National Guard history that we have taught a course at Camp Blanding that was so physically and mentally challenging.”
The graduates included National Guard Soldiers from several states including Florida, and even two members of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Rhoden added that the course – taught by National Guard Air Assault instructors from Ft. Benning’s Warrior Training Center – is made up of three phases. The first phase is primarily physical and includes an obstacle course challenge, a two-mile run and physical fitness training every day.
During the second phase the students are taught to sling-load various pieces of equipment underneath the UH-60 Black Hawk and UH-47 Chinook helicopters. During the final – and perhaps most exciting – phase the students rappel from a 64-foot tower and from Black Hawk helicopters.
At the end of the course, the students must complete a 12-mile road march within three hours, in order to pass.
“It was probably about the toughest ten days I’ve ever had in the Army,” said the class’ distinguished honor graduate, Staff Sgt. Jonathan Martin, from A Battery, 1st Battalion, 265th Air Defense Artillery Regiment. “They don’t give wings away – everybody here earned (them).”
While nearly one-quarter of the students failed to complete the course, that seemingly high rate of dropouts is not unusual in similar Air Assault courses, according to Air Assault instructors.
“You have to have the heart to continue on,” said Sgt. 1st Class Brian McCarthy from the Warrior Training Center. “Some people in the course have feet covered with blisters from the marching, and they still have to do a 12-mile road march to graduate. We see at the end of the 12-miles how much heart they have to tough it out.”
McCarthy added that the Air Assault training is very practical, considering the current nature of U.S. military operations around the world.
“This course teaches the Soldiers something they can bring back to their units,” he said, “especially (if they are) overseas now in Iraq or Afghanistan. In Afghanistan the terrain is so bad over there it is hard to get vehicles to get resupplied. The sling-load techniques that we teach them can be utilized over in Afghanistan to get the troops the equipment that they need.”
Rhoden said the Air Assault course could become an annual event at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center.