We were interviewed by Airborne Instructors as we completed the mandatory exercises, and I knew something was wrong as soon as I approached the desk where a doleful looking master sergeant waited with my medical file open in front of him. “I'm sorry candidate,” he began, “but you aren't qualified for Airborne.”
Suddenly, I had a vision – no Coke and cookies for me. “Why?” I asked.
“It's your eyes,” he replied.
Screw the eyes, I wanted to scream. I wanted my Coke and cookies. Instead, I said, “But, I wanted to go Airborne. I want to kill!”
I almost brought tears to the old sergeant's eyes, and I began to hope that I would get my Coke and cookies after all.
Actually, I knew that I wasn't qualified for Airborne before I took the test. I had seen my medical file rubber stamped “Vision: Not Qualified Airborne” sometime earlier. I only took the test for the Coke and cookies. I suppose because of my age and, maybe, my education, I had already figured out that it was unnatural to jump out of an airplane with perfectly good landing gear.
But, I overplayed my hand. “We could request an exception,” the sergeant suggested. “They might grant it.”
Holy crap! He was going to get me into the Airborne School. I had to think fast. I put on a brave face. “No, Sergeant,” I replied with a deep sigh. “Thanks, but I'm RA (Regular Army) all the way and rules are rules. They must have a good reason and I wouldn't want to let my buddies down because of my eyes.”
I swear there were tears in his eyes, and I got my Coke and cookies.
Actually, I was interested in Ranger School. That was more to my liking. However, without Airborne training, there would be no chance of Ranger School.
We had to work for every meal in OCS. We had to queue up at the mess hall before every meal and do chin ups and ten pushups for every chin up that we fell short of the minimum. In time, this became to easy and we began running the obstacle course before meals in addition to the chin ups.
Our obstacle course included the kinds of things you may have seen in movies: Run-Dodge-And-Jump, climbing a cargo net, sliding down a slanted line, running over an A-frame, walking balance beams, swinging across a pond, climbing a wall, flipped over a rolling log, crawling under barbed wire, etc. When that got too easy, we ran it twice.
We were given a week's leave for Christmas towards the end of our course at OCS and I went skiing with friends. Impatient with the 45-minute wait for the chairlift, I walked up the mountain. OCS had really built up my endurance. Even so, the obstacle course at the Ranger School was a real challenge. In addition to the obstacles, the course was laid out over a couple miles of rugged terrain. So, we had to run up and down steep hills as well as negotiate the obstacles.
The first obstacle was a 6-foot wall. The challenge was that we had to vault over it while carrying our M-14 rifles with bayonets attached. We had never before run an obstacle course while carrying our weapons. It took a lot of coordination to clear that wall without stabbing yourself accidentally.
As we continued around the course we encountered dummies that we had to attack. They were constructed of 4x4 posts with sections of truck tires and heavy metal hinges. A Ranger Instructor was stationed at each shouting out the technique we were supposed to employ: Vertical Butt Stroke, Stab, Slash, Horizontal Butt Stroke. A Ranger Captain mocked me for not attacking with enough force when I attempted the Vertical Butt Stroke to the dummy's head, but I ignored him and ran on. When I arrived at the end of the course, I found our instructors waving us on. Run it again. Again? I could barely hold my arms up, let alone my weapon.
By the time I arrived back at the bayonet dummy with the captain shouting “Vertical Butt Stroke,” I was annoyed. I don't remember clearly what happened, but he followed me through the rest of the course cheering me on. When we got to the end he was describing what happened.
“He took the head clean off the damn thing!” he shouted.
I what? I looked at my right hand holding the remains of the butt end of my rifle. The stock was sheared away. My right forearm was bleeding from the fragmented end of the stock that had broken off and scrapped off skin through the uniform sleeve. All I remembered was that the dummy had become that captain.
The husband of one of my cousins died a few years ago. He had been an Airborne Ranger during World War II (I was the youngest child of youngest children, born during the War). He was wounded during the battle to capture Henderson Field in the Solomon Islands and was recuperating when his unit rescued the survivors of the Bataan Death March. I'm glad that I had that experience at the Ranger School so that I could truly appreciate just how great a hero he and his fellow Rangers really were.
Ultimately, I chose to make the main character in my novel an Airborne Ranger. Who else could have infiltrated the camps of both the Cuban Army and the Fidelistas to provide insight into the Revolution?