Col. Colin Tuley, commander of 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, looks on as paratroopers from 1BCT descend upon Hohenfels Drop Zone, in Hohenfels, Germany, as part of Swiftresponse16 on June 15, 2016. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Javier Orona.
FORT BRAGG, N.C. —
Surrounded by pine trees and knee-high grass, soldiers stared up at the night sky as a deep roar rolled across the sandy field.
Above Sicily Drop Zone at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the shadow of a C-17 sped below silvery clouds. The shadow grew larger until it was nearly overhead with its wing and taillights blinking.
It was 10 p.m. on a cool, mid-September night. Mosquitoes were still biting even as summer wound down, and the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers were doing what paratroopers do: a “mass tac” parachute drop.
Half a day earlier, the "Outlaw" soldiers of Alpha Company, 37th Brigade Engineer Battalion, showed up to work at the sprawling compound of garages, hangars, and dorms of the 82nd's 2nd Brigade Combat Team. It was 11:30 a.m., a far later showtime than normal. But with the mass tactical jump, or "mass tac" as paratroopers call it, scheduled for long after dark, with a follow-on mission, it was still the beginning of a long day.
In one bay of the compound, 1st Lt. Mitchell Dill and Sgt. 1st Class Jeremy Labuda oversaw the Hellcats, A Company's 3rd Platoon.
The soldiers joked, checked their phones, and readied personal gear, keeping a loose but focused attitude as they drew weapons, assembled for a final headcount, practiced procedures, and donned their parachute rigs.
First Lt. Mitchell Dill, platoon leader for 3rd Platoon, A Company, 37th Engineer Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82 Airborne Division, prepares for a mass tactical jump at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Sept. 14, 2022. Photo by Jenna Biter/Coffee or Die Magazine.
Coffee or Die Magazine followed the Hellcats through their day, with Dill briefing what to expect once boots were on the ground at the drop zone.
“So, our platoon is actually pretty special,” said Dill, who grew up an Air Force brat and joined the Army after graduating from the University of Maryland. “We’re a light equipment platoon, which is a brigade asset.”
As combat engineers, the Hellcats jump and fight with the infantry, but get called to build, repair or, more often, tear down any obstacles or large-scale emplacements the brigade encounters.
“The 82nd Airborne’s mission as a whole is to be able to do a joint forcible entry into any foreign nation, anywhere in the world, within 18 hours, right?” Dill said. “The way our platoon fits into that, we would jump in with that group of paratroopers.
“We would essentially clear the area and repair the landing strip to make it suitable for follow-on forces, specifically with aircraft to land and be able to get a flow of logistics and personnel into that area.”
The jump day was planned out to the minute, although many of those minutes were covered by Army standby.
Paratroopers with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, jump static line in a mass tactical drop on Sicily Drop Zone at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the night of Sept. 14, 2022. Photo by Jenna Biter/Coffee or Die.
Later that night, the Hellcats would repair a crater in the runway with construction equipment, ranging from dump trucks and forklifts to hand tools, including the saws, drills, and tampers unpacked from an Airfield Damage Repair kit.
“It’s a box within a box,” Dill said. “We throw that out of the back of planes, essentially.” Yet another thing rigged with a parachute to fall from the sky.
Once on the ground, the Hellcats would stow their chutes and then quickly form up for their mission, gathering into a tactical formation unique to paratrooper units: the LGOP.
“You want to assemble first, right?” Dill said. “You have to find everybody, make an LGOP — a little group of paratroopers.”
As jump day progressed, the paratroopers walked through elaborate procedures they would use that night inside the C-17.
In a mock-up of a cargo bay, the Hellcats and the rest of the brigade practiced loading, hooking up their static lines, and rushing out the jump door, landing one by one on a gravelly pit.
A dozen jumpmasters — veteran soldiers with the experience and training to run a jump — yelled the instructions they would use later, issuing corrections and advice as they practiced for their own roles.
As the sun set, the paratroopers filed away from the practice equipment into a large hangar filled with wooden benches. Parachutes, inspected and delivered by the 82nd’s riggers, sat waiting.
The paratroopers divided into their actual jump teams, or “sticks,” and began putting on their parachutes, helping one another adjust and tighten straps.
Sgt. Maj. Carlos Campos, the 2BCT operations sergeant major, circulated through the hangar, watching, lending a hand, and offering encouragement.
Jumpmasters from the 82nd Airborne Division walk through aircraft procedures before a mass tactical jump at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Sept. 14, 2022. Photo by Jenna Biter/Coffee or Die.
“They jump out of airplanes,” Campos said. “I like letting them know that they’re not just regular soldiers.”
While reflecting on why paratroopers are special, Campos said tonight would be his 99th jump.
“Any time their country asks them to go into battle, they get there violently and fast. On the ground, they move, shoot, and communicate to neutralize the enemy and secure the airfield,” Campos said. “And that’s what a paratrooper is.”
“Green light, GO!” jumpmasters yelled inside the aircraft.
The Hellcats had arrived at their compound almost 12 hours ago, but only now, in the darkness over a wide Fort Bragg drop zone, were they finally going to work.
A chaplain and his assistant, Sgt. Camila Mejia, buddy rig their parachutes before a mass tactical jump at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Sept. 14, 2022. Photo by Jenna Biter/Coffee or Die.
Within 49 seconds, all of the jumpers had exited the massive C-17 through its side doors. Half of the 200 paratroopers from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team who were slated to jump that night were now under canopy.
When a paratrooper jumps from an aircraft, they stay attached to a static line that remains clipped inside the plane. As the soldier falls, the static line pulls the parachute out of its deployment bag.
During training exercises like this, soldiers drop to the ground from more than 1,000 feet. In combat, that altitude could be several hundred feet lower.
As they fall from the plane, the paratroopers are trained to count out loud: “One thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand, five thousand, six thousand!”
Before they reach “six thousand,” they will almost certainly feel the violent pull of their parachute inflating overhead.
Paratroopers practice actions in the aircraft at Green Ramp at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Sept. 14, 2022. Photo by Jenna Biter/Coffee or Die.
If they do get to “six thousand,” that means trouble. A jumper must immediately deploy their reserve parachute mounted on their belly.
The jumpmasters and senior soldiers like Campos stressed to the younger soldiers that they should not — they could not — hesitate to activate their reserve if they believed their main parachute was failing.
Over the years, soldiers say, a belief had taken hold that pulling a reserve was somehow frowned upon, that an "incorrect" deployment of one could lead to punishment.
But in the hours leading to the jump, every jumpmaster and leader made it clear to the jumpers: No one will get in trouble for activating their reserve, even if — later, safely on the ground — officials determine it wasn’t “necessary.”
Minutes before loading the plane, a chaplain offered a final prayer: “Nobody in the trees,” he said. “We pray in Jesus’ name.”
Paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division wait to load onto a C-17 transport plane at Green Ramp at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Sept. 14, 2022. Photo by Jenna Biter/Coffee or Die.
One after another, 100 parachutes inflated like jellyfish pulsing toward the earth in a diagonal line. Beneath each chute dangled a paratrooper, though they were impossible to see from roughly 500 yards away.
Before the last paratrooper’s canopy could fully inflate, the hulking C-17 had already disappeared into the night. Besides the plane’s low roar and a celebratory burst of red and green flares that momentarily lit the sky, the string of paratroopers was the only indication that the aircraft had ever been there at all.
Once under a full canopy, the soldiers quickly scanned the nearby airspace to ensure they weren’t tracking into a midair collision. Then they could look down to steer clear of shrubs, trees, and other hazards before preparing to land.
Landing under a military parachute feels like jumping from a height of 4 feet — or even higher with heavy equipment — so unlike civilian skydivers, paratroopers don’t bother even trying to land standing up.
Before they hit the earth, the jumpers pressed their feet and legs together, bent at the knees, and prepared to make a parachute landing fall, or PLF.
Paratroopers with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, load onto a C-17 transport plane at Green Ramp at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Sept. 14, 2022. Photo by Jenna Biter/Coffee or Die.
As the jumpers hit the ground, their trained bodies responded to the impact like rocking chairs, rolling from their calves to thighs, onto their buttocks, and then lats. Behind them, their parachutes collapsed, blending into the ground.
But Dill and most of the Hellcats weren’t among them.
The second C-17 scratched because of mechanical issues, a common if depressing fact of life for 82nd Airborne paratroopers.
Even without the jump, the soldiers benefited from planning, preparing for, and moving through the mass tac. At the end of the day, jumping is just a way to get to work.
“Real world, this would be different than right now,” Dill said. “We could scratch people right now and then just drive them out there, and it’s like no big deal. You’re not going to be able to jump today, but you’re still going to be out there."
Jenna Biter is a staff writer at Coffee or Die Magazine. She has a master’s degree in national security and is a Russian language student. When she’s not writing, Jenna can be found reading classics, running, or learning new things, like the constellations in the night sky. Her husband is on active duty in the US military. Know a good story about national security or the military? Email Jenna.
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