I set out on the road with all my belongings stuffed into my small silver convertible. The cool northern Maryland breeze blows my hair as I make my way south. On this spring morning, I leave what I know behind and begin a new adventure into the unknown.
Fear of the unknown once crippled me, yet now I am exhilarated at the thought of new experiences. The radio blasts and top-down, the wind in my hair leaves me feeling free. I’ve learned there are many possibilities and much diversity to soak in as we open the door to adventure.
I pull onto the unfamiliar base in Georgia. While the tall trees line the sides of the road, as they had in Maryland, the pace is much slower here. The speed of the North has dissipated with the heat of the muggy afternoon sun. Slowly, I creep along, head on a swivel as I look for the signs to point me in the right direction. Up ahead, I can see tall towers hovering above the trees. Butterflies tickle my belly as I inch closer to my final destination.
This time of day brings out the Soldiers, walking and relishing their free time after a long hard day of work. I pull up to an old white building. Outside, sets of pull-up bars line the walkway. I struggle as I tug my big duffle bag down the sidewalk and into my new home, at least for the next few weeks anyway. The smell of bleach burns my nose when I enter the building. Echoes of my footsteps fill the hallway as I make my way to my room.
Inside, the walls are lined with bunk beds. I’m one of the first to arrive. I take a bottom bunk pressed against the wall in the middle of the room and begin unpacking my belongings. Ground Week begins tomorrow. I hope I can get some rest.
Nervous chatter takes over the quiet room as others start piling in. Some see a couple of familiar faces, but I don’t recognize anyone. Everyone’s testing out the room, trying to make a quick friend. We are all ready to get our wings, but we don’t know how hard it will be to fly. We also don’t realize how much we will need to depend on one another.
Before sunrise the next morning, we file into formation in preparation for our first run. Rumors fly about the obligatory “eight-minute mile” pace we must keep. The first run proved to eliminate some who were unprepared. Little by little over the course of the three-mile run, stragglers fall to the side, panting and wheezing. They gripped their sides in pain as the remainder of the formation ran by. My lungs are open and my legs feel fresh. The months of training I did in preparation have paid off.
The real test begins when we are marched to the pit. Dust fills the air as we practice our parachute landing falls.
“Feet and knees together!” The Jumpmaster yells, over and over again.
These words become ingrained in my brain over the next three weeks. Jumping from the platform, feet, and knees together, I fall onto the gravel pit underneath me. Rocks pierce the sides of my hips as I land. I endure the grueling task of slamming into the ground over and over for the next few days as we drill this skill.
At the end of our brutal first day, we march to the dining facility. We have to knock out ten pull-ups every time we enter a building. During the first week, many of us cannot meet this task unassisted. We stand behind each other, gripping the feet of our battle buddies as they complete their set. My stomach rumbles as I enter the building. The aroma of warm cooked food causes me to recognize my hunger pains. I savor each bite as I shovel the smothered chicken fried steak into my mouth, washing it down with glasses of Gatorade to refuel my body.
As Ground Week comes to a close, our barracks begin to reek of ICY HOT and Bengay. Our bodies ache, but a sense of accomplishment fills each of us in the bay. We bond over the experience, laughing about our bruises. One must be willing to make fast friends in these circumstances.
One week behind, two to go.
Tower Week jumps off with another fast run, eliminating the few who can’t keep up. The bruises on my hips, evidence of the rocks digging into my side, begin to fade just in time for the pinching harness to leave its mark. Starting the week with the Swing Landing Training (SLT), only the sound of the static line clip scraping the makeshift static line can be heard. The static line is what connects the parachute to the aircraft so when the jumper exits the aircraft the parachute opens.
Later in the week, we begin the tower training. The 32-foot tower stands before us as we march in formation from the SLT station. My head begins to spin as I gaze up to the top of the tower from which I would be stepping out. Each step I take brings me closer to the edge of the tower. When my turn comes to hook up, the Jumpmaster yells, “60 seconds,” holding up his fingers one inch apart. Followed by, “30 seconds.” Then, “Go!”
I close my eyes and say a prayer then step off the edge. The static line clip scrapes the zipline as I ride it to the end on the static line. Unclipping, my body shakes.
“Whew, one step closer to the real thing!” I think as I unhook.
Two weeks down, one to go.
Jump Week follows Tower Week. All of our hard work will come to fruition this week. We file onto the C-130 aircraft, holding tightly to our reserves - the backup parachutes are connected to our chest. By this time, my nerves cause my stomach to cramp. My heartbeat elevates, shaking my body with fear. I maintain a solid poker face as I stare straight ahead. We sit in anticipation while we wait, like ascending the tracks of the tallest roller coaster. Finally, the Jumpmaster shouts over the rumble of the aircraft and the whooshing of the winds, “Two minutes!”
We wobble to our feet and brace ourselves as we sway with the beat of the aircraft.
The snap of the hooks clipping onto the static line echoes in my ears.
My breathing becomes heavy, and a mixture of dread and excitement pours over me, unsure which emotion is stronger.
Suddenly, I feel frozen, paralyzed. I’ve got to move, for the sake of my battle buddy behind me.
My knuckles turn white as I grip the static line, feet shuffling beneath me. Involuntarily, it seems, I inch my way forward until I face the blue sky. I step out and begin counting to five as I bear hug my reserve, squeezing my feet and knees together. Silently praying, my chute opens.
My body jerks in the air as my parachute flies open. I sigh a sound of relief, look up, and inspect my rig. The scenery is unreal. In the air, you realize just how small we are in this large world. The warm breeze rushes over my face and suddenly a whoosh of peace comes over me.
Then I glance down and realize the ground is coming much quicker than I expected. My heart still racing, I talk myself through all of the things I’ve been taught. Pull the right side to move left, left side to move right. Eyes on the horizon, feet, and knees together.
Thunk! Before I know it, I’ve landed safely. I reach down and pat my legs to ensure they’re still in one piece. Praise God, they are still intact!
I gather my chute and make my way back to the gathering point with a huge smile on my face. The work we put into this one moment was worth every second. We’ve got four more jumps this week to become qualified as an airborne trooper. The exhilaration of the week uplifts us within the barracks.
Together we’ve made it to the end of a grueling three weeks and I wouldn’t change it for one minute. When the jumpmaster presses those black jump wings into my chest, I could not feel more proud of my accomplishment.
Author Behind the Legacy Essay
Born and raised in small-town Oklahoma, Kelli Baker joined the Army at the young age of 21. She met her husband while serving at Fort Meade and the two have been married nearly eleven years. When they decided to start a family, her uniform and paratrooper boots were tucked away while she began washing cloth diapers and taking care of her newborn son. Their family has since grown and the four of the Bakers reside in Georgia.
Thankfully, the military has given her the opportunity to earn a Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership and a Master of Science in Finance. However, Kelli discovered her true passion for encouraging and inspiring women when she began leading praise and worship at her local Protestant Women of the Chapel. You can find more of her writing at https://plantingroots.net.