Originally published March 1st, 2017 in The Belle Banner.
We are with PFC Daniel Kcender for a second week. In May they trained with live fire exercises both in urban and field. Every year the week before Memorial Day is “All American Week”, where the 82nd Airborne Division opens its doors to former paratroopers and visitors and puts on a weeklong show, culminating in either a Division parade or a Division jump. All American Week started with a Division sized four mile run at 06:30 Monday morning, led by the Division Commanding General, and the Division Command Sergeant Major. Longstreet on Fort Bragg had an estimated 10,000 paratroopers running on it at one time. There were people lining the sidewalks on each side of the street, many were the families of paratroopers, and many were veterans, former paratroopers with the 82nd, all cheering the troops. There were many unit competitions scheduled throughout the week, basketball, flag football, softball, volleyball, soccer, combatives, tug-of-war, and more, most starting on Monday. There was also a “Paratrooper Breakfast” in one of the DFAC’s at 08:30 Monday morning, where current troops ate breakfast with former paratroopers. Daniel got to attend the breakfast. Daniel talked to former paratroopers, some had retired from the Army, and some had spent 2 or 3 or 4 years in the 82nd. Some were combat veterans from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, some were not, but all said that their time in the 82nd was one of the high points in their lives. Some said that at the time they thought it was just a lot of hard work and misery, but looking back they wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Most of the veterans belonged to the 82nd Airborne Division Association. He learned that there are 96 chapters of the 82nd Airborne Division Association scattered across the United States. The Fayetteville Chapter, there at Fort Bragg, hosted many events during All American Week. On Tuesday morning, Daniel got to attend the All American Week Prayer Breakfast. The host and guest speaker was a retired Colonel who was a former Division Chaplain for the 82nd. On Wednesday afternoon there was a very moving memorial service, at the Division Museum, where units honored those they had lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was told that in past years they had practiced for a parade on Wednesday and performed on Thursday. This year, the finale for All American Week, on Thursday, was a mass tactical parachute jump, an exercise, then a review on Sicily Drop Zone. Daniel didn’t get to make that jump, he was assigned to guide people around the static displays set up in front of the bleachers on Sicily Drop Zone. There he got to meet many more veterans and their families, who came to visit the Division. The Division Commander designated Friday of that week a “training holiday”, and Monday was Memorial Day, so he got a four day weekend. SSG Wright and his wife hosted the squad and their families to a bar-b-que that Saturday.
Daniel’s company trained on many live fire exercises, they practiced squad and team tactics, they conducted field exercises against aggressors, with graders, where leaders were “killed off” and junior troopers had to step up and take charge. They got at least one parachute jump a month, more if they wanted to go jump on Saturday, in the Saturday Jump Program. They jumped into field exercises, and they just jumped. They worked with helicopters for combat insertions and extractions. In October the Brigade conducted EIB (Expert Infantryman Badge) testing. It encompasses all skills an infantryman should know, it is hands on, intense and tough. It is graded by a GO or NO-GO system. The task is performed correctly or not. It is also voluntary. Daniel competed alongside sergeants and officers, and he started realizing that the skills being tested were what SSG Wright had been having them practice repeatedly for the past year. Daniel was one of the few PFC’s awarded the EIB.
Now it is the 1st of December again and Daniel has just been promoted to Specialist E4. He was also designated an Automatic Rifleman, trading in his M4 Carbine for an M249B SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon). After the promotion ceremony, Captain Good, the Company Commander, called Daniel to his office. He asked Daniel to sit down and tell him how he felt about the army. Daniel told him that he enjoyed what he was doing, and thought the Army was great, but at this point he didn’t know whether he would stay in, or get out and go to college. Captain Good asked him what his score was on his ACT, and where he stood in his high school class. He then asked Daniel how he would like to go to the US Military Academy at West Point. Daniel said he didn’t understand. Captain Good, who was a USMA graduate himself, told Daniel that the Army has a program where they admit young, single, soldiers (USMA students must be single and not have reached their 23rd birthday when they report for their freshman year) either directly to West Point, or to a year of “Prep School” then to West Point. He told Daniel that it is very competitive, and that they have a limited number, but with Daniels grades and scores, and his proven ability and enthusiasm as a soldier, he felt that Daniel would be an excellent candidate for at least prep school. Specialist Daniel Kcender had to do some serious thinking.
Daniel liked the Army, and he had seen enough of it to know that the 82nd Airborne Division is an elite organization within the Army. If he applied for the US Military Academy and was accepted, that would be four years, granted it would be a top notch education. If he was accepted for Prep School, then it would be five years. Daniel had another problem, he had a girlfriend. They communicated regularly and they had visited each other a few times, since he had been in the Army. Daniel wanted to talk with someone. SFC Steady was now First Sergeant (1SG) Steady in another battalion, and SSG Wright was now SFC Wright and his Platoon Sergeant. Daniel’s Squad Leader was now SSG Smith who just made E6 and moved from another platoon. Daniel asked SFC Wright if it was OK for him to go talk to 1SG Steady. SFC Wright immediately called 1SG Steady and handed the phone to Daniel. Daniel told 1SG Steady what Captain Good had said, and that he needed to talk with someone. 1SG Steady told Daniel; “After you get off work, get some chow, change clothes and come out to my house about 19:00 (7:00 PM)”. Daniel knew where 1SG Steady lived, he owned a house off post with a big back yard where they had a platoon cook out last summer. After Daniel arrived and spoke to 1SG Steady’s wife and kids, they went to the living room, while the rest of the family was in the den watching TV. Daniel told him what Captain Good had said, also about his girlfriend and his dilemma. 1SG Steady asked Daniel if he considered staying in the Army, whether he went to West Point or not. Daniel said that he was beginning to think that he might stay, and that if he made Sergeant before his enlistment was up he probably would reenlist. Daniel said he wanted to know the difference in life between an officer and an NCO. 1SG Steady told Daniel that first, officers make twice as much money as NCO’s, they are the managers of the Army. They command platoons, companys, battalions, and brigades. They have a lot more responsibility, and they have a lot more stress. The crunch point for an officer comes when captains are being considered for major. There are twice as many captains as there are majors, so some captains are not selected for promotion, and if they are passed over twice they are released, i.e., kicked out. After an enlisted soldier makes Staff Sergeant, he can screw up and never get promoted again, but if he hasn’t done anything very bad, he can still retire at 20 years. Officers move often, they are purposely moved about every three years so they get the necessary schools and variety of assignments to provide them the experience to advance. 1SG Steady said that he had been in the Army about 15 years, and other than some trips to schools at Fort Benning, Georgia, he had only one three year tour away from the 82nd, and that was with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Italy. He told Daniel that West Point is one of the finest schools in the country. West Point graduates have become Generals, Presidents, and captains of industry. As far as a girlfriend is concerned, all USMA cadets are single, in fact there is a tradition that upper classmen tell the freshmen to drop their girlfriend or boyfriend because they are a distraction. Daniel said that he didn’t want to lose his girlfriend, he said that they are not formally engaged, but just assumed that they would be someday. 1SG Steady told Daniel that if he decided not to apply for West Point he should get busy with what needed to be done to make Sergeant. He told Daniel that life changes after you make Sergeant. When you call battalion headquarters and Sergeant Smith answers the phone, you don’t know whether that is Sergeant E5 Smith or SFC E7 Smith, because all are called Sergeant. He told Daniel that his life as a soldier would also change if he got married. He would move out of the barracks to an apartment or house off or on post. He said that the Army is a separate and protected society, and if he got married his wife would become part of that society, but she should understand that like it or not, the Army comes first. He said; “My wife tells me that she is my mistress because I am married to the Army.” 1SG Steady recommended first getting a house on post. He told Daniel that if he liked the Army and is a good soldier, it can be a very rewarding career. He told Daniel that it took him 10 years to get his bachelor’s degree and that he was now working on a masters. He said, we don’t worry about medical insurance or making a living, we concentrate on doing our job.
Daniel thanked 1SG Steady and drove back to his barracks. When he got to his room, he got on his computer and went to work on his SSD-1 (Structured Self Development Course). The next day, Daniel told Captain Good that he had given serious thought to applying for the USMA, but instead he wanted to apply for Ranger School. Captain Good told Daniel that he would put him on the list to attend the Division Pre Ranger Course.