There are two very different US Armies. Many soldiers who enlist in the Army, go through their training, go to a unit, at most Army posts, and do their time, never know that there are two Army’s.
I am not suggesting that a big part of the Army is substandard, it is not. The US Army is the finest army in the world, and is the most professional it has ever been, but one part of it is head and shoulders above the rest. If you think the Marines are proud and cultish, you ain’t seen nuthin yet.
The recent command climate problems at Fort Hood, Texas, has made the two army’s visible. There is the Airborne Army and the Non-Airborne Army.
The Airborne Army’s difference is more than just jumping out of airplanes, its complete culture is different from the non-airborne army. Fort Bragg, North Carolina is the home of the Airborne, it is the home of the John F Kennedy Special Warfare School and Center that trains all Green Berets, it is the home of the US Army Special Operations Command, the 3rd Special Forces Group, and the super-secret Delta Force. It is also home to the headquarters of US Army Forces Command, the largest military command, the US Army Reserve Command, 18th Airborne Corps Headquarters, and the 18,000 paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division, America’s fire brigade, ready to go anywhere, at a moments notice. It is the largest military post, with over 55,000 soldiers. It has been called the center of the military universe, and with dozens of general officers on post, it has also been called Pentagon South.
It is the favorite post of thousands of soldiers, most all of whom are airborne. The surrounding area is one of the largest retired military communities, in the country. Time magazine once named Fayetteville, North Carolina the most pro military city in the United States. The US Army Airborne and Special Operations Museum occupies about two city blocks in downtown Fayetteville.
The biggest difference between Fort Bragg, which is centered around the 82nd Airborne Division, and most other army posts, is a culture of achievement and success. There are several facets to that culture.
The 82nd Airborne Division is the United States military ready unit. One of its three brigade combat teams (BCT), is always on standby. That entire 4,500 paratrooper brigade, with all equipment, can be “wheels up” to anywhere, within 18 hours of notification, and as the world witnessed New Year’s Day 2020, in response to the attack on the American Embassy in Baghdad, one 750 soldier battalion can be on a plane in about six hours. To maintain that kind of combat readiness, there has to be rules and standards, and lots of training. The 82nd definitely has high standards. It also has a history of never failing to accomplish its mission.
In May 2018, First Sergeant Erik Salo, of the Falcon Brigade (2nd BCT, 82nd Abn Div), who said that he had been in the division for over a decade, said; “Serving in the division means that you honor a concept of professionalism. Nobody else can rapidly deliver the amount of firepower, at one time, as the 82nd Airborne Division. These men and women volunteered to go airborne, and be in a unit that is going to be on the leading edge of the battlefield. There is a lot of pride and a lot of history here, and you feel that, every single day you come to work.”
In that same 2018 video, Sergeant First Class Chris Abrahamson said; “These people love to be airborne, they really do. A lot of that comes from their being proud of the unit, the history, and the footsteps they walk in.”
Every year, since the mid 1980’s, the 82nd Airborne Division has conducted “All American Week”, the week before the Memorial Day weekend. Due to COVID-19, it did not happen in 2020. The activities of All American Week are coordinated with the 82nd Airborne Division Association, which is comprised of 82nd veterans, and has 96 chapters scattered around the United States.
All American Week starts on Monday morning with a division four-mile run. Imagine about 15,000 paratroopers all running in one giant formation. Veterans are invited to run with the troops, one who lost his legs makes part of the run.
Hundreds of 82nd veterans are always in attendance, meeting and mingling with the paratroops. There are breakfasts with veterans, prayer breakfasts, unit picnics, and athletic competition between units. Wednesday is a memorial service at the 82nd Airborne Division War Memorial Museum, honoring the over 5,000 82nd paratroopers who have been killed in combat, and almost 300 killed in training.
It ends on Thursday with a mass parachute jump and tactical demonstration, on Sicily Drop Zone, then units forming in a review, in front of sometimes thousands of veterans, families, and spectators, waiting in the bleachers on Sicily.
A few years ago, a drill sergeant, who said that his first assignment in the army was the airborne brigade in Alaska, responding to a question about the 82nd, said this; “I hated the Army. I would have rather died than reenlist. Mind you, I hated the “back at Bragg” parrots even more. When I received orders to Bragg my reaction was pretty much Nooo I’ve been assigned to hell.” “I decided to make the best of it, I worked out super hard and prepared for my arrival as a specialist with a little bit more time in service. Arrived at Bragg. Ready for the whirlwind of BS Airborne to the fullest! One of my first notable experiences was appearing before a Soldier of the Month Board, and getting kicked off because my Brigade Sergeant Major was upset that I was not already a Sergeant. I got boarded and promoted to Sergeant. My next experience was schools, real schools taught by Special Forces guys or civilian shooting instructors. After that, my other experience was going to the field and instead of focusing on Iraq or Afghanistan, I was doing full blown airfield seizures and patrol base activities. Stuff I had to brush up on because I never did it in my old unit. After being a Sergeant for a year, I was sent to the Staff Sergeant board. My platoon sergeants were competent as all hell. My First Sergeants knew what was going on and actually cared. My Lieutenants were not that stupid. Commanders were legit. My Battalion and Brigade Commanders were real warriors. Moving on, I’m a Drill Sergeant now. I’m around all sorts of infantrymen. I know the average outlook on 82nd guys is how we always say “back at Bragg”. I will say this though, the majority of 82nd guys want to go back to the 82nd. I want to go back. I also know other guys who have kind of a mutual respect for the 82nd. One of the drills I work with always told me how it’s annoying about people from the 82nd always talk about it, but also kind of impressive how so many people from a division have pride in their division”.
A Sergeant First Class French, who has made dozens of youtube videos, made one titled “Why I love Fort Bragg”. In it he describes arriving at Fort Bragg, as a new non-airborne private, going to jump school and returning to completely different treatment. He says that Fort Bragg has an airborne culture, and that culture is one of achievement and success. He says that non-airborne soldiers are looked at as not buying into that culture of professionalism and success.
So, how is that professional, highly trained, culture, with very high morale, maintained year after year, commander after commander. First, the Army tries to have the best officers in charge. Command climate emanates from the boss. I have seen troop attitudes change at a change of command ceremony, from company to division level. When the boss of a factory, appreciates his employees, rewards extra production with bonuses, and pats on the back, and is sensitive to family requirements, production will go up, and people will stay and work harder than for one who doesn’t do those things. The Army is the same. Army leadership is not about giving orders, it is about convincing soldiers to want to do what you want them to do. Over the past 50 years, there have been 26 two-star generals command the 82nd Airborne Division, not counting the current commander or his predecessor. Four retired with two stars, eight as three stars, and 14 as four-star generals. That’s the caliber of leader the Army tries to have in charge of the 82nd Airborne Division, and there is a plethora of army generals who have served in the 82nd. The current command team of Major General (MG) Christopher Donahue and Command Sergeant Major (CSM) David Pitt, arrived in July 2020.
MG Donahue graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, in 1992, the Naval War College, and the US Army War College Fellowship at Harvard University. After serving as a Ranger Battalion platoon leader and an infantry company commander, he has spent a large part of his career in special operations, commanding everything up to a brigade. He was assistant division commander of the 4th Infantry Division, Commandant of the Infantry School (Chief of Infantry), Deputy Director for Special Operations and Counter-Terrorism at the pentagon, and most recently Commander, Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan. After a few months in command of the 82nd, he said; “I’ve had some pretty cool jobs, but this is the coolest, by far, hands down.”
Sergeants, non-commissioned officers, in the 82nd Airborne Division, often spend their entire career there, minus schools and a couple of special assignments, such as drill sergeant, or recruiting duty. That creates an unbreakable unit continuity.
CSM Pitt enlisted in the Army in 1992, and has been a rifleman, team leader, squad leader, platoon sergeant, and first sergeant all in the 82nd Airborne Division, as well as being a drill sergeant at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and an ROTC instructor at Florida A&M. He was CSM of Fort Polk, Louisiana, Talent Manager in the infantry/armor branch at Human Resource Command, and Sergeant Major of Operations/ Training in the Pentagon. He is a ranger, and has a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from Excelsior College.
Things for soldiers to do, on their time off, has been greatly curtailed by COVID. CSM Pitt has created a weekend shooting range, which he runs. It is strictly voluntary, with no set times. All a soldier has to do is notify his or her company, on Wednesday, that they want to draw their weapon on Saturday morning, pick up their weapon and come to the range, when they want to. It is not only a fun thing to do, but a valuable thing for many support soldiers who don’t get to shoot much, because shooting scores is a big deal in promotion to sergeant.
The 82nd Airborne Division is called the All American Division, also America’s Guard of Honor. Here is how it achieved those titles.
In 1914, when war exploded in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the United States would be neutral, and history says that the majority of the American people agreed. In 1915 Germany announced unrestricted warfare against any ship headed for England. Ships with Americans on board were blown up with mines and torpedoed by German submarines. In March 1917 Germany sank four United States Merchant ships. On April 2nd President Wilson called for a declaration of war against Germany. It was approved by congress on April 4th.
The Selective Service Act of 1917 or the “Draft Act”, was approved and signed into law on May 18th. By the end of the war about 4.2 million men had been drafted into the service. During the summer of 1917, hundreds of thousands of men were drafted into the Army forming new divisions and training as units. A total of 62 divisions were formed and 42 were shipped overseas.
The 82nd Infantry Division was constituted in the National Army on August 5th 1917, and filled with all drafted soldiers directly from civilian life to go through training as a unit, and activated on August 25th, at Camp Gordon, Georgia. When it was discovered that there were soldiers from all 48 states in the division, the Division Commander, Major General Eban Smith, chose the name “All American”, and the AA shoulder patch was created. The 82nd Infantry Division spent more consecutive days on the front lines in France than any other American Division and suffered 7,422 casualties, including 1,298 killed. Its’ battle streamers included Lorraine, Saint-Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne. One of its’ soldiers was the most famous Medal of Honor winner of World War One, Alvin C. York. The 82nd Division returned to the States in April and May 1919, and was deactivated at Camp Mills, New York on May 27th.
AMERICA’S GUARD OF HONOR:
Following the surrender of Germany, in World War II, the 82nd was ordered to Berlin for occupation duty. In Berlin General George Patton was so impressed with the 82nd’s honor guard he said, “In all my years in the Army and all the honor guards I have ever seen, the 82nd’s honor guard is undoubtedly the best.” Hence the “All-Americans” became known as “America’s Guard of Honor.”
That’s the short answer, but there is always more to the story. What else, besides sharp looking paratroopers was in General George (old blood and guts) Patton’s mind when he said that?
General Patton knew and respected the 82nd Airborne Division, and he knew and respected its commander, Major General James Maurice Gavin, the youngest division commander, in fact the youngest general in the Army, at age 37. Clay Blair wrote in “Ridgeway’s Paratroopers”; “Gavin was tall and slim (Slim Jim), handsome, soft-spoken, a dedicated athlete and a master in the art of leading men. He was also dazzlingly brilliant – considered by some to be a military genius. In conversation, his mind raced at breathtaking speed over such a vast canvas. Ridgeway later wrote that Gavin was “one of the finest battle leaders and one of the most brilliant thinkers the Army ever produced.”
General Patton may have thought back to his first meeting with the 82nd Airborne Division, when he was commanding the 7th Army during the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. Two Infantry Divisions were to land on the beaches, led the night before by an 82nd Airborne Division reinforced regiment parachuting inland, in front of the invasion forces, to block the German army from reaching the beaches. He may have remembered how high winds blew the 82nd’s planes wildly off course, with most becoming lost and dropping paratroops scattered over an area almost 100 miles wide, instead of in front of the invasion forces. How paratroopers formed together in little groups, cut every telephone line, conducted ambushes and raids, and attacked German convoys and road blocks. LGOPS (Little groups of paratroopers.) That was when the Germans discovered that the American paratrooper was a very dangerous adversary. How then Colonel Gavin, carrying an M-1 rifle and leading an engineer platoon, then a battalion attacked Biazza Ridge, with small arms, bazookas, and small modified artillery pieces, against German tanks. He may have seen Gavin frantically digging a body sized hole, with his helmet, to keep from being crushed by the tanks, but he would have definitely remembered Gavin and his ad hoc band of paratroopers stopping the German armored column at Biazzza Ridge. James Gavin recalled meeting General Patton, immediately after the Biazza Ridge battle. General Patton’s first words were; “Gavin you look like you could use a drink. Here have one”, and handed him a flask. In spite of starting in complete disaster, the 82nd accomplished all its objectives.
In early 1944, the 82nd was sent to England to prepare for D-Day, but the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) was held to help with the invasion of Sicily at Anzio. That invasion was met by overwhelming German opposition. The 504th suffered high casualties, resulting in companies with only 20 to 30 men, but they held, turning it into a static battlefield with trenches, barbed wire, and mine fields between the two sides. When night came, the paratroopers patrolled and harassed the German positions. On the body of a German Major, killed at Anzio, was found a diary with the following entry; “American paratroopers – Devils in Baggy Pants – are less than 100 meters from my outpost line. I can’t sleep at night; they pop up from nowhere and we never know when or how they will strike next. Seems like the black-hearted devils are everywhere…” That is when the 504th became the “Devils in Baggy Pants”.
General Patton may have remembered how the 82nd Airborne Division was assigned, what some called, the suicide mission of blocking several German Armored Divisions from reaching the Normandy beaches on D-Day, and again being scattered over the area, but accomplishing every objective and stopping the German armor.
He may have also thought about Operation Market Garden in Holland, where the 82nd accomplished all its objectives, only to be stopped by a superior German force at the Nijmegan bridge over the ¼ mile wide Waal river. Then sending a battalion across the river, in boats, against German infantry on the far bank, over running the Germans and taking the bridge. Then spending the next two months fighting the German army on the ground, in Holland.
The Battle of the Bulge must surely have been on General Patton’s mind, when he was given the mission of stopping the German breakout in December 1944, and the 82nd Airborne Division hurriedly thrown into the battle, succeeded in stopping the main German column.
General Patton may or may not have known exact figures, at that time, but he knew what divisions did what in the war. There were 73 American divisions engaged in combat during World War II. The 82nd Airborne Division spent 422 days engaged in active combat, number four out of the 73, and “never lost a foot of ground”.
Early on Thursday morning, August 30th 1945, Major General Gavin wrote a letter to his daughter, Barbara. He wrote that in about an hour he was having General Eisenhower and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as guests for an airborne division review. So, in the airborne tradition of never doing anything half way, an honor guard was organized of all combat veterans, with several rows of ribbons, all six feet tall, with spit shined jump boots, with white laces, white parachute silk scarfs around their neck, and chrome plated bayonets on their rifles.
When General Patton uttered those words, that morning, the stands were filled with news reporters, who put the General’s words on wire services around the world, and that is when the 82nd Airborne Division became America’s Guard of Honor.
The 82nd returned to the United States and led the World War II Victory Parade through New York City on January 12th 1946, before finally returning to Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Since World War II, the 82nd Airborne Division has been the United States Military immediate reaction force. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower chose not to use the 82nd in Korea, but to keep it ready if needed elsewhere. The 82nd is now the US military Global Response Force, and how it has responded.
Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, the first Iraq war 1990, hurricane Andrew, Haiti – Restore Democracy, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, hurricane Katrina, and most recently the 3rd Brigade Combat Team (BCT) in Afghanistan, the 2nd BCT in Iraq, and the 504th (Devils in Baggy Pants) deployed to guard the American Embassy in Baghdad.
The sayings like; success begats success, and greatness begats greatness, certainly apply in the 82nd Airborne Division. There are many young men and women just out of high school, then there are some older paratroopers, like the former high school teacher, I Knew, who had a masters in English, and was also a martial arts expert. He just wanted the experience, before he was too old. During the hot part of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the age limit to enlist was raised to 42. Michael J. MacLeod was 41, with a masters in wildlife biology, and a small publishing company. He enlisted, spent five years in the 82nd Airborne Division, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. After leaving the service, he wrote “The Brave Ones”. He was also the military photo journalist of the year in 2012.
People are attracted to the airborne for various reasons, adventure, excitement, patriotism, and familiarity, such as then combat medic Specialist Terry Bluebird, the first female 82nd Airborne Division Trooper of the Year, in 2015. Both of Terry’s parents are retired paratroopers from the 82nd.
The former Army moto, Be all you can be, could be used to describe life in the 82nd. The 82nd is well represented in every Ranger school class. The troopers who successfully complete the 82nd’s 25 day Small Unit & Ranger Tactics course (formerly called “pre-ranger”) have a significant advantage in completing Ranger school.
The majority of Green Berets, “grow up” in the 82nd, deciding to go for Special Forces after they make sergeant. Success in the 82nd is not just in combat arms, there are annual competitions for Best Medic, Best Mechanic, Best Paralegal, and so on.
In April 2019, the 82nd Support Battalion Dining Facility was named the best in the entire US Army, winning the Philip A. Connelly Award. The 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade Dining Facility won it in 2015, and the 82nd Support Troops Battalion in 2010.
Today the 82nd Airborne Division Headquarters is located in Gavin Hall. Slim Jim Gavin set the standard for airborne officer leadership. His briefing to new lieutenants, included this; “The officer is the first man out the door, and the last man in the chow line.” Meaning the officer always leads from the front, and never looks after his personal needs, until seeing to the needs of his men. When saluting a superior officer in the 82nd, the proper greeting is a boisterous “All the Way, Sir” (or Ma am). The officer answers with a smile and a hearty “Airborne”.
As previously mentioned, I am not suggesting that the rest of the US Army is sub-standard. It is not. The command climate problems recently investigated at Fort Hood, Texas, have caused a serious “slap in the face” wake up in the Pentagon. The culture of the rest of the Army will be changing. I don’t know how, and I don’t think Army leadership, yet has a full grasp on what changes are necessary, but change is coming.
My message is this. Whatever MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) (job) you choose, upon enlistment, try to get the airborne option. Combat arms, with the airborne option, will probably go to the 82nd, possibly (smaller chance) the 173rd Airborne Brigade, in Italy, the most requested assignment, in the Army, or the 4th Brigade (Airborne), 25th Infantry, in Alaska.
There are many airborne support jobs at Fort Bragg, not in the 82nd, but if you are airborne on Fort Bragg, you will wear a maroon beret, which tells the world that you are a professional, a cut above.