Originally Published in The Belle Banner on February 15th and 22nd, 2017.
This week is the first part of the story of a young man named Daniel Kcender, who has been interested in the military from age 10 or 12. He has always been interested in military history, weapons, war stories and especially the “gung ho” military. Those of us who were born with that interest can’t explain where it came from, it is just there. Daniel is an extremely bright young man. He could easily handle college and win scholarships, but he didn’t want to wait to start “doing it”. He leaned toward the Marines, but decided he wanted to be an “Airborne Ranger”. He could have enlisted for exactly that, army enlistment option 40, but he was convinced by some retired infantrymen that he would have a much better chance of completing Ranger School if he spent some time in an airborne infantry unit, then apply for Ranger School. Enlistment option 40 guarantees that you get to the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program (RASP), which is an 8 week pre-ranger course designed to make you quit. Only those who have the physical strength, the mental strength, and an intense, insane desire to be in a Ranger Battalion will make it through the course.
At Daniel’s first visit with an Army recruiter, in February of his senior year in high school, he told the recruiter that he wanted to be airborne infantry. He scored fairly high on an ASVAB pretest, he was in good physical condition, and had never been in any kind of trouble. The recruiter told him to get in the best possible physical condition he could attain, lots of running, pushups, situps and pullups, and get a study guide and study for the ASVAB. Army infantry enlistees are trained in OSUT (One Station Unit Training) companies, which combines basic combat training and AIT (Advanced Individual Training) at Fort Benning, Georgia. All basic training commands in the Army have drill sergeants from all fields and jobs within the army, except at infantry OSUT. All those drill sergeants are infantrymen, and the majority did not volunteer for drill sergeant duty. They were involuntarily selected by the army to go to drill sergeant school and become drill sergeants for two years. Marine Boot Camp is not tougher than Army infantry OSUT on Sand Hill at Fort Benning, Georgia. The drill sergeants are professional and they are serious, they are training soldiers who may be beside them on their next deployment.
Daniel maintained a serious exercise program through the remainder of his senior year, and studied for the ASVAB. Many of the subjects tested in the ASVAB tests are subjects taught in high school, and tested on the ACT. It is especially heavy on English and Math. Daniel took the ACT three times, and ended with a score of 29, and he graduated in the top 10% of his class. It was in Daniel’s mind to do four years in the army, then go to college on the GI Bill, and maybe teach history. He loved history. After graduation, Daniel signed papers at the recruiter’s office, went to MEPS in St Louis, completed his processing and signed his actual contract for infantry MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) 11X, with an airborne option, and took the oath. Whether he was to be a light weapons infantryman MOS 11B or heavy weapons (mortars) MOS 11C, would be decided, by the Army, during OSUT. He was transported to the airport with a ticket to Columbus, Georgia. Had to change planes in Atlanta. From the Columbus airport he was bussed to the 30th AG Reception Battalion on Fort Benning. He spent four days processing into the army, and then had to wait another week until there were enough recruits to fill an OSUT company. That was a terribly long week of cleaning details, doing nothing, and occasional instruction on how to stand at attention and salute, when a drill sergeant didn’t have anything else to do. They did not do organized PT, and were not allowed to do it outside, on their own. Most exercised inside the barracks.
When they arrived at their OSUT company, it was like hell had descended upon them in the form of 12 screaming drill sergeants. The first day was primarily for shock effect, but it continued for several days. The basic training part of OSUT followed about the same schedule as any basic combat training, only with more strict control. The PT was intense and the pushups continuous. They got “smoked” (dropped for pushups) when someone made a mistake, or the platoon didn’t win an event, or the drill sergeant felt like it. The rifle marksmanship training was great. There was competition amongst the training companies for the highest rifle marksmanship scores. When they completed basic training, at the end of eight weeks, they were given a weekend off to be with their family, as long as their family came to Fort Benning. The remaining six weeks, of the 14 week course, was pure infantry training. Daniel was to be an 11B Lightweapons Infantryman, which is what he had repeatedly requested. They trained on the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, the M240B Machine Gun, M67 fragmentation grenades, how to engage targets with a M320 Grenade Launcher, how to conduct checkpoint operations and Detainee Operations. They had rucksack marches of 3, 6, 9 and 12 and finally 15 miles carrying a 60 pound rucksack. They learned to pay special attention to their feet. Some wore two pair of socks, and some used moleskin on their heels and tendons. They trained as teams, learning urban combat and room clearing operations, they learned squad tactics, patrolling, ambushes and reaction to ambush and much more. And then the final FTX (Field Training Exercise), where they put all the skills they had learned into an actual operation, culminating in a road march to “Honor Hill”. The hill was steep, especially when wearing full combat packs and weapons and carrying litters with 175 pounds of sand bags. On top of the hill a final “rite of passage” ceremony was conducted. It is a ceremony only done by infantrymen. It’s done at night, at the end of training. There were people there to cheer them on. They made their way through plumes of smoke and passed through a gate bearing the phrase; “From this gate, emerge the finest soldiers the world has ever known. Follow me”. It has been described as the drill sergeants welcoming them into the brotherhood of infantry. There was a large bonfire. They were given their canteen cups filled with “grog”, they thought it was booze, actually it was a mixture of Gatorade, water and dry ice. Afterward there was a ceremony where the drill sergeants pined the coveted crossed rifles of an infantryman on their uniforms. The following week was the “turning blue” ceremony, where family could place the blue cord of an infantryman on their soldier’s right shoulder. Then graduation.
Daniel and several others scheduled for airborne school were placed in “holdover” status, waiting to start airborne school. They waited 10 days, pulling details, before they moved to the airborne school. Three weeks of school and five jumps later he was on a plane to Fayetteville, North Carolina (change in Atlanta). At the Fayetteville Airport, he caught the bus to the 82nd Airborne Division Replacement Detachment. He spent three days there, in processing to Fort Bragg and drawing field gear (TA-50). He was also issued a maroon beret, and a French Fourragere which is worn on the left shoulder of the dress uniform of all members of the 82nd Airborne Division. The Mayor of the town of Sainte Mere Eglise, France wrote to the French Government and requested that the 82nd Airborne Division be awarded the French Fourragere for liberating his town on D-day 1944. Daniel was also taught how to salute in the 82nd Airborne Division. Everywhere in the Army, when an enlisted person meets an officer outside, they salute and greet them with “Good morning (or afternoon) Sir! (or Ma am), the officer responds in kind. Not in the 82nd. In the 82nd Airborne Division when an enlisted person meets an officer, they salute and greet them with “ALL THE WAY SIR! (or Ma am), the officer responds with AIRBORNE!
Daniel was assigned to a Rifle Company in the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, in the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division. The 504th is known as the “Devils in Baggy Pants”. The 1st Battalion are the “Red Devils”, and the 2nd Battalion are the “White Devils”. The 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment got its’ nick name from the diary of a German Officer, who was killed at Anzio, Italy in February 1944. Allied forces made a beach invasion at Anzio, about 35 miles south of Rome, German forces counterattacked and tried to push the allies back into the sea. The 504th was severely under strength from months of intense combat up the boot of Italy, but it was parachuted into Anzio to help stop the German advance. The passage in the German Majors’ diary read; “American parachutists … 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 …”. For that action, the 504th was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation. One of the first to be awarded.
There is a book “Devils in Baggy Pants”, written by Ross Carter, who was one of only three men of the original 40 in his platoon, in the 504th, to survive World War II from beginning to end. He died of cancer in 1947.
The day Daniel was to move to his company, his new Squad Leader, Staff Sergeant (SSG E6) Wright, and his Team Leader, Sergeant (SGT E5) Goington picked him up from the Replacement Detachment and took him to his room in the barracks, then to the Company Orderly Room to meet the First Sergeant and Company Commander. Daniel was informed that he would be placed on a duty roster to pull CQ runner (a Sergeant is Charge of Quarters (CQ) and a PVT or PFC is his runner, they sit at the entrance to the building, and monitor people and phones for a 24 hour period) Then it was to Battalion Headquarters for more paperwork, while there he was also introduced to the Battalion Command Sergeant Major. SSG Wright ask Daniel about his family, parents address and phone number, brothers and sisters and grandparents. Both SSG Wright and SGT Goington made notes as Daniel talked. Daniel told them about his training and pointed out that he had not yet had any leave. SSG Wright told him that since that was the first week of November, he would try to insure that Daniel got Christmas leave. They pointed out the DFAC (Dining Facility), and where the company formations were held. Since that was a Thursday, Daniels first formation was at 06:30 the next morning for PT. Since the 1st Brigade was on support cycle, at the 08:45 work formation, on Friday, Daniel was given the day and the weekend to get his room set up, and his uniforms and equipment cleaned and organized. Soon after he returned to his room, there was a knock on Daniel’s door, it was Daniel’s Platoon Sergeant, Sergeant First Class (SFC E7) Steady. SFC Steady had over 14 years in the army and was a master parachutist, meaning over 36 months on jump status and over 65 jumps, and he wore a CIB (Combat Infantryman Badge), he had multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Daniel immediately snapped to parade rest. SFC Steady said; “Relax Kcender, sit down, I just want to talk a few minutes.” SFC Steady asked Daniel all the questions that SSG Wright and SGT Goington did, plus he ask about high school, his grades, friends, why he came in the army, and what he thought about it, so far, but SFC Steady didn’t make any notes. He told Daniel about his time in the army, and about his wife and children ages nine, seven and five. He told Daniel about the First Sergeant, Company Commander, Battalion Command Sergeant Major, Battalion Commander, Brigade Command Sergeant Major, and the Brigade Commander. He told Daniel that he had already been selected for promotion to E-8, and that he would probably be promoted and moved within the next year. Then he told Daniel that this is a hard job, we have early mornings for jumps, and late nights to clean equipment. We may go to the field, for training, on Monday morning, come in Thursday afternoon, and clean weapons until dark, and we may do that two or three weeks in a row, plus you may have CQ runner on the weekend. We will get alerts, just to test us. He told Daniel that he may see soldiers who have developed a negative attitude and can’t wait until they get out. He told Daniel that if he fell into that frame of mind, this would be a miserable time in his life. He said to make this a high point in his life, he said; “Learn all you can, and do the best job you can. In the Infantry we do something different every day, so have fun”. Then he told Daniel about his squad leader, SSG Wright. He said; “SSG Wright is the best squad leader I have seen. He went to Ranger school as a specialist, and was a Squad Leader as a Sergeant. He has the unique ability to work the crap out of you and make you appreciate it. His squad will be training while others are resting. I caution you not to ask him about combat, let him bring it up. He was leading a patrol in Afghanistan and walked into something that intel didn’t know about. He was wounded, one was killed, and two others were wounded. He got them out and got a Silver Star for it, but loosing that man hurt him deeply, he still has contact with that young man’s family. Everyone expects him to be on the next E-7 list”. He told Daniel about some of the history of the 82nd, and that there is a lot of pride in being part of the finest combat division in the army. He said; “We are the tip of the spear, we are subject to be deployed into combat at any time”. He suggested that Daniel visit the Division Museum, and he suggested that he go to church Sunday morning, he said there is the new Division Memorial Chapel, but the old Airborne Chapel is closer, and that is where most of the 504 people, who go to church, attend. As he was leaving, SFC Steady told Daniel if he had problems or questions, he should start with SSG Wright, but that he could certainly talk to him anytime.
Daniel finished putting his room and equipment in order, and on Sunday morning he decided to take SFC Steady’s advice. He went to the Protestant Service at the Airborne Chapel. He saw several soldiers he had seen, but didn’t yet know, also SFC Steady, his Company Commander, and his Battalion Commander were there with their families. Sunday afternoon, Daniel went to the Division Museum. It took all afternoon to see everything. Daniel was moved at being a part of the 82nd Airborne Division. He discovered that the 82nd had seen combat he had never heard about, like Dominican Republic, Granada, and Panama.
Daniel was assigned as a Rifleman in a nine man squad. Two Fire Teams of four men each. SGT Goington was his Fire Team Leader, and SSG Wright his Squad Leader. SGT Goington had been in the army about four years, and been a Sergeant about six months. SSG Wright had been in the army about eight years, he was a Ranger and a senior parachutist, meaning he had completed Advanced Airborne School making him a jumpmaster, and that he had over 24 months on jump status and more than 32 parachute jumps. The Platoon consisted of three squads like his, and a weapons squad with two machine gun crews and two anti tank gunners Daniel’s Platoon Leader was Second Lieutenant (2LT) Smart. 2LT Smart graduated from college and was commissioned by ROTC the previous December, and had been the Platoon Leader about three months. 2LT Smart was also a Ranger.
Daniel made his first parachute jump with his unit his first week in the company. SSG Wright was one of the two primary jumpmasters on the 100 paratrooper jump from a C-17 Globemaster. He learned that sustained (refresher) airborne training is conducted before every jump. The Battalion Chaplain made it a point to meet the new paratroopers and jump with them on their first jump with the 504, and invited them to services on Sunday morning at the Airborne Chapel.
A week after Daniel arrived, the annual formal “White Devil Dining Out” was held at the Fort Bragg Conference and Catering Center. SSG Wright briefed Daniel on how to act. It was the first time he wore his class A uniform as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, except this was formal so he had to wear a white shirt and black bow tie. The soldiers all wore the formal dress uniform, and the wives wore evening gowns. There was an open bar before formal gatherings. Daniel had to drink soft drinks, his Sergeants and the bar tenders made sure of that. Then there was the Receiving Line, the Battalion Command Sergeant Major, the Battalion Commander, and the Brigade Commander and their wives were in the receiving line. Then they were seated, there were toasts to the President, to the wives, and several others, and finally the meal.
Two weeks after Daniel arrived, a new Company Commander arrived. It was a company formation, at attention, while the First Sergeant, the two Captains, and the company Guidon bearer marched to the center in front of the formation. A Guidon is the company flag, identifying the unit. The Guidon was handed to the outgoing Captain, who handed it to the First Sergeant, who handed it to the incoming Commander, Captain Good. They were then put “at ease” and the outgoing commander spoke, then the incoming commander, and then the Battalion Commander. The next week was Thanksgiving. The DFAC served a lavish thanksgiving meal, turkey, ham, stuffing, pumpkin pie and a dozen other things. The troops didn’t have to dress up, but the officers and senior NCO’s (Sergeants, i.e., Non-commissioned Officers) did, and the officers and NCO’s served the meal. The following week, on Tuesday morning, the wives (the Family Readiness Group) prepared breakfast in a brigade classroom, and everyone, who could, went there right after PT (still in PT uniform). Captain Good briefed everyone about the training schedule for the coming months. Two weeks before Christmas, they were released early one afternoon to attend the battalion Christmas party at an ice skating rink. Daniel and several others didn’t skate, but they had fun. Daniel did get a 10 day leave for Christmas. He got to spend Christmas with his family, and he bought a car. Daniel had been in the army for five months when he arrived at his unit, so he had been able to save almost $5,000. Daniel made a down payment, bought his insurance and drove back to Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
After the holidays, the 1st Brigade Combat Team became the Division Ready Brigade, that’s called mission cycle, and the 2nd Battalion, 504th went on DRF-1 (Division Ready Force-1), , and DRF-1 means they are on two hour call. That’s for the first formation, ready to go. Everyone has to be within 30 minutes of the company, including those married living off post. The battalion is on DRF-1 for two weeks, then DRF-2, then DRF-3, then the Brigade switches to the Intensified Training Cycle. The week prior to going on mission cycle, Daniel was given a packing list of what to wear and what to have in his rucksack. SGT Goington checked everything, then SSG Wright checked everything. The first week on DRF-1 the company zeroed and fired their weapons. The “off post people” weren’t happy, because no one was released from the company area until all weapons were cleaned and turned in, which was about 6:00 PM (18:00). Daniel’s squad and platoon trained intensely on squad and platoon tactics, both in urban and field terrain. They trained close to the company (Area J) and always had transportation with them. At 02:00 A.M. the morning after the superbowl, the CQ runner awoke Daniel and told him that they had been alerted, and that there would be a company formation in 30 minutes. At that formation, they were told to go draw their weapons, get in full battle uniform, with ruck, and be back in formation in one hour. At the next formation, they were issued MRE’s (meals ready to eat), placed in jump order, loaded on trucks and transported to “Green Ramp” (Pope Air Field on Fort Bragg). There they were issued parachutes and reserves and told not to chute up, they would do that (rig) inflight, because it would be a long flight. Then they were issued blank ammunition, then they knew this was training, not war, it was an EDRE (Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercise). In the aircraft, the leaders were briefed, then SSG Wright briefed the squad. They were jumping into a mythical country, which was Fort Hood, Texas, they were to seize an objective, kill or capture terrorists and release hostages (Fort Hood aggressor units). They jumped into Fort Hood, Texas. They were in the field four days, then they loaded back onto aircraft and flew back to Fort Bragg. A successful EDRE.
After six weeks on “mission cycle”, the Brigade changed to an “intensified training cycle”. They had known for months they were going to JRTC (Joint Readiness Training Center) at Fort Polk, Louisiana. JRTC is called training, but it is really a giant test of a Brigade. Different war games are conducted against a permanently assigned aggressor unit, with graders present. He very carefully packed his rucksack, and SSG Wright checked it, because they would be gone about a month and he would have to live out of that rucksack. It weighed over 120 pounds when packed, and still had MRE’s and ammo to be added. Sure enough 06:00 on a Monday morning they were alerted. They took off just before midnight. This time they chuted up before boarding the planes. It was about a 2 ½ hour flight. The entire brigade would be jumping at night, making a forcible entry into a hostile area to seize and hold an airfield. Upon landing, as rapidly as they could, they rolled up their parachutes, got their gear on and located other members of their squads and platoons, when assembled the Platoon Leader and Squad Leaders moved them to predetermined areas of the drop zone to set up defensive positions. There was sporadic aggressor fire during the night. At daylight they moved out to different areas of the fictitious country to defend it from an invading force. They were attacked repeatedly by the professional aggressors. After about a week, they went on the offense, conducting platoon and company sized patrols and raids. There were graders with them all the time. A few could sleep, while others were awake. They slept on the ground, under poncho liners, if it was raining they slept under a poncho. They mostly ate MRE’s. Every few days they would get a hot meal. When the exercise was over, everyone was briefed down to platoon level about what they did right and what they did wrong. They were told that they did very well. Daniel was promoted to Private First Class (PFC E3) after that exercise.