Antigua, West Indies, Caribbean
Whatya lookin’ at?
Slowly the cargo door opened. As it did, air rushed inside of the stark aircraft, shuffling everyone around that stood, vibrating everyone that sat. The outside sunlight spilled in, overpowering the red glow of the cabin lights, making me squint my eyes as I tried to see. We all craned our heads to look out the gaping door into the expanse of the Caribbean Sea playing out before us. The blue green water looked really inviting; large dark patches of coral dotted the ocean below, waves lapping on top of it in shallower areas.
Wow. In just a few moments I was going to be right in it.
“So I guess we’re jumpin’,” one of the troopers said next to me.
“Looks like it, though the wind is really kickin’.” I said. There had been an argument only a few moments before as to if the jump should go as planned. But a colonel onboard the plane wasn’t going to be denied; he volunteered to be the “test dummy,” the first one out the aircraft to see how fast the wind was blowing. The Navy SEALS and EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) guys on the drop zone below confirmed that the wind was way too fast for safe water landings – over 15 miles an hour. It got me nervous, but I was really ready to get the hell out of the aircraft. There were three reasons why:
- One, it was Valentine’s Day.
- Two: My last name was Valentine.
- Three, it was my ubiquitous “Cherry Jump”, my first jump out of Airborne School!
A chance like this, came only once in a lifetime.
I just had to get out of the aircraft!
I came to Antigua, West Indies on a lark only a few days before. Whispers went around at the base where I was stationed that something was amiss; you could feel it in the air. Rumor Control had it that there was a jump going on somewhere… someplace special. Sergeant Herbert, the old, cantankerous senior jumpmaster of our unit, walked up to me while I cleaned my M-16 after a training mission. The old geezer was the one with all the connections to the “fun” jumps, always selecting a certain few people to tag along for the ride.
He glided over to me, squatting down as I sat cleaning my rifle. “You wanna go to the Caribbean? I can get you in some water jumps in Antigua if want.”
My eyes bugged out of my head. I didn’t even hesitate. “Hell yeah Sergeant. If you can get me in, I’ll be more than happy to go.”
He gave me a sly look. “You still haven’t busted your Cherry, have you Valentine?”
I smirked sheepishly. “No.”
Sgt. Herbert laughed out loud, “Well, gooooolllllleeeee I gotta git ya in on these jumps! As a matter of fact, gimme twenty pushups for just being a Cherry.”
Here we go. “Yes, Sergeant.” I knocked out twenty pushups while the Sgt. cracked up at me. Great.
For the uninitiated, your first jump out of the Army’s jump school in Fort Benning, Georgia, is quite an experience. Everyone – and I do mean everyone who is a paratrooper in the Army – goes through the hazing that is blessed onto anyone who does their first jump out of that school – called their Cherry Jump. Though very light hearted, Cherry Jumps were always a great time to have everyone in your unit make fun of you. They would make you do stupid things, like for example Sgt. Herbert telling me to knock out twenty pushups. The hazing never got violent, and was always in good faith. This form of hazing went back to the early days of US paratroopers, just before World War Two.
I already had my Bloodwings – another Airborne tradition – where your instructor just at the end of jump school punches your gleaming jumpwings into your bare chest as hard as he can, causing them to stick to you – and did I say that you bleed profusely as well (along with making you wonder if you’re getting tetanus)? Contrary to popular belief, both men and women who are paratroopers in the Army get Bloodwings (women get them from female instructors). And trust me, everyone who gets them is proud to have them. Including me. I was very glad to be in on the 60-plus year tradition!
Busting a Cherry was another great tradition. But I knew that if I let it be known to the whole unit that I was A) going to Antigua, and B) was going to bust my Cherry, I’d be in big trouble. The unit would pounce on me in no time, and I didn’t want to see myself sweating out in the parking lot doing calisthenics until I dropped from exhaustion. So I kept my mouth shut.
Only a week later I was on an empty C-130 Hercules flying out of Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, with three others of my unit who wanted to go. We were called the Long Range Reconnaissance. What we did, was work in teams of six people, usually 50-150 miles within enemy territory, and report what we saw from hide sites to headquarters. In order to be in a unit like ours, you had to be in the Infantry, then sign up for Airborne School. On top of that, once you entered your unit you’d be sent to the many different schools the Army had to learn your craft – from scuba diving, to survival school, to rock climbing, even medical school. It meant that in a unit like mine, you had people of a caliber that were one step higher than average. People who were willing to go that extra mile. Though not very well-known with the American public, being a “Lurp” as we called ourselves, was very elite indeed.
That pride of being elite followed us everywhere. It allowed us to meet and train with Special Forces units within the USA and abroad all the time, and this trip to Antigua was no different.
After about an hour in the air, we made a quick stop on the military side of Dulles International Airport, to pick up some more troopers. I knew that the four of us weren’t going to Antigua alone, and figured that we’d stop at Dulles to pick up some more Airborne troopers. But the guys who got on were very different. They wore totally different camouflage fatigues from us, and the equipment they wore was not like anything issued in the American military. But then I noticed the black, yellow and red tricolor flag on the right shoulder of their tops. I knew what country that was. Germany. And I knew exactly who these guys were. The German Fallschrimjeager, their elite paratroops! They brought with them loads of beer, food, and parachutes as they boarded the rear of the plane. Wow. I had no idea these people were coming with us. This was going to be good!
Sergeant Richter, one of the old warriors of the unit, was as shocked as I was. “I had no idea! I thought this was just going to be a normal Airborne operation.” He looked over at me. “Feel like getting some German wings with your Cherry Jump, Valentine?”
There was a lump in my throat. “Do you really think I can get them?”
“If you jump with these guys chutes, yes you can.” He smiled a toothy grin. “Not bad for a Cherry, eh? Just don’t let everyone else know that.”
With the plane only partially full, we took off in the lumbering Air Force cargo plane. Now for you civilians, there was no food service or amenities like what you find on commercial flights. You were just packed in like sardines, one next to the other, on nylon netting, leaving a lot for conversation. The platoon of Germans with us were quite talkative and friendly, all of them being very excited. One of them told us they were training in Virginia and got word of the jump, and their commander was able to get them slots aboard.
Having a sore arse after several hours of flying, we hit the ground again with a thunk, reverse thrusters on full blast, the wheels of the bird vibrating like crazy as the brakes were applied. Ha! I assumed we were in Antigua! I craned my head looking out of the small port windows to see rolling tarmac, palm trees, and lots of military planes mixed in with civilian ones. Then I saw something. A sign not too far off in the distance, for the commercial airliners. Welcome to Bermuda?
I leaned over to Sgt. Richter again. “We’re in Bermuda. What for?”
“Beats me. Maybe we need gas.”
The cargo door opened again, and tarmac was splayed out in front of us. But within moments came a bunch of guys wearing blue T-shirts and tan shorts. They all carried small backpacks, and quickly found empty seats among everyone, introducing themselves. By the looks of them I knew exactly who they were.
One of them sat not too far from me, chatting to a German. He was a big blond guy, chiseled face and athletically built. His blue shirt covered whatever muscles he had, and he had an aura that said not to make him angry. On his T-shirt he had a small gold on iron decal, right above his heart. It was an eagle holding a trident with long talons, and a revolutionary pistol as well. Beneath it were the words SEAL TEAM TWO.
I jabbed Corporal Miles, sitting across from me, acting as if I just saw a superstar. “Yo Miles!” I whispered. “We got Seals on board!”
“Looks like this is going to be some helluva training mission,” he said. “Did you know any of this, Richter?” He shook his head no.
Sgt. Herbert, hanging out towards the cockpit of the airplane and chatting to the crew chief, came over after I motioned him. “Hey Herbie, what’s going on? Germans, Seals – who’s next?”
He gave me a wink. “All of JSOC (the Joint Special Operations Command). This jump got a lot of spec op guys coming on it.”
I was amazed. “You gotta be kidding me?!”
“That’s why I had to be sneaky about this fun-jump.” Sgt. Herbert added. “If everyone knew that JSOC was going to be in on it, everyone and their mother would’ve wanted to go.
“You should feel very lucky, Valentine. This is your Cherry Jump and you’re getting to do this. As a matter of fact, gimme twenty just for being a Cherry.” I laughed, jumping on some netting seats in front of me and knocking out the pushups.
I just hoped nobody else saw that, or I’d be in big trouble!