Paratroopers of the 425 Brigade at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson have to be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice to take on missions ranging from parachuting into a combat zone to providing humanitarian relief for natural disaster victims.
On Tuesday, I had a chance to get a glimpse into the life of Alaska’s Airborne soldiers.
As I stand in the main staging area in the Joint Mobility Center, I try on a parachute to give me a feel for just how much gear a paratrooper carries when they jump out of a plane.
Weighing in at nearly 50 pounds, it’s like walking around with an 8-year-old strapped to your back. And it’s only about a third of the weight a fully-equipped paratrooper might carry into a war zone.
The room is spartan; the plain, white walls are adorned with unit logos and most of the interior is lined with rows of long, wooden benches.
Colonel Matt McFarlane – the commander of the 425 Brigade – says the time spent in the room is the last chance to make sure everyone is ready to go and on the same page before they head out.
“We come down here as we prepare for a contingency deployment,” McFarlane said. “We’ll finish up our deployment preparation.”
“Sometimes that’s administration like finishing up wills if we have to do that, and other things that allow us to deploy.”
Along one of the walls, there are stations where soldiers can take care of any last-minute legal, financial, and religious needs before deployment.
The days spent in that room are ones soldiers don’t forget.
“I remember December 9, 2011, walking in this room,” Captain Chase Spears said. “I had said goodbye to my family earlier in the day; held my kids for the last time and disconnected, got on a bus and drove over here, and I remember sitting in this very room at the JMC knowing that I had at least a 10-month tour in Afghanistan ahead of me.”
Spears has deployed twice – once to Kuwait and once to Afghanistan.
He says even, at those times, when the soldiers have all said goodbye to their families, the room is filled with an air of confidence and focus.
“It’s just something really humbling to walk in and feel just, everyone is ready,” Spears said. “Everyone has accepted, ‘Yup, we’re gonna be out; I might not be sleeping for a little while; I might not be comfortable for a little while, but, this is what I’ve signed up to do; and this is what I’m trained to do; and this is what I’m proud to do.'”
Even though military units are in a constant state of training and readiness, emotions still come into play, and despite extensive preparation, it often comes down to soldiers supporting each other to make it through a deployment.
Colonel Matt McFarlane remembers one moment in particular when his unit was getting ready to deploy to an area near the border of Albania and Kosovo in 1999.
“I had a young paratrooper that we found crying in his wall locker, because he was scared,” he said.
McFarlane and others talked with the soldier, encouraging him to feel confident in the abilities of his unit, his fellow soldiers, and himself. And, when the time came in combat, McFarlane says that soldier was able to overcome his fear and was the first to return fire.
“Any soldier would attest that they rely on their buddies, we call them airborne buddies in this unit – their battle buddies – to keep them going strong when sometimes they may not be as strong as they should be for whatever reason,” McFarlane said.
So far, the paratroopers of the 425 Brigade at JBER have been deployed to war zones for over three full years on three different deployments since the unit’s inception in July 2005.
During their deployments they have lost 74 soldiers in combat.