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Popular Monthly Jumps Resume on Fort Bragg

When Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend took command of the Home of the Airborne earlier this year, he recognized a problem.

Fort Bragg is home to the 82nd Airborne Division, 18th Airborne Corps and a host of other paratrooper units.

But the soldiers in the famed maroon berets weren't spending enough time falling from the sky.

That was leaving them potentially unprepared to do what many Fort Bragg soldiers train to do -- jump anywhere in the world on short notice.

To solve that problem, Townsend -- who commands Fort Bragg and the 18th Airborne Corps -- has brought back the Saturday Proficiency Jump Program, a monthly event that gives any paratrooper on post the opportunity to take part in a first-come, first-serve airborne operation.

The program was a staple of pre-Sept. 11 Fort Bragg, and could help paratroopers add several jumps a year to their training.

Saturday marked the first jump under the new, old program, and Townsend was the first paratrooper out the door of the C-130H soaring over Sicily Drop Zone.

After landing, he said that amid more than a decade of constant deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan, Fort Bragg's focus turned away from the skies.

In recent years, however, local leaders have returned the emphasis to training for joint forcible entry operations, namely entering potentially unfriendly countries by parachute.

The return of the monthly proficiency jumps is part of those efforts, Townsend said.

"Somewhere after 9/11, we got too busy to do these," he said. "We weren't jumping enough."

Saturday's jumpers had the option of jumping without any extra equipment -- a so-called Hollywood jump -- or carrying their own tactical gear.

Either way, the jumper gets training and builds confidence, Townsend said.

"Any time a jumper makes that exit and spends time under canopy is good for the mission," he said.

Command Sgt. Maj. Benjamin Jones, the senior enlisted leader of the 18th Airborne Corps, agreed.

"It's about building proficiency," Jones said after landing his own parachute. "And proficiency builds confidence. The more repetitions, the better."

U.S. Army paratroopers get bonus pay for their airborne duties.

To keep that money, they must jump at least once a quarter, or about four times a year.

But Jones and Townsend said that's not enough for soldiers who could be asked to respond as a major part of the nation's contingency forces.

"Four a year is the minimum. Nobody who does this business thinks four is enough for proficiency," Townsend said. "Eight to twelve is what we want."

The biggest challenge to reaching that goal, Townsend said, comes with the availability of aircraft.

In the future, the program will involve a revolving door of Air Force units, flying C-130s and C-17s, and also could involve Fort Bragg helicopters.

On Saturday, the two C-130H planes ferrying paratroopers from the drop zone to the skies overhead came from the 94th Airlift Wing, an Air Force Reserve unit based at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia.

But some of the air crews, Townsend said, came from Fort Bragg's own 440th Airlift Wing.

The 440th Airlift Wing has the only Air Force planes permanently based at Fort Bragg, but the unit has long been set for inactivation, although that has been delayed until at least next year.

Fort Bragg can work around the weather when it comes to the renewed monthly jump program, Townsend said. "Getting airplanes is the big issue."

Attracting paratroopers, however, does not seem to be an issue, officials said.

Hundreds of soldiers were at Sicily Drop Zone and many brought their families and friends.

Townsend said he enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere, with families, ice cream trucks and family readiness groups selling treats.

Some paratroopers were jumping to meet their minimum requirements, he said. Others were chasing milestones or preparing for jumpmaster school.

"And some guys just like to jump," Townsend.

He bid each clear skies and a soft landing.

Officials knew the program would be popular, they said. But they didn't anticipate just how large the crowds of would-be jumpers would grow.

Space in the C-130s and available parachutes limited the jumpers to the first 500 on site.

One of the organizers of the jumps, Master Sgt. Jennifer Lane, said at least 15 cars were already parked at the drop zone Friday night.

Lane, the air operations noncommissioned officer in charge for the 18th Airborne Corps' Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, said that wasn't too surprising, given the response to bringing the program back to Fort Bragg.

But big crowds early in the morning did lead to several changes.

Instead of checking in paratroopers at 7:45 a.m. for the 11 a.m. jumps, officials began the manifest process before 6 a.m. and quickly had to turn away between 250 and 300 paratroopers who had hoped to jump.

"We could have easily had 800, if not more,jumpers," Lane said.

Several officials said that was one take-away from the event.

In the future, they said, there would be more parachutes and more available spots for jumpers.

The event reminded Lane of her time on Fort Bragg in the late 1990s, she said.

Then, the Saturday jump program also was a huge draw, with 1,200 or more paratroopers attending each month.

Then, too, soldiers brought their families. Units grilled, vendors sold food and, on some occasions, there were inflatable bounce-houses for children.

"It was a big deal," she said. "Everybody came out and jumped."

The festive atmosphere was appreciated by Fort Bragg's leaders.

Jones said the event was a great opportunity for families to see what their soldiers are trained to do.

"It's a phenomenal turn out," he said.

The jump itself was also a family affair.

Maj. Stephen Marshall and his younger brother, Sgt. Maj. Christopher Marshall, have more than 43 years combined in the U.S. Army.

Much of that has been spent in airborne units, and the pair have nearly 150 jumps between them.

But before Saturday, they had never jumped together.

The brothers made sure that ended. Securing seats side-by-side on the first pass of the day.

Fittingly, they said, it will be their last jumps in the Army.

Maj. Marshall, currently the signal officer for the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, will move to U.S. Army Forces Command in a week.

Sgt. Maj. Marshall, currently the 18th Airborne Corps surgeon sergeant major, also soon will change units, moving to Joint Base San Antonio, Texas.

The brothers said the jump reminded them of 30 years ago, when they would watch their father -- then in the 82nd Airborne -- from the same bleachers that were then dotted with families of current soldiers.

"This was our opportunity," Maj. Marshall said. "I'm really glad the corps brought this back."

"It was great," added Sgt. Maj. Marshall. "It really was important to us."

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