In the dark sky of a hot August night, more than 2,000 American and British Paratroopers sat quietly amongst one another in the clouds in the bellies of aircrafts waiting for the moment that awaited them all: the jump. Cramped together they wait, each of them with a 38-pound parachute on their back, a 15-pound reserve parachute on their chest, a weapon strapped to their side, and a rucksack weighing, often, in excess of 60 pounds suspended from their hips. Amongst them I sat, trying to swallow my fears quietly, feeling the swirl of dread and excitement, pondering my own bravery as the minutes continued to tick down to the moment of truth. Yet, instead of festering in my own fears, I began to find myself buoyed and captivated by those around me in the aircraft. The quiet resolve amongst the paratroopers was captivating, each of them about to jump from an aircraft, flying around 1000 feet off the ground, with over a 100 pounds of equipment, and into the dark night separated from one another by only an arm's length. Despite obvious dangers facing each Paratrooper on that aircraft a quiet calm permeated the aircraft, soon, I found myself marveling not at the intensity of their bravery but at the origins of it: faith.
The quiet calm soon ends. Suddenly, the aircraft is alive as the process begins: we are ordered to our feet by the jumpmaster team, the specially trained paratroopers who manage the exit from the aircraft. Slowly and cumbersomely, each line of paratroopers within the aircraft stands up, our backs and legs straining against the weight. The order to "hook up" echoes down the line, as each of us takes our static line, which when pulled free will open our individual parachute, and hooks to the anchor line cable within the aircraft. Sweat drips like rain down each of our faces as the heat and strain begin to add up as we struggle to hold ourselves in place. We make eye to eye contact with the jumpmaster as the gear is checked once more, all while each of our voice echoes the commands of the jumpmaster like cadence. As the aircraft doors are opened, the wind howls through the fuselage and the gravity of what awaits fills our minds. Yet, the calm remains and an itch to get free from the aircraft begins to swell in each of our chests. With the final checks complete, the anticipation is palpable in the air as the final preparatory command is uttered down the line: "standby."
Then, finally, the moment arrives marked by a simple change of the light from red to green. With this, the jumpmasters bellow: "Green light, GO!" and with this the jump begins. One after another, we walk in step with those in front of us, like soldiers marching down an avenue, hand off our individual static line to the jumpmaster crew, turn into the door, gather all of our might, and jump forth, blindly and bravely, into the dark night sky.
"One-thousand, two-thousand..." the count to six seconds explodes through your mind like a firecracker. The jolt of the canopy opening fills you with an incredible momentary thankfulness. Then you look above to your quickly expanding canopy in order to ensure there were no faults in how it deployed. As the ground continues to get closer, you release your equipment piece by piece to prepare to land. Pulling the risers to slow your descent, you prepare for the inevitable impact with the ground, and, I, like many others, meet the ground as gracefully as a sack of potatoes dropped on to the pantry floor. I take a moment and look across the drop zone and into the night sky, it is brimming with Paratroopers. One by one, they are landing, readying their weapons, testing their radios, gaining their bearings and then quickly moving out to join their units. Each of them seamlessly executing their critical tasks to join the team and play their critical role in the fight.
Long before anyone from my generation or myself climbed aboard the aircraft that night, gathered their calm under an open canopy, and charged across a drop zone to the next objective, Lieutenant General James Gavin, the founder and driving force behind the American airborne infantry, once said, "Show me a man who will jump out of an airplane, and I'll show you one who will fight." Fight they will and fight they have: the airborne units of the United States Army are some of the most storied and elite units in modern military history, fighting from the shores of France to the streets of Baghdad. They leap not only into the night sky, but do so fully knowing that this will only be the start of their journey. Whether in training or combat, they know upon getting to the ground, they will be asked to move further and fight harder, accepting their share and more to accomplish what must be done.
Paratroopers knowingly and willingly put themselves in harm's way, fight with heart, and regularly exhibit bravery. Yet what I found that night and continue to find so inspiring is their faith. I do not speak of a faith in any particular denomination or religion, but in the faith that they put in one another and the training each of them completed. When jumping into the unforgiving skies, there is a realization of the critical role of each part in the system: each component of the team, whether it be the riggers packing your parachutes, jumpmasters exiting you from the aircraft, loadmasters managing the rear of the aircraft, flight crew maneuvering you to the right drop zone, or your fellow paratrooper exiting that door with you builds a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. Together, acting seamlessly, they are capable of an extraordinary feat: safely exiting nearly 100 paratroopers from an aircraft in flight at night. Yet, any break in the chains can lead to catastrophic failure. By placing their faith in one another as a collective that cannot fail, Paratroopers resolve to never be that point of failure. In faithfully trusting those around them, they cultivate a trust in themselves that in that moment where the individual Paratrooper alone must make the choice to leap through that door, they will not waiver because they will not fail those around them. It is this faith, I believe, that leads them to find the courage to jump from that door and into the abyss.
This collective courage found through faith in one another does not solely exist in a C-130 above a drop zone, it is forged by individuals who identify the need and importance of working together. Individuals who choose to build shared trust and, in doing so, build faith in one another. Knowing that together, they can push one another to do the right thing, the brave thing, to accomplish something greater than any of them could do alone empowers people to discard doubts and be brave in the face of adversity. From there, with faith in one another, we soon find that when we stand at the metaphorical door and must decide to be brave for others that we will jump and believe our canopy, too, will open.