Not that many will notice it, with all the domestic and international turbulence dominating the news right now, but Saturday, Aug. 16, marks an opportunity for all Americans to pause for a moment and contemplate a very special variety of young men and women who serve in our nation's military forces. It may be difficult to find time in a hectic schedule on Aug. 16, but it's easy to find focus for those who understand and appreciate rare concepts like selflessness, service, and sacrifice. Just look for wings surrounding a parachute somewhere on a uniform.
Of course, it's appropriate to give thanks for our military people any day of any year, but National Airborne Day is a chance to drill down a bit and recognize those who get into the action in a very special way: by jumping out of perfectly good aircraft in pursuit of our nation's military missions around the world. These are soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who not only volunteered to go in harm's way but agreed to get there via one of the most inherently risky methods known to military science, involving things like parachutes, gliders, and helicopters. These are the folks who serve at the very pointiest end of the American military spear.
The lethal edge of that spear was forged and honed back in the early 1940s, when military progressives -- unlike virtually everyone else in America -- understood that a second world war was inevitable, and that success in that ugly endeavor would require forces that could be inserted at points behind the enemy's forward defensive lines. What was needed, according to the soldiers who formed the U.S. Army's Test Parachute Platoon at Fort Benning, was an outfit that could be launched by air using parachutes -- and, later, gliders -- ahead of an allied assault to seize vital objectives or simply create chaos in the enemy's rear areas. And that concept, tested for practicality by just 48 volunteer soldiers, who made their first official jump on Aug. 16, 1940, led to a legacy of airborne soldiers as an outfit that has operated as a light, fast, and lethal assault element in some 93 combat jumps from the first one made by the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, in North Africa during World War II to airborne landings in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, and the Middle East.
Much has changed in the business of airborne combat since that time. There are those pundits who claim that the days of massive tactical jumps by airborne forces are over, and that putting soldiers at risk by parachute assault is much too risky given newer and more efficient means available today. But you'll never convince airborne troopers that they are passé, or that their willingness to leap into combat hanging vulnerable under canopy is a thing of the past. That's because there is and always will be something very special about a paratrooper that sets him or her apart from the ordinary foot soldier.
That's easy to understand when you're thinking about Green Berets, SEALs, Force Recon Marines, or other operators who do a lot of parachuting and air landing due to the nature of their special-operations missions. The heart and soul of America's airborne forces resides today in the dwindling number of line outfits like the 82nd Airborne Division, 173rd Airborne Brigade, and the 75th Ranger Regiment, where you find men and women who regularly risk life and limb because they understand that the day will come when that green light at the jump door means their skill, motivation, and dedication will be needed to save the day.
These are soldiers who deserve our admiration, respect, and support on National Airborne Day and every other day. These are the people who will lead our forces into any fight we choose to make in the Middle East or elsewhere in the world where national interests must be served by military action. They are special indeed, and that status involves more than just jumping out of airplanes, although that's risky enough to generate our respect. What counts with the airborne soldier is that he or she jumps ready to fight and knowing full well that they will likely be outnumbered on the ground and probably surrounded when they land -- assuming they survive the exit and descent required to get at the enemy. These are soldiers who understand, with great serenity, that their survival depends on catching the enemy by surprise, closing with him and killing him -- very likely at close quarters -- with only the food, support, and ammunition they can carry out the door when they jump. And they know they will have to continue this brutal mission until heavier ground forces arrive, or they die in combat.
Recognizing that sort of dedication and selfless devotion to supporting our country's interests is worth contemplation. It takes one of our brave paratroopers just a few minutes to land after leaving the aircraft on the average military jump. We can afford at least that much time to appreciate the effort and the risk they take for us all.
Capt. Dale A. Dye, USMC (Ret.), runs Warriors, Inc., the premier military technical advisors to the entertainment industry, and Warriors Publishing Group, publisher of books including Hook Up: A Novel of Fort Bragg by William Singley, released on National Airborne Day.