FORT PICKETT, Va. –
It was “Zero Day” of Air Assault School, Aug. 7, 2018, and for most of the 270 Soldiers gathered at Fort Pickett, their reason for being there was simple: They wanted to prove something.
“I’m here to prove myself and to show them that a nerd can do it,” said Spc. Frederick Roddy, a cyber operations specialist assigned to the Fairfax-based 144th Cyber Warfare Company, 124th Cyber Protection Battalion, 91st Cyber Brigade.
The U.S. Army’s Air Assault School is a 10-day course divided into three phases: the combat assault phase, the sling load phase and the rappel phase. It is both physically and mentally demanding and the first challenge, making it through “Zero Day,” is often the hardest.
For the Soldiers gathered in the early morning hours at Fort Pickett, it started with a timed two-mile run. Soldiers had to complete the run in 18 minutes or less, then start the obstacle course. First, they had to climb a rope then they just kept going, down the cargo net, over a 40-foot tower, through the dirt, over a bunch of logs and the incline wall, over and through the weaver, across the rope and onto a log and, finally, to the high step-over. They did this quickly, to precise standards enforced by the cadre of the Fort Benning-based Army National Guard Warrior Training Center in the sticky heat that is August in Virginia.
After that, Soldiers washed the dirt and mud from their faces, cleaned up their uniforms and met back up in the classroom for lessons on aircraft safety and orientation, combat assault operations and the principles of aero-medical evacuation.
For Spc. Katie Umberger, a medic assigned to Charlie Company, 429th Brigade Support Battalion, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Air Assault School was an opportunity to face her fears.
“I’m afraid of heights,” Umberger said. “I’m terrified of heights, so I wanted to see if I could somehow get over that. I came to a one day prep class and didn’t even get close to the top of Jacob’s Ladder.”
Three weeks later, Umberger was one of just a few female Soldiers to make it through “Zero Day,” which included finally conquering Jacob’s Ladder.
A few days later, during the rappel phase of the course, Umberger was nervous. At the top of Fort Pickett’s newly-built rappel tower, she locked eyes with the Air Assault sergeant who calmly talked her through her first rappel. She took a few deep breaths at the top to calm her nerves before putting her faith in the ropes and heading down to the ground.
“I wanted to see if I could do it physically and mentally,” she said, and she did. She was one of the 199 Soldiers who earned their Air Assault Badge on Aug. 17, 2018.
While the Air Assault students were busy conquering their fears, 52 Soldiers were across the street at the 183rd Regiment, Regional Training Institute starting the U.S. Army’s Pathfinder School.
“This is not for the weak of heart,” said Staff Sgt. Danny Dornbusch, a Kentucky National Guardsman serving as a supply sergeant with 20th Special Forces Group. “You have to stay focused and give 100 percent, or you’re going to fail.”
Pathfinder School trains Soldiers on how to navigate cross country on foot, establish and operate day and night helicopter landing zones, establish and operate day and night parachute drop zones, conduct slingload and rappelling operations, and provide air traffic control and navigational assistance to both rotary and fixed wing aircraft.
“They cram a semester’s worth of knowledge into a course that’s a few weeks and there’s no down time,” Dornbusch explained. “You have to focus and study or you’re going to fail and that’s what’s going to happen out there if you don’t focus – you’re going to fail, someone is going to get hurt, someone’s going to die, someone’s going to land in a tree or your equipment is going to burn in over somewhere it shouldn’t.”
Dornbusch explained that he choose to attend Pathfinder School because he’s a member of an airborne unit, where pathfinders are an integral part of unit.
Much of Pathfinder School is spent inside the classroom until the final days of the course when Soldiers participate in a three-day field training exercise.
While 52 Soldiers started Pathfinder School, only 29 completed the course requirements and earned their Pathfinder Badge.
Both courses were taught by cadre from the Fort Benning-based Warrior Training Center.