There’s nothing like the bonds soldiers forge during their service to our nation. Perhaps the hardest thing in civilian life is separation from that brotherhood. It leaves a hole. I think every veteran feels that. But when a veteran battles post-traumatic stress disorder, the feeling is even stronger. It’s like nobody but your buddies understand, and they ain’t there.
Having jumped in the military, I had some idea what I was getting into when I walked onto a civilian DZ. What I wasn’t prepared for was the culture. It was tribal. Everyone was eager to see if I would join the tribe and become family. The atmosphere of the DZ had a welcoming embrace. It was strong and familiar like the barracks but without the hardness. I realized that the intensity of the shared experience somehow created the intensity of the bond. I’d never been to this DZ, but I had stepped into a parallel reality, and I was home.
I was a paratrooper, though it had been decades since I last jumped. I thought, “No big deal, jumping out of planes is jumping out of planes.” When we began loading the little one-eight-deuce that would fly us to altitude, I realized that it wasn’t anything like a C-130 rolling down the strip taking Airborne Daddy for a one-way trip. It was a toy.
As a static-line jumper, I was the last to load. Before me, a little old lady with a walker was loading into the plane for her first tandem jump. The next time she would be in that door she would be strapped to the chest of her instructor at about 10,000 feet. But right now, she backed her walker up to the door, sat on the edge and three guys picked her up and loaded her into the plane.
I knew how to deal with pre-jump anxiety. It wasn’t until the door opened a foot away that I began to realize how different this was from my Army jumps. I felt like I’d be sucked out the door as the wind whipped through the cabin. It was just my mind being irrational. After all, the whole reason I booked this flight was to be sucked out that door. At the instructor’s signal, I began my exit sequence as rehearsed.
Clutching each side of the doorway, I lowered both feet into the wind and planted them on the wheel fairing. I snaked my left hand toward the wing strut to get a firm grip. The force of the wind was surprising. I stretched my right hand toward the strut as the wind clawed at me to drag me from the aircraft. I slid my hands up the strut to the red lines where I would hang. What I wasn’t prepared for was the terror! Did I really think I wanted to skydive?
My feet left the fairing to hang from the strut. This was something daredevil barnstormers did, not sane people. I looked back toward the door to judge how hard it would be to climb back inside. But the doorway was half-filled with my instructor who would give me the “go” sign. The other half was filled by the old lady with the walker. She had a huge grin as she watched me dangling from the strut. The wind was rattling her dentures.
My instructor gave me the “go,” but I had a good grip on that strut. I was pretty sure I could hang on until the plane landed. I glanced back at the old lady. She was shooing me off with both hands. And though her voice was lost in the roar of the wind, she was mouthing, “Just let go! I’m not getting any younger!”
I realized that dying of embarrassment was worse than plummeting to my death, so I let go. It was freedom … not freedom from fear but from being controlled by fear. It was the freedom that comes when you take your life in your hands and make of it what you can. Then the jerk of the canopy opening, the performance checks and the amazing flight back to earth. Terror dissolved into triumph.
When fear can be mastered, every emotion can be mastered. You size up the next challenge, square off your shoulders and set to it! The seed planted that day would grow into Operation Wings of Freedom, an organization that helps veterans battle post-traumatic stress disorder through skydiving. What better way for veterans to battle PTSD than head-on, surrounded by their tribe.
More information about Operation Wings of Freedom is available at opwof.org.
Will Ghormley | USPA #331709