FORT LEE, Va. (MCT) — They're an esteemed group of servicemembers who constantly have the lives of their comrades in their hands. For those who wear and are identified by their red caps, every fold of fabric could be a matter of life or death for the airborne community.
About 500 to 600 students from joint branches of the military pass through Fort Lee each year to train to become a parachute rigger in the Aerial Delivery and Field Services Department. Their course is 13 weeks long, which shows the complexity of their military occupational specialty (MOS).
Sgt. 1st Class Mervin Terre, a parachute pack branch foreman who's been at Fort Lee for three years, instructs students in phase two of the three-phase training. Phase two covers personal pack of a parachute, oxygen training and the HALO (high altitude low opening) parachute, which is used in special operations to infiltrate an enemy.
Phase one of training is three weeks and students focus on cargo parachute packing and rigging supplies and equipment for airdrops. Phase three is two weeks and acts as a refresher for students on what they've learned.
Students are required to maintain packing procedures in order to graduate, and during training they will be required to pack their own parachute and jump it.
Terre has been a parachute rigger for all of his 13 years in the military.
"I wanted to jump out of planes and this is one of the options they gave me," he said.
He said many times students training to be parachute riggers go into the course not fully understanding what the job entails, and like himself, they just want to jump.
"They do not know what a parachute rigger entails ... They did not know that it had to do with dropping humvees from the sky or sewing parachutes. All they see is jumping ..." Terre said.
He added that their main job responsibility is ensuring that packing procedures are being met, maintaining and storing life saving equipment and repairing parachutes.
Terre said the first day of packing training is nothing but simulated training in which students practice jumping and landing on a target. Students pack live parachutes for four days and are tested. If a student fails, they're allowed one retest. If they pass, they jump their parachute about two weeks later.
Once students jump at Fort Lee, Terre said it's been about three or four months since they graduated airborne school and last did so. This is why simulator training is so important. Prior to the day of the jump, students go through a basic airborne refresher.
Terre said if a student fails a test, they're given an explanation of what they did wrong and how to improve. However, "it is not uncommon" for people to not finish the course Terre said, and sometimes it's just not meant to be someone's career.
Attention to detail and practice are critical to ensure safety in this MOS. Terre said once students become proficient at packing, rigger checks are performed by instructors. This is the "checks and balances of being a parachute rigger."
"We show them once how to do it ... and then we go step by step. We do the talk through, walk through method," he said.
In these checks, a second set of eyes can identify any mistakes and students are told what they did right or wrong at each step of packing.
Although riggers are required to jump throughout their career to maintain proficiency, Terre stressed that almost all of the parachutes they pack will be used by someone else.
"I want to say we have one of the toughest jobs in the military, because we deal with other people's lives. They're in our hands. It's very seldom where we pack a parachute and we jump it. Here we do for a confidence builder, but when we get out there to the big units, it's other lives that we're responsible for," he said.
Terre said during his career as a parachute rigger, his view of the job has evolved from the excitement of jumping out of planes to a sense of honor from being relied upon by his comrades.
"Their lives are in our hands. It's very rewarding to me knowing that the special skills that we have, we use it everyday to make sure that everyone else gets to do their job, because we make the airborne airborne. Without us, we wouldn't have it."
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