RAEFORD - In 11 years in the Army, including four deployments, Tina Beller never parachuted out of an airplane.
That changed Saturday.
Beller, 38, and one of her military colleagues, Sgt. Maj. Mary Martin, 49, took the leap at the Raeford Parachute Center, fulfilling a long-held goal by completing tandem parachute jumps.
"We never had the chance to get our jump wings because we were just so busy with deployments all the time and pushing people out the door," said Beller, who worked in the Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command. "It was a curiosity, and we wanted to honor the fallen, because there were a lot of people who didn't come home from combat overseas and didn't have the same opportunities that we have."
Beller spent eight of her 11 years in the Army at Fort Bragg, retiring as a staff sergeant. She now works as a civilian in public affairs at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn.
When Beller decided to organize the jump, she chose the Fort Bragg area because so many of the people she served with still live here.
"It's kind of like a big family reuniting," Beller said. "It was an opportunity to keep the band going after all these years."
Plans called for about eight female soldiers and spouses to make the jump. But because of other commitments, only Beller and Martin were actually able to follow through.
However, a strong contingent of friends and family showed up at the parachute center to cheer on the first-time jumpers.
The group held a reunion Friday night in Fayetteville, then gathered Saturday morning at the parachute center.
Martin, who lives in Gray's Creek and works in the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, admitted to some nervousness before her jump.
"Am I going to jump today? Remains to be seen," Martin said with a laugh. "I'm just kind of going with the flow."
Before the jump, Beller and Martin filled out personal information forms and watched a video on tandem jumping. Then instructor Daniel Zuko gave the women the low-down of what to expect.
"Skydiving is very easy. Gravity does most of the work," Zuko said. "But there are some things I need to tell you people."
Rule No. 1: Watch where you're walking as you board the plane.
"If you wander into a spinning propeller," Zuko said, "it's going to be a bad day for everyone."
Mostly, Zuko said, follow your tandem partner's instructions and enjoy the ride.
"You ever had a really, really big adrenalin rush?" he said. "Well, you're about to find out."
After the orientation, the women met their tandem partners and were suited up. Martin was paired with Brad Smyth and Beller jumped with Robbie Rushton.
Rushton helped Beller fit a helmet over her head.
"It's not that fashionable," Rushton said. "It's more to keep everything from flying off."
Finally, it was time to board the plane. Beller said she was nervous but determined to complete the jump.
Tim Wood of the parachute center shot a short video before the plane took off.
"Anything you want to say before we board the plane?" Wood asked.
"Let's do this," Beller replied.
Martin, Beller and other jumpers got on board as a crowd of well-wishers watched. The plane climbed into the clouds, and within a few minutes, colorful parachutes could be seen against the blue sky.
"Oh, my God! That's her! Wooo!" someone shouted as the chutes neared the ground.
Martin and Beller both landed successfully, although Beller took her time getting up from the ground after her landing.
The two hugged their friends and family, then gathered in a restaurant at the center for a "toast to the fallen."
Later, Beller said she felt like she had fulfilled a promise, both to herself and to her comrades.
"I knew coming into this I had to face my fears," she said, calling the jump "exhilarating.
"I don't how to explain it," Beller said. "It's absolutely amazing."
© 2014 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.) Distributed by MCT Information Services.