Carolina Panthers, special operators learn from each other at Fort Bragg
By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 29, 2017
The Carolina Panthers had never done anything quite like this before.
During a visit to Fort Bragg on Tuesday, players took part in a virtual reality parachute jump and took aim at insurgents and other targets as part of a training simulation.
But after visiting with troops and their families as part of their visit to the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, the players found themselves in familiar territory, with good reason.
The THOR3 facility at the Special Warfare Center and School — like many others across the Army special operations community – is based on lessons learned from professional sports teams like the Panthers.
The facility – part of the special operations Tactical Human Optimization Rapid Rehabilitation and Reconditioning program – is part of Army special operations’ efforts to treat soldiers more like professional athletes in the hopes of reducing injuries and the physical wear and tear of years of Army service.
Much like any professional sports team, the soldiers of the Special Warfare Center and School – where the Army trains its Special Forces, civil affairs and psychological operations troops – now have dieticians, physical therapists, sports psychologists and strength and conditioning coaches as part of their supporting team, according to Master Sgt. Mike Taylor, the director of human dynamics and performance.
Taylor said the Army is evolving in how it cares for soldiers – embracing troops themselves and not expensive machines or fancy equipment as the force’s most important asset.
To that aim, leaders are looking to professional football, baseball and hockey teams to learn how the nation’s best athletes are conditioned for success.
During their visit to Fort Bragg, a group of Panthers players, cheerleaders and other officials – including team owner and founder Jerry Richardson – learned how the Army’s special operations community has translated some of that training to its own purposes.
At the same time, they were offered a quick glimpse at some of the advanced training tools available to special operations troops at the nation’s largest military installation.
The visit, organized by the USO of North Carolina, marked the first time an NFL team had visited the Special Warfare Center and School. But officials from both organizations suggested it wouldn’t be the last.
“The Army has a strong relationship with NFL teams, and the relationship with the Panthers, although new, will only strengthen the tie between our two organizations,” said Maj. Gen. Kurt Sonntag, the commanding general of the Special Warfare Center and School.
Richardson said it was an honor and an inspiration to spend time with soldiers. It was a homecoming of sorts for the Panthers’ owner, who grew up in Fayetteville and played high school football in the city.
“I am humbled by their dedication to our country and deeply appreciate them allowing us to spend time with them,” he said.
The visit was a special treat for many soldiers and their families, said Command Sgt. Maj. Curtis B. Arrowsmith, the senior enlisted leader of the Special Warfare Center and School.
Arrowsmith has been a fan of the Panthers since 1995 – when he was training to become a Special Forces soldier at Fort Bragg as the team was playing its first season a few hours away.
A converted Pittsburgh Steelers fan, Arrowsmith said the nation holds professional athletes in high regards. But the visit was also a chance for the players to see a little of what it takes to be a special operations soldier.
“They can see what our soldiers go through,” he said. “It’s an absolute honor to have the guys here today.”
Parts of the visit – which included hands-on visits to the Special Operations Mission Training Center and the Special Operations Center for Enhanced Performance – left the players with a new understanding of that Army training and smiles on their faces.
The visit began at the Special Operations Mission Training Center, where players and cheerleaders from the Panthers’ TopCats were hoisted into the harnesses of a virtual reality parachute simulator and later took aim with an M4 in a friendly competition among themselves.
Panthers center Greg Van Roten wasn’t sure about the parachute harness at first.
“What’s the biggest guy you’ve had in this?” asked Van Roten, who is listed on the Panthers roster at 6’3’’ and 305 pounds, as a Fort Bragg soldier helped him into the harness.
A few feet away, offensive tackle John Theus stepped his 6’6’’ and 305-pound frame into a similar set-up, before the two Panthers were hoisted a little more than a foot in the air.
With the help of virtual reality, the two men soon found themselves hurtling toward Earth from 1,200 feet, steering an MC-6 parachute onto a Fort Bragg drop zone the size of one or two football fields.
“It was pretty cool,” Theus said afterwards. “I’ve never done anything like it.”
In a virtual small arms trainer, the Panthers hoisted actual M4 rifles fitted with lasers as they took part in the same simulations used by troops at Fort Bragg.
Linebacker David Mayo looked down his rifle’s sights and took aim as he pulled the trigger a little more than seven times for seven targets; a steel ‘ping’ echoing in response to his hits.
He finished in 4.04 seconds, a hair faster than one of the Panthers’ TopCats cheerleaders, Kaitlyne, who finished in 4.10 seconds.
“You made me nervous,” Mayo said, in admiration of his competitor. “That was pretty good.”
Later, after the Panthers players and cheerleaders had eaten lunch with troops and their families and then signed dozens of autographs, Mayo said he was impressed by what he had seen.
“It’s been an awesome day so far,” he said. “We’ve got to do some cool things.”
Mayo said the team was happy to be at Fort Bragg and to get a small glimpse of what life is like for a special operations soldier.
“I think they took it easy on us,” he added.
Mayo said his family ties to the military made the visit extra special. He has two brothers in the Army – one in the Oregon National Guard and another stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia. And his grandfather, Archie Mayo, was a pilot in World War II.
In addition to Mayo, Van Roten and Theus, Panthers tight end Chris Manhertz also made the trek to Fort Bragg. The team’s star rookie running back, Christian McCaffrey, was scheduled to attend but had to cancel after getting banged up during Sunday’s showdown against the New York Jets, officials said.
John Falkenbury, president of the USO of North Carolina, said all of the Panthers players and cheerleaders who made the trip had volunteered their time to visit with the nation’s military.
The tour of Fort Bragg was the second visit to a military installation organized by the USO of NC this month, Falkenbury said. The first was at Fort Jackson near Columbia, South Carolina.
He said the Panthers are longtime supporters of troops who set “the gold standard” for other professional teams to follow.
“They are eager to be a part of any trip,” Falkenbury said.
Taylor, the director of human dynamics and performance at the Special Warfare Center and School, said he hoped the players would be back to Fort Bragg.
He said special operations had learned a lot from professional athletes over the last eight or so years and that those lessons were now being transferred to the larger Army.
Taylor said changes brought about through the THOR3 program are leading to a reduction in injuries that once threatened to end careers and are helping soldiers who have been shot multiple times or lost limbs return to action.
“The old Army model was running and ruck sack marching,” he said of Army fitness. “There was no coaching. There was no real basis in science.”
“Now, we’re figuring out how to make soldiers bigger, faster, stronger and less prone to injuries,” Taylor added.
Part of that drive is out of necessity.
It takes a lot of time and energy to train a special operations soldier, Taylor said. So, leaders want the soldiers they do train to stay with the force for as long as possible.
“We’re really trying to keep guys around for 20 to 25 years at a minimum,” he said.
To do that has required a change in culture and a bigger focus on preparing soldiers’ bodies for the wear and tear of the Army.
“This is a tool for leaders to make their formations better,” Taylor said of the THOR3 program.
Since the program was introduced, he said Army special operations has seen the percent of its force at risk of injury decline from 50 percent to 20 percent.
“That’s a significant drop,” he said.
The latest development of the program is looking at how physical performance can affect cognitive abilities. For that, Taylor said officials are again looking to professional athletes and sports psychologists.
“We know that to be good at your cognitive skills, you need to work out,” he said. “We’re showing soldiers that, too.”
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