It is October, 1995. I, a civilian, sit in the dark in the back of an open truck alongside a field about two miles long and one mile wide. I see green-tinted images through night-vision binoculars. In front of me many parachutes drop from large planes, guns boom, jet planes zoom overhead, paratroopers seize an airfield, and I secrete excitement. Is this some surrealistic dream, a movie set recording a scene for a war story, or a virtual reality trip catalyzed by some demented computer? Or what?

I actually sit at the edge of the Sicily Drop Zone of Fort Bragg in North Carolina observing a Joint Readiness Training Exercise Demonstration by the 23d Wing (Flying Tigers) of Pope Air Force Base and the 82d Airborne Division of Fort Bragg.

I Get An Invitation I Cannot Refuse And Watch A General Jump From A Plane

This excellent adventure starts with a letter from Ms. Sandra K. DeCastro, Protocol Officer of the 23d Wing (historically the Flying Tigers of W.W. II), who invites me to attend this training exercise on behalf of Brigadier General James E. Sandstrom, Commander of the 23d Wing, to “see how the Air Force and Army train together.” The letter states I would “be flying on military aircraft.”

I quickly accept. The day arrives and the people I meet in the 23d Wing headquarters broadcast hospitality: Sandra DeCastro, Sergeant Chuck Graham, Colonel D. L. Johnson, Lt. Colonel Mike King, and others.

When I arrive, they collect $7.25 from me for dinner (taxpayers do not feed me) and give me a Flying Tigers lapel pin, now a cherished possession. Later, Col. Johnson, vice-commander of Pope Air Force Base, gives me a Flying Tigers arm patch. a gracious gift from an amiable officer.

They drive us to Fort Bragg where we attend a briefing by Major Shinholt about XVIII Airborne Corps capabilities and by Major General George A. Crocker about his 82d Airborne Division. After the briefing, we go to the airfield where C-130’s wait, all four propellers twirling. We stride up the rear ramp of the plane and I strap myself into a seat with my name on it in the midline of the huge plane. They hand me ear plugs and a motion sickness bag. I stick the plugs in my ears and mercifully do not need the motion sickness bag.

Thirty paratroopers, including Major General Crocker, sit in the front of the plane. We fly to 7,000 feet, the backdoor ramp yawns open, and after proper military procedures and safety checks, half the paratroopers move to the rear of the plane and jump out, free-fall.

The plane descends to 700 feet, and the remaining paratroopers attach their lines to the static line running the length of the plane, the side door opens and they jump out the open door.

Then Col. Johnson takes me to the cockpit to show me where he had bullet-proof Kevlar installed on the floor of the cockpit when he was Operations Group Officer of the Air Force base in Germany sending planes to Bosnia. Small arms fire frequently punctured the floor of the aircraft and Kevlar provides bullet-proof protection. I feel privileged.

We buckle in, the plane lands on the dirt landing strip at Sicily Drop Zone of Fort Bragg, and the back ramp yawns open again. I walk down the ramp rapidly, not looking back because the twirling propellers fill the air with stinging dust. “This is the peak of this day,” I think. “They can’t do anything to top this.” I was wrong.

I Put On A Parachute And Nearly Fall Into A Sheridan Tank

I sit in the wooden stands near the Sicily Drop Zone in Fort Bragg. Major General George Crocker, commander of the 82d Airborne Division, who jumped with his troops from the C-130 I was on, briefs us about the capabilities of the 82d and its 18 hour state of readiness. Crocker stresses their emphasis is on readiness, transportation, dropability from planes, fighting, and winning.

After Crocker’s briefing, I meet my “airborne buddy,” Bo Colburn, a 21 year old soldier from Ohio. He helps me put on a regulation parachute with all the trimmings. It is so heavy that I can hardly stand, let alone walk to where they took a group picture of all 25 observers.

My airborne buddy shepherds me around while my group views and hears short talks about the various weapons dropped with the 82d airborne. The soldiers, in full battle gear with green camouflage paint on their faces, project an eerie image.

I and my fellow observers look at and touch a 105 mm Howitzer, including one rigged to drop with parachutes; various computer systems that control the aiming of guns, monitor battlefields, detect enemy fire, target guns to destroy, communicate world-wide through satellite, and who knows what else (really impressive); machine guns and a host of small arm weapons; a Blackhawk helicopter used to collect battlefield information; a Kiowa Warrior armed reconnaissance helicopter; Avenger, an infra-red, laser turret weapons systems to shoot down enemy aircraft with stinger missiles and 50 caliber machine guns. I manipulate an infra-red viewer and sight a hand-held stinger.

Then I ooze into a four-person Sheridan Tank. First, I climb into the driver’s seat in the front. A cinch to get into, a few quick turns of the wheel, a quick jab of my foot on the gas pedal and brake, and a cinch to pull myself out. Then the big stretch. I climb up outside the tank to the upper entrance hatch and carefully lower myself into the seat. A big mistake, since getting out isn’t easy. So I move to the other seat in the tank and stand on its back.

Whoops, the seat’s back folds forward and I almost go with it. My regular use of barbells pays off, and I stay upright and maintain balance. I calmly turn near disaster into triumphal extrication. My exhilaration radiates as my airborne buddy takes me to the mess tent, presents me with a souvenir commemorative coin with my name on it, and departs. As I sit down to dinner, I think: “It can’t get better than this.” Again I was wrong.

 I Watch A Simulated Airfield Seizure And A Tank Parachuting To Earth Through My Night-Vision Binoculars

I sit down to dinner in the elegant mess tent that General George C. Crocker’s 82d Airborne Division arranges for us near the Sicily Drop Zone in Fort Bragg.

Four other people sit at my table: two civilian observers like myself and two military people. Lt. Colonel Pete Henry tells me he commands over 50 Sheridan tanks, equipment and personnel, and that later that evening we will see one of his tanks, over 38 tons, drop out of a Flying Tiger C-130 aircraft supported by eight gigantic parachutes. He says that five to seven minutes after the tank drops, the tank is ready to drive off and fire its guns.

The other military person is Staff Sergeant Daniel C. Inglese. He tells me he is the squad leader of two fire-power teams loaded with assorted awesome firearms. At the end of the meal, he takes command of our small group and gives each of us a state-of-the-art night vision binocular for our personal use for the rest of the evening.

Meanwhile, Colonel David Petreus (Yes, the Colonel PETREUS) briefs us about the simulated airfield seizure we will observe through our night-vision binoculars. As usual, the briefing barely captures the excitement and reality of the moment.

We then climb onto open trucks, HMMV’s (High Mobility Multi-wheeled Vehicle), and I delight in the effectiveness of the night-vision binoculars. Everything in the dark is clearly visible; I see stars hidden by clouds.

Then the attack begins. First, F-16 jet fighters fly overhead simulating sweeping the skies of enemy aircraft, followed closely by A-10 aircraft that simulate destroying airport defenses. The noise is deafening; I’m sure people hear the booms for dozens of miles.

Then four to five C-130’s fly over. The first plane drops several dozen small packages, each attached to its own parachute. Mushrooms in the sky.

The next plane drops a 105 mm howitzer and a HMMV; they land together for quick hook-up. After several other planes drop large objects, a beautiful sight fills the night sky: eight gigantic parachutes support a 38 ton Sheridan tank. The night-vision binoculars allow me to see it as though lit up with bright green lights. Beautiful.

Finally, four C-141’s fly by and drop over 400 paratroopers into the night sky, a magnificent sight through the night-vision binoculars. After they land, we drive around the “seized” airfield, lit plain as day by the night-vision binoculars, say good-bye to our hosts, receive a picture showing us wearing parachutes, and drive off. All observers agree we experienced something special. I hope the military invites me to more events like this (please).

(I later find out this event is a rehearsal for a VIP visit the next day. We are guinea pigs, fodder for practice, before the bigwigs fly in the next day. I love being this kind of fodder.) Will I go again if invited? You bet.

©2016 by Ed Glassman, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

Ed Glassman is a retired professor from the University Of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and a former columnist for the Chapel Hill Herald and the (Raleigh)Triangle Business Journal.