From an entry in a German officer’s diary after his unit fought elements of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 82nd Airborne Division, near Anzio Beach during the Normandy invasion of Europe; “American Parachutists…devil in baggy pants…are less than 100 meters away from my original lines. I can’t sleep at night; they pop up from nowhere and we never know when or how they will strike next. Seems like the black-hearted devils are everywhere.” And how many of us watched in fascination the HBO TV program back in 2001 called “Band of Brothers”, where we followed in detail the exploits of one Paratrooper Infantry Company of about 150 men of the 101st Airborne Division as they fought their way across Europe?
Today both of these Divisions are deployed and heavily involved in our International War on Terrorism. The 101st is now called an “Air Assault” division, as its prime means of entering a battle is through helicopters, however the 82nd Airborne Division remains a fully functioning totally “Airborne” division composed of four Brigades of about three to four thousand troopers each.
The 82nd Airborne Division was first called the “All-American Division”, as members of all 48 States originally made up the division strength, until General George Patton saw their Honor Guard and said “In all my years in the Army and all the honor guards I have seen, the 82nd’s honor guard is undoubtedly the best.” From then on this famous Division became known as “America’s Guard of Honor”.
The 82nd Airborne has had its share of famous soldiers from Sergeant Alvin York to Generals Omar Bradley, Matthew Ridgeway, and James Gavin. But that’s not what the 82nd is all about. The real story of the 82nd is the thousands of unnamed paratroopers in jump boots, baggy pants, and maroon berets who have always been ready and willing to jump into danger and then drive on until their mission was accomplished.
Private First Class Jennifer Baker, a 2004 graduate of Rockwall High School whose parents, Wesley and Michelle Baker live in Rockwall, is a member of this famous Paratrooper Regiment, the 504th, of this famous 82nd Airborne Division. Yes, you did read that correctly; her name is Jennifer, she has nine parachute jumps already under her belt and she is the only woman in her Infantry platoon of 40 paratroopers and one of only two women in her company of 150 paratroopers. Is she intimidated by this minority status among some of the Army’s best….no way!
After graduating from High School, Jennifer left for Fort Lauderdale, Florida where she played college soccer at Nova Southeastern University for one year. But she said “I felt like I was getting a calling; like something I had to do. I would always get this feeling when watching Army video’s on line or seeing advertisements for the Army; almost like butterflies in my stomach. I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of and so I enlisted in September of 2005 and went on active duty in January, 2006.”
Basic training was in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where both men and women trainees were in the same organizational Company. Jennifer just happened to graduate with the highest Physical Training score of all the trainees and was selected as the Soldier of the Cycle. Neither of these is any small accomplishment. Next it was on to Fort Gordon, Georgia where she spent five months learning how to operate and maintain the Army’s satellite field radios which she now is responsible for in her platoon in the 504th. From Ft Gordon, it was on to Fort Benning, Georgia to attend the three week Paratrooper instruction designed to teach her how to successfully jump out of airplanes. She was one of thirty women soldiers mixed in with 346 male soldiers and Marines attending the training. At the end of the first week, where she started out with three women and herself in a four person room, only she remained. Tough school, and according to Jennifer, no slack was cut for the women students.
Completing Jump School, it was then on to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of the 82nd Airborne where women are certainly in the minority. Jennifer says, “It’s like I came into a big family and have 40 big brothers. They all look out for me and it’s a good feeling to know we can come together as a second family bonded together with a common cause”.
Since she is responsible for all the platoon’s radios, she must parachute with a radio and its portable antenna in her gear she carries as she jumps out of the aircraft. She also has received training as the platoon Combat Life Saver. In this job she will provide battle field first aid to her platoon members if they are injured and a medic is not immediately available.
I asked Jennifer what she now thinks about the Army. Her response is not surprising; “The Army is definitely not for everyone, but I love my job and what I am doing. I love sitting in an aircraft for two hours in full combat gear and looking at all the soldiers around me that I will soon deploy with. To just look at them and think about what great people they are makes all the long nights, jumps, night operations, road marches, and long physical training runs worth it. It takes a special group of people to enlist in a time of war and fight for things that many politicians are making political issues of rather than seeing them as actions that need to be taken in this War we are involved with. I am so proud to be doing this.”
“If a female were to ask me about joining, I would tell her to make sure she knew how physically demanding it is and also how it changes your life style. I used to live like every other typical Rockwall girl, except now there is no getting my hair done, coloring my hair, getting my nails done, shopping, dressing up in heels, and going out with the girls. Now it is focusing on how to fight, survive, and win on the battle field…a big change. Any woman thinking about joining should give it a shot. I did and I haven’t regretted a minute of it and I will never look back saying I made a mistake entering this great Army of ours.”
How can we lose with this type of vigor and enthusiasm from our soldiers? Only if the politicians stop our forces before the battle is won…and the real war is not Iraq; that is simply one battlefield. The real war is the International War on Terrorism. Jennifer understands this and I hope you do too. Let your elected officials know how you feel; they need to hear from us just like our soldiers like Jennifer need to hear our “Thank you for a job well done.”
Jerry Hogan is a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel who lives in Heath. If you have a friend or relative in the service, Active, Reserve, or National Guard, and would like to see them highlighted in this column, please contact Jerry at 214-394-4033 or email@example.com