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REPEAT AFTER ME

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Written by
Lea Johnson

PROPER EXIT, CHECK BODY POSITION, AND COUNT

Being in an airborne unit from the onset of my military spouse career has shaped everything I know about the Army. My indoctrination began with Airborne School in Georgia and my wondering why in the world my boyfriend would ever want to jump out of a perfectly good airplane. (“I’ve never been in a perfectly good airplane” is still his reply.)

Before we even got married, and he was stationed at Fort Bragg, I moved into a little one-bedroom apartment in Fayetteville, NC to be near him and to make sure this thing was really going to work. He was in the 82nd Airborne Division, and it was 2004. It was early spring, and he was about to go on his sixth jump, (his first jump out of Airborne School). It was a night jump, and he told me that he would be home at around one o’clock in the morning and to not wait up. Being one who loves my sleep, I happily obliged. At around three o’clock in the morning, I woke up with a start. He wasn’t home. He said he would be home, but the space next to me in the bed was empty, his sheets still nicely tucked under the pillows. There was no missed call, no text saying he was fine. I didn’t know what to do.


I was completely unprepared for the hot fear that gripped me while alone in that apartment. I spun every single scenario, and they all ended in the worst possible way. I didn’t know much about military life, but I did know that girlfriends were not a part of the information chain. If something did happen, I would be the last to know. I went comatose and curled up in the recliner in my living room, just waiting as the sky turned from inky black to deepest orange. I had no one to call, no one to ask, and no one in his unit even knew I was there. I have never felt so untethered as I did that night.


At around six o’clock in the morning, my paratrooper sauntered into my apartment and asked me for a cup of coffee, as if I had not just spent three hours working out the details of my Plan B. Turns out, when someone loses a piece of equipment, no one can go home until it is found, and, that night, someone had lost a pair of night vision goggles. It was the last time I ever took him seriously when he told me when he was going to come home. And it’s a good thing I didn’t; he spent 14 of the next 17 years happily in Airborne units while I learned to swallow the worry and let go.

"A still shot with so much motion in it. Two bodies, plummeting to the ground. Two Paratroopers with only their wits to save them, and one of them was my husband." @iwillwaitvsp Click To Tweet
XVIII Airborne Corps

COMPARE YOUR RATE OF DESCENT

Ten years, 42 jumps, three kids, and four deployments later . . .

We were back in the 82nd Airborne Division, and he was headed out for jump number 49. It was an early morning jump, and, before we went to bed, I told him to be careful, and he told me he’d call at around three o’clock to let me know he was okay. I had become so “seasoned” by this point that I had stopped really paying attention to the times he told me. He was hours late so much more often than he was on time after one of these training jumps that it did no one any good for me to spin the scenarios and make the contingency plans.

That particular day, my mom was in town, and we were going to see Cindy Lauper and Cher in Raleigh (OH MY GOSH!!!!). Three o’clock came and went. At around five o’clock, I was getting the babysitter settled with the kids and giving the dinner/bedtime instructions when I got a text from Rick: “Hey, I’m back at the office having a beer and finishing up some paperwork. I had a high altitude entanglement and had to pull my reserve, but the other guy and me are OK. I’ll be home later.” I scanned the text while I kissed the kids goodbye, momentarily pictured what I thought a “high altitude entanglement” might be, and registered mild alarm at the fact that he pulled his reserve. In true Rick Johnson fashion, though, he didn’t seem too worried about what had happened, so I wouldn’t be either. I shouted one last instruction to the sitter before getting into the car with my mom, and we were off to Cher. 

"All of the hours of training, all of the sleepless nights, the missed dinners, the early mornings . . . was for this. For the moment that your emotions and fear could NOT take center stage, and your training was all you had to save your life and… Click To Tweet

A couple of hours later, mom and I were singing “Time After Time,” and all of my eight-year-old little girl dreams were coming true, when he texted me again. Amid the singing and the lighters swaying above heads I read, “Hey, somebody got a picture, and he caught our entanglement. Check it out.” I took a second to open the picture, and, in the time it took the crowd to cheer that iconic song, my whole body turned to ice. There was something so wrong with what I was seeing. About 60 paratroopers were suspended in the sky, far above the tree line, almost peaceful, with the C-130 still visible in the corner of the picture. Then, farther down – way farther down than they should have been – were two bodies wrapped up in the risers with two completely deflated parachutes trailing above them. A still shot with so much motion in it. Two bodies, plummeting to the ground. Two Paratroopers with only their wits to save them, and one of them was my husband. This was the embodiment of the tired old Airborne joke Rick used to tell, that if your main ‘cute fails, you have the rest of your life to pull your reserve.

Rick’s reserve parachute handle from jump 49

PREPARE TO LAND

I slowly turned to my mom, said, “Mom, I think Rick almost died today,” and showed her the picture. Her face reflected my shock, and I walked out to call my husband. He was still at work and reassured me that I didn’t need to race home and that we would talk about it tomorrow. Tomorrow came and went, and it took three more days for that talk to happen. (He was always up before us and home after we went to bed in those days – such can be military life.) During that time, he also jumped again. He texted, “I need to do it now or I’ll never do it again.”

When he was finally able to tell me the whole story of what happened, I was taken aback by the automaticity with which he told the story. I mean, he almost died, but he could have been reciting the pre-jump instructions from rote memory. That’s when I realized he WAS reciting the pre-jump from rote memory – everything but the “Repeat after me” that begins the speech. All of the hours of training, all of the sleepless nights, the missed dinners, the early mornings . . . was for this. For the moment that your emotions and fear could NOT take center stage, and your training was all you had to save your life and the life of your battle buddy.

I held him tightly that night. Grateful doesn’t even begin to cover what I felt, knowing that his ability to revert to his training and not give in to his fear was the only reason I had him in my arms that night. I still count that as a miracle. And I went right back to worrying over every jump (84 total) until, six years later, he hung up his maroon paratroopers beret for the last time, and I could finally exhale.


Our VSP Airborne Family


Tags :
82nd Airborne,Airborne,Army,Fort Bragg,Military Family,Military Spouse,Paratrooper
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