The Journey Begins

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This will be a six-part series.

On an overcast late morning on the 26th of August, I sat down in a parking lot with LTC Howard Pearce, a good guy and proven combat veteran. He’s been retired for a while now, and he has settled into his post-service civilian life fairly well. The interview was informal, conversational. Howard started with his early career, and then he progressed into his Special Forces track training, and then mentioned a few aspects of when he was operational.

From here, I’ll let Howard speak.

“I was in ROTC in college.” This was the summer of 1986. As part of his training, Cadets were authorized to attend one Army school, Howard chose Airborne School. “I went through the Basic Airborne Course at Ft. Benning Georgia.” I asked if he thought it was challenging at the time. “Oh, hell yeah.” “When I went through Airborne School, it was ROTC central… Ninety percent of the students would be five-jump chumps and then never serve again in an Airborne unit.” This was not to be Howard’s fate, but he didn’t know it at the time.

“Most of the enlisted soldiers were probably going to one of the Airborne divisions.”

“You know, one of the great things about military service is opportunity… being in the right place at the right time.” The school happened in the summer between his sophomore and junior year in college, he realized that he was not going to get a scholarship and he needed to pay for college somehow. So, he looked up an Army Reserve recruiter. “I had been back from Jump School for maybe a week.” The recruiter took him to a unit that “needed some cadets.” “I remember walkin’ in there… just out of brainwash central… in Jump School there were the songs, playin’ Flight of the Valkyries as you were walkin’ out.” “It was real intimidating to me at the time, but later on I learned it was a standard Army school. It was not a big deal. I remember SEALS there, who had to go through Jump School, who giggled their way through it… It was truly a vacation for these guys.” But for Howard, the school was “pretty intense.”

So, back at the Service Support Reserve unit, Howard talked with the commander, “the oldest captain I had ever seen.” The officer wanted to “put me in charge of the baking platoon, or something like that.” Howard withheld his judgement until he returned to the parking lot with the recruiter. “No,” he said to the recruiter, “You don’t know me, we are not doing this.”

This experience led Howard to expand his search. He found a Special Forces unit in Youngstown, Ohio, and his first question about them was “Do they jump?” The person he spoke with said “Howard, it’s an SF unit.” Not having a clue what SF was, Howard replied “Yeah, but do they jump?”

Howard went to the unit, was happy with what he found, and joined their ranks as a cadet. And yes, he jumped. He completed his 6thjump, his “cherry jump,” in December of 1986, on his first drill. Howard didn’t know it at the time, but he would remain with that unit until close to his retirement.

The following summer, he left for the traditional junior-senior advanced camp for ROTC cadets. Howard was ambitious- he wanted to attend Air Assault School as well, but the rule was that cadets could only attend one school. It was a share and share alike system. He did get an opportunity to shadow an Infantry lieutenant for three weeks; he did this at FT Carson, Colorado.

Something came up, though. One day he was called in from training, and he learned that an Air Assault slot had come up in his ROTC unit because another cadet had broken his arm. They asked Howard if he was willing to attend. It meant a full summer for Cadet Pearce, but of course he said yes.

He attended Air Assault School at FT Rucker, Alabama, home of Army Aviation. “All the pilots who flew us were Orange Doors.” “Orange Doors” were student pilots. “Air Assault School was more difficult than Airborne School in every way.” “Physically, it was tougher… we had a First Sergeant who had a thing about flutter kicks.” I laughed at this point- flutter kicks are the devil, very painful. “Once you get past a hundred, and he’s still rollin’, his boots had to be filled with helium or somethin’.” Howard continued. “I was a young soldier, I hadn’t broken the stupid out of me yet.” He made the mistake of joining the “fast” ability groups for the grueling runs. “The group was runnin’ six-minute miles. They were haulin.” And of course, there were timed road marches.

However, Air Assault School also had a strong academic component, it wasn’t for dummies. “Knots, sling load procedures… written tests, sling-load tests. Wow, that’s where you lost a lot of folk. You had to find the deficiencies on all these things that were slung, even a Gama Goat.” A Gama Goat was an antiquated amphibious vehicle. It was typical Army to throw a curve ball like that at you in training. “It was an indoctrination into the military way of doing things.” He quoted an instructor, with some examples of the confusing nomenclature that everyone had to master. “You will now take your elastic retaining band, yes, that’s a rubber band. When you are securing your kit bag, you will use your slide fastener… a zipper.” He laughed. “I still refer to blue pens as Article 15 blue.”

Howard graduated successfully, and back in ROTC land he had “two scare badges… a double bubble.” What was interesting for him was that while he was attending his officer’s training in college, he was also serving in a Reserve SF unit that had a cadre of Vietnam veterans. So while his badges were a big deal among his fellow cadets, back at his Reserve unit the cadre weren’t impressed. He wore the Green Beret, but he hadn’t rated the Special Forces tab, nor was he authorized to wear the unit “flash,” or the shield-shaped colored patch under the regimental crest or rank.

“Every single guy on the team was a jumpmaster… I learned from them what it was to be SF.” “We were always dealing with small drop zones, with sticks of seven or eight jumpers… the drop zone was only six or seven seconds long.” He continued. “The only person who ever yelled in the plane was the jumpmaster.” This was a real contrast with an opportunity Howard once had to jump with the Eighty-Second Airborne, “It was bedlam, not at all what I was used to.” “I learned that the whole idea behind a jump was to keep your mouth shut, and you focus on being as calm as you possibly can.” Exuberant outbursts “was not the way these guys ran things…we were out here to do things, and to do them well. It really set the tone.”

Until he had proven himself in SF training, however, he was still just a guy.

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