NORTH FORT HOOD — With his eyes scanning the sky and his left hand gripping a smoke grenade, 1st Sgt. Joe Caraballo watched the Chinook soar nearly 10,000 feet above the ground.
“I’m just watching the patterns,” he said, soon getting a bit impatient since the helicopter had been in the air for nearly 20 minutes with no one jumping out.
And then it happened: Six soldiers fell from the tail end of the aircraft, their bodies barely visible at that altitude. After freefalling for close to a minute, their parachutes popped open, and the soldiers gently glided another 4,000 feet down to the ground toward the green smoke from Caraballo’s grenade.
While static-line jumps are relatively common at Fort Hood, Tuesday’s freefall jump was the first of its kind on the post in more than a decade, according to officials conducting the jump training with airborne soldiers from 2nd Squadron, 38th Cavalry Regiment, 504th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade.
“As the corps recon squadron, they expect us to be able to do this,” said Lt. Col. John Cogbill, commander of the squadron and one of the six soldiers who conducted freefall jumps Tuesday.
Only soldiers who have completed the Army’s freefall jump school in Yuma, Ariz., are permitted to make the jump, which allows soldiers to parachute in unnoticed from high altitudes.
“It’s a method of insertion,” Cogbill said. His unit of airborne and mechanized scouts acts as the far-reaching eyes for III Corps, especially when the command staff needs to see what’s going on behind enemy lines.
Because of more than a decade of deployments and the lack of airborne units within Fort Hood’s highly armored force, freefall training has been nonexistent on the post since the 1990s, officials said.
“Ninety percent of my guys should be freefall qualified and they’re not,” said Caraballo, Charlie company’s top enlisted man.
The squadron is on a mission to change that.
“We’re working on a program to build it up,” said Chief Warrant Officer-1 Brandon Barger, the squadron’s jump master.
Barger said the unit is trying to get more soldiers into the freefall jump school and plans to acquire a 10-man parachute rigger detachment, a key element to any airborne unit. Riggers from the Texas Army National Guard and Fort Polk, La., helped with Tuesday’s training, which included static-line jumps, a type of airborne jump in which a metallic line on the aircraft activates the parachute.
As he waited for his time to go up in the Chinook, Pfc. Dewey Thompson, 21, hadn’t jumped in more than a year — not since he was in airborne jump school at Fort Benning, Ga.
“I’ve only had five (jumps), so I’m excited, nervous; ready to get the first one out of the way and more to come,” said Thompson, who joined the unit a month ago after spending a year in Korea. He and 87 other troops from Charlie Company took turns jumping out of the helicopter.
The squadron commander said the static jumps will continue monthly and he wants to increase the freefall jumps at Fort Hood to once every quarter.
“We have an obligation to the country to be ready for what they need us to do,” Cogbill said.