Military Freefall Parachutist: How I Became One and its Life Lessons
My military career was as good as it gets. In fact, while a speaker read out the highlights during a parade, my mother overhead a gobsmacked senior officer sitting beside her say “she stole my [dream] career”. Hhmm, no kind sir, I didn’t. What I did do though, was aim high, make boat loads of mistakes, never settle.
As a reservist, a female, and a support trade…there was always something to prove to the world. Alright, maybe not the world but it certainly felt like there was always a need to prove. It’s a little bit like ‘short man syndrome’. You are told that you’re ‘less than’ and therefore aim to be ‘such much more than’. Same same but different. When really, the only issue is that you’re foolish enough to believe in the ‘less than’.
So twenty-ish years ago (near choked on that one), while on contract on a base full of combat arms soldiers, there was no way you could let up. I was going to learn and aim high and excel. Even managed to smash my damn face in a tank accident like a champ and return to work two days later. #zipperhead No time to rest, I had a career to carve out and an attitude (good and bad and…) big enough to take it on.
Thanks for the inspo gents.
It was during that time that there were glimpses of those airborne soldiers, the ones that in my young reservist mind, were the coolest kids in town. I mean really, half the time it was just a bunch of young infantry boys horsing around and pushing the limits of the military’s disciplinary system. Ha ha. But there was a pride about being a part of that group. A bond (or so I thought) in wearing that maroon tee to morning pt (physical training) and a set of para wings in uniform.
Admittedly it’s a completely and utterly romanticized take on the whole affair, but no matter. Back then, nineteen year old me decided that I wanted that. So what if I was the trifecta of what the typical jumper wasn’t. I wanted to be a cool kid. F*ck it, I wanted to be a military freefall parachutist, something that was considered even harder to achieve.
Now how the holy hell was that going to happen?
Like must goals from there on in, I reverse engineered that puppy until there was a clear path. Normally I would never in a zillion years be picked up for a basic para course let alone the military freefall parachutist.
The military was however hurting for skydivers to join the Canadian Forces Parachute Team – the SkyHawks.
The SkyHawks perform parabatics (canopy relative work) at different airshows and events. It’s meant as a public relations vehicle for the military. Annnnd at the time, if you had a civilian skydiving license and a certain amount of jump experience then you can apply even without a military parachute qualification. Better yet if you succeeded in the training camp and were selected for the team, they would course load you on a basic para course. And you can’t get a military freefall parachutist qualification without first having the basic parachutist.
The wheels were turning…
Since the military was starting to promote diversity, being a female non-combat arms reservist was a perk while applying to the public relations geared Skyhawks.
…basically, I figured out that all I needed was a civilian skydiving license and 200 jumps logged. Plus maybe the right people to back up my application. How hard could that be? #naive 😛
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a plan!
The humourous part about all of this is that I didn’t even care about skydiving or the SkyHawks for that matter. I was pretty sure both would scare the crap out of me (spoiler alert – it did). But I really reeeeeeeally wanted those military qualifications, to be respected professionally, and to carve out a kick ass career.
So off I went to the nearest local civilian drop zone, signed myself up, and jumped out of the damn plane. That amazing, wild, and funny family of hometown skydivers is a story for another time.
Within six short months I got my skydiving license, the required number of jumps, and was accepted to the SkyHawks training camp. Sweet. And thanks to the way the military worked at the time, I was course loaded on the next basic para serial.
It. was. hellish.
Not because of the scary AF jumps, twice a day PT sesions, forever bruised collarbones, or that I was the only female. Nope. It was hard because they knew I was already selected for the SkyHawks. #talkaboutnotbeingthegreyman And boy was I ever reminded that that was the only reason I was there. The staff’s taunting of “so you think you’re better than everyone do you”, “you’re not good enough for that team” and “you don’t belong here” wasn’t pleasant.
I’ll never forget one particular day on the landing swings (where they attach you to a harness, swing you at height, and then drop you to simulate the typical hard landings of a round parachute). Not fun, but not the worst. I kinda like my bones intact so if that’s the best way to learn, sure, let’s learn. Usually you get one swing, then line up again with your section mates for another go. One staff though, wouldn’t let me out of the harness and made me do repetitive landings (over and over x 10) while everyone watched and he went on about how I wasn’t good enough.
Fine. Be that way.
It didn’t matter. I didn’t let it matter.
The course is only two weeks long and then a week of jumping. That’s it! So what if they were cranky pants about where my career was going! I knew I was going to make something of it and it was hard sometimes not to smirk at the taunting.
It seemed our serial was cursed though and it actually took months to get in those jumps. The aircraft would break down, there weren’t enough aircraft, there was an anthrax scare, blah blah blah. #typical
When we finally did get that last jump in, were the winds were hmmmm…likely too high, but they were soooooo done with our delays (as were we) that the jumpmaster yelled “winds 9” and then looked as me and said “get the hell out of my aircraft” as the jump light turned green.
I hear ya boss. I’m out.
Graduation finally arrived.
After congratulating a row of young men, the surprised old airborne veteran looked at the commanding officer and asked; “are you sure?” before pinning those wings on my chest. To this day I have no idea if he was serious or being cheeky. I’m hoping cheeky. But I do remember being exhausted with a side of ‘are-you-kidding-me’ and my inner voice shouting “so help me god old man if you don’t put those wings on my damn chest?!!”.
I f**king love this memory.
Now for the Parabatics.
Once I made it through the selection camp in Perris, California that was it. I was officially one of the few female parachutists to make the SkyHawks team since its official conception in 1971. Not in a secondary role, but as a demonstrator in one of the main formations. Sweet. Added bonus, jumping with the US Navy Leap Frogs (oh those pranksters got me!), the US Army Golden Knights, and flying with the Canadian Forces Snowbirds first ever female pilot. Those are stories for another time.
It was a good (and wild) year.
Females SkyHawks weren’t the norm at the time, though I was happy to follow a list of a few incredible females like the one we all looked up to, Eileen Vaughan. After my jump season (2002) there were frequently females on the team.
And finally – military freefall parachutist.
So besides traveling and performing at airshows, what does making the SkyHawks team mean? It means that the army loaded us on a military freefall parachutist conversion course.
b-i-n-g-o my friends, goal achieved.
That military freefall parachutist qualification gave some of the best opportunities and career highs. As it turned out, I really did love skydiving. Who knew?!?! #addictiveAF #naturalhigh
The only regret is that I was too proud to take any pictures during this time (it just wasn’t the thing to do). All that’s left are three ridiculously blurry snaps like the ones below. Also ridiculous (humourous) was that with full equipment…I could neither touch the ground with my feet nor get off the bench myself.
The Take Away
1. That staff that honed on me with those fabulously encouraging words? That angst was his business, and really, a lot of it was the culture at the time. There was no taking those words to heart. People can be as be hurtful and mean and all sorts, and as self-help ish as it sounds, it says a lot about them, not you. It has no bearing on your worth. Being told “you don’t belong here” and “you’re not good enough for that team” had nothing to do with me. I passed that course fair and square just like everyone else. As Brene Brown is powerfully quoted saying “I will not negotiate my worth with you”.
2. Not much tends to go ‘perfectly’ in life (if anything). I failed the first pre-para fitness test and barely passed the second. I was the last person on every morning run. There were bruises on our bruises from training. Each jump with those round parachutes scared the bananas out of me. Just. Keep. Trying. There’s a lot to be said for not giving up, and that trait tends to be valued in life. Let me tell ya, I was damn fit afterwards though. #allthepullupsplease
3. You certainly don’t have to be as hard headed as I was about your career goals, or life for that matter. The take away, if anything, is that no matter how high the odds seem against you…chances are there’s still a way to get there. You just have to go after it. Not with a sense of entitlement, but with a mindset of determination, humility, and grit.
No point in wishing away your life when you can work your arse off (and/or make a few strategic moves) for a more fulfilling one.
Even thought I left the military in 2011, I left (incredibly) happy (and thankful) for my career and for the most part – happy with the experiences. In fact, my last posting was to that very infantry unit that inspired the whole thing to begin with. There were plenty of this-is-the-most-ridiculous-job-ever moments, but those days jumping were easily my favourite kind of days. I mean really, wouldn’t you be nothing-but-bliss if your job consisted of spending the day flying in helicopters and skydiving with the boys?