90 feet up: Soldiers take on new training at Fort Indiantown Gap

Written by Rachel McDevitt | Jul 21, 2017 6:42 AM

Photo by Rachel McDevitt/WITF

(Fort Indiantown Gap) -- Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County is one of the United States military's busiest training sites. This summer, the facility became the seventh location in the nation to prepare soldiers for both combat and domestic operations through Air Assault.

The highlight of the course is a 90-foot rappel from an airborne Black Hawk helicopter, but by the day of the challenge, the class of 241 soldiers had been whittled down to 164. The ten day Air Assault training is designed to be both mentally and physically exhausting.


Captain Ronald Snyder of the Alaska National Guard watches soldiers rappel during the first Air Assault training to be held at Fort Indiantown Gap, July 20th, 2017. Photo by Rachel McDevitt/WITF

This summer is the first time Fort Indiantown Gap has hosted the course, but the site's Commander, Colonel Robert Hepner, says it's not because the Pennsylvania Guard is heading to a specific deployment.

"What we do is we train soldiers on those skills that enhance their capability to survive and win on the battlefield, to fight America's wars," Col. Hepner said. "But, Air Assault fits nicely into our domestic role too, because we're Guardsmen. We don't just have that warrior training; we don't just fight wars, but we have a domestic operations mission. And the Air Assault skill identifier can also be used in that domestic operations role in a number of different sets depending on the emergency."

Col. Hepner gave an example of a domestic emergency, "For some reason flash flooding occurs. [We] had to get water, mass quantities of water to a location that couldn't be reached by road. We could air assault National Guard water buffaloes into those locations so that people had fresh water."


Soldiers pack a slingload during the first Air Assault training to be held at Fort Indiantown Gap, July 20th, 2017. Photo by Rachel McDevitt/WITF

The students weren't dropping water. The pallet of supplies they rigged up contained several cases of MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat.

It was their lunch that day, a motivating factor to make sure they secure it.

By 9 a.m. on the ninth day of training, the remaining soldiers had already passed several tests, both written and physical. They studied the mechanics of the aircraft: weight capacity, speed, and distance. They learned to hook up loads of up to 8,000 pounds to the underside of a hovering chopper, and they can tie up a rappel seat to jump out of the helicopter in under 90 seconds.

After they have proved they can descend from a Black Hawk at 90 feet, the last test is a 12 mile road march, starting at 3 a.m. the next day. 

Alaska National Guardsman Captain Ronald Snyder, one of the officers running the training course, says the march is the final measure of the soldiers' attention to detail while under physical duress. By the end of it, they can't be missing a single piece of equipment.


PA National Guard soldiers run to their helicopters during the first air assault training to be held at Fort Indiantown Gap, July 20th, 2017. Photo by Rachel McDevitt/WITF

"If they're missing ear plugs, if they're missing the short chain on their dog tags, a small towel, then we'll drop them from the course," Capt. Snyder said. 

The strict attention to detail instills the importance of discipline within the ranks.

Snyder says he had to use what he learned from this training while he was deployed to Afghanistan.

"Not necessarily while someone was shooting at me, but in Farah, Afghanistan I was the air operation officer for my provincial reconstruction team," Capt. Snyder said. "We had to do an insertion with CH-47s, we had to use UH-60s a couple times, and that information just comes up where you're like, nine guys can ride a UH-60. I have 40 guys I have to move. So you do the math from there."

Soldiers who graduate can take these skills back to their units and use them to handle a variety of potential missions.

Col. Hepner says that's the point.

"It's not supporting Indiantown Gap, OK? It's supporting the soldier," he said. 

Now that the course has reached Pennsylvania, Hepner hopes to make it available every year.

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