The special operations battalion from Fort Bragg typically parachutes into hostile territories to deal with drugs, bombs and bad guys.
But 57 soldiers from the 98th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne) at the North Carolina base are working on a different kind of mission this week in King George County.
The group will study tourism instead of terrorism. They’ll collect information for an economic development brochure instead of collecting weapons in a war zone. They’ll evaluate the region’s transportation needs instead of assessing drug-trafficking routes.
It’s not the cookie-cutter type of mission the men and women are used to, and King George County Administrator Neiman Young can’t wait to see what the group produces.
“I’m excited to see how they react to getting a mission set like recreation,” he said, adding that a special operations battalion should be able to adapt to whatever task it is presented.
Young spent 23 years in the Army and retired a major. While at Fort Bragg, he served with many of the people still attached with the 98th and planned two VTEs, or Validation Training Exercises, like the one happening in King George.
The exercise started Friday afternoon at Fort A.P. Hill in Caroline County, where eight King George officials had cellphones and cameras at the ready, waiting for the appearance of a C-17, a large transport aircraft.
The skies couldn’t have been any bluer, but winds were strong. The gusts didn’t hamper the delivery of a container delivery system—a pallet that weighed 1,800 pounds and contained four 50-gallon containers full of water.
“They’re going to open the back of the plane, push it out and hope for the best,” said Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Medina, as he asked King George officials to watch from the safety of an observation tower.
Soldiers can use the steering devices on their chutes, but the containers go with the flow of air. As it turned out, the massive parachute attached to the water container—which is one of the supplies the group would have to bring if it were jumping into a remote area—didn’t collapse after it landed on the hillside next to the asphalt.
The wind was so strong, it blew the big package like it was a flimsy kite in the breeze—straight toward the observation tower.
Later, King George Registrar Lorrie Gump would thank Young for the experience, saying her favorite part was when the green parachute came right at her. It was especially scary for someone afraid of heights, as she is.
Twice, the C-17 attempted to discharge teams of the 57 paratroopers who had been harnessed and ready to go for hours. But the wind was too strong, and the cargo plane hovered in a holding pattern until the wind died down.
Then it made a third pass, and the door behind the plane’s giant wing opened. Out came one jumper after another, their chutes unfurling like a flag, as 14 of them headed toward the ground.
“Awesome,” Gump said, as she aimed her new camera—the only thing she wanted for Christmas—at the billowing chutes.
Young’s wife, Stephanie, thrust her arms into the air and yelled, “Woo!” as the soldiers descended. She jumped up and down when the first solider in each of the four passes made it safely to the ground.
If she could have, she said she would have crossed the field and personally greeted the soldiers and thanked them for their service—which is what she did to other mission members gathered around the observation tower. But one of the men in camouflage said she had to stay a safe distance, about 1,000 feet, back from the landing zone.
Three jumpers ended up in the trees. Lorenzo Smith, an athletic supervisor with King George Parks and Recreation, shouted as one chute drifted toward the woods.
“Back, back, back,” he yelled.
When another trailed farther down the landing zone than all the others, Smith again yelled, this time saying, “Stop. Stop.”
As the parachute drifted so far away from the others, Stephanie Young said, “He’s going back to Fredericksburg.”
After seven passes and accelerating winds, Army officials decided to halt the jumping because it was too dangerous.
Battalion members did their own exercises at the fort through the weekend, then were scheduled to show up Monday morning for a briefing with county officials. Annie Cupka, King George’s grant writer, had worked with other staff members for months to come up with assignments.
Members of the five teams will look at regional transportation needs, including bikes, trails and pathways; compare county recreational facilities with those at the Navy base at Dahlgren and look at ways to unite regional trails; produce drafts of brochures to promote development at the King George Industrial Park and the county’s 300th anniversary in 2020; and assess security issues at county buildings and schools.
The week definitely won’t be a vacation for the battalion, Cupka said.
“I was specifically told there was not to be a lot of downtime,” she added.
The soldiers will be in civilian attire and will not carry weapons. The Army is paying all their expenses, including reimbursing King George for any technical accommodations it made.
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©2018 The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.)
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