Missouri National Guard Cadet Andrew Cully, who lives in Springfield, leaps from the top of the rappel tower during part of the Missouri Guard's first Air Assault School held at Camp Crowder. Cully earned the title of honor graduate for having the second-best performance of the schools' 105 graduates.
(Photo by Matthew J. Wilson)
By Matthew J. Wilson
NEOSHO, Mo. - More than 100 Soldiers and Airmen graduated recently from the Missouri National Guard's first Air Assault School held at Camp Crowder.
Often referred to as the hardest 11 days in the Army, the school tests the physical and mental endurance of its students as they learn to conduct Air Assault operations to include rappelling out of helicopters and sling loading various equipment to be transported by rotary wing aircraft.
The school began with 162 hopefuls that were cut to 126 after "zero day," where students are put through a grueling physical training regimen that includes completion of a challenging obstacle course. From there, 105 made it through sling load and rappelling training that focuses on attention to detail, as well as 6- and 12-mile road marches to earn their Air Assault Badge. The 105 service members, who represent the Guard, Reserve and active-duty components of the Army and Air Force, now possess a working knowledge base of all air craft in the military, are qualified to conduct sling load operations and rappel out of aircraft.
Missouri Guard Chief of Staff, Col. Wendul Glenn Hagler II, and State Command Sgt. Maj. James Schulte were both guest speakers at the graduation ceremony.
With so many Soldiers in the Missouri Guard requiring Air Assault School skill sets, like those in artillery and infantry units, the opportunity to get a high density of troops trained is unprecedented, Hagler said.
"It's not just a nice-to-have skill, it's an important skill," Hagler said. "We've never been able to bring it to our state before we made this investment here at Camp Crowder and had the coordination to get the great cadre from the Warrior Training Center here."
These skills, Hagler said, will allow these Guardsmen to better serve Missouri in the event of a disaster.
"We have used air lifts to take sand bags out to levees and critical points to prevent failures and that certainly is encompassed by this training," Hagler said. "In the event of a catastrophic earthquake this would be a crucial skill to delivering supplies necessary to sustain citizens that are more-or-less stranded in damaged areas. When you need to move large quantities of equipment, food supplies or water, you are going to need a lot of rotary wing aircraft to get it to the right spot. You're also going to need folks who can configure it and load it properly."
Schulte, who graduated Air Assault School in 1986, was proud of the success of all the graduates.
"It says a lot about their character," Schulte said. "It says they have the will and determination. It's a lot about heart and stick-to-itiveness. I know that everybody who is wearing it earned it."
Four Missouri Army Guard graduates - Cadet Andrew Cully, Sgts. William Jones and Patrick Jennings, and Spc. Cody Bennett - were recognized at the graduation for their outstanding achievements.
Jones, who lives in Springfield, earned the title of distinguished honor graduate as the student who had the top overall performance. He was surprised and humbled by the honor.
"It's definitely a little baffling," said Jones, a member of Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 1-129th Field Artillery, of Maryville. "I didn't come into the course thinking I would try to be the distinguished honor graduate. But after going through the tests and working with my squad, it just kind of changed. While I was here, I worked hard and the results showed up."
The biggest result was that he'll now be among the few who have earned their Air Assault Badge, a tradition he is very proud to be a part of.
"There is a respect for anyone who wears the Air Assault Badge," Jones said. "It makes you feel like you've worked for something that a lot of other people have worked for and received. You are then part of something that is a lot bigger than yourself."
A 2007 graduate of Marshall High School and current student at Missouri State University, Jones said he worked hard on his own, especially on the sling load training where he was a perfect 16-of-16 on the practical test. But he also found himself in a class leadership position during the school, which he said was helpful.
"I was a squad leader, so I was working with my squad pretty much every night," he said. "I had a lot of great squad members who were motivated and kept me motivated. When guys were falling behind, I would help them and that would help me."
Cully, who also lives in Springfield, earned honor graduate as the second overall performer.
"I wasn't expecting to be named honor graduate," said Cully, a member of Company D, 1-138th Infantry Regiment, of Anderson. "They called my name and I was kind of caught off guard."
Before attending the school, Cully said he was nervous based on its reputation.
"I got here on zero day and they absolutely put us through the wringer," said Cully, a student at Missouri State where he is a member of ROTC. "But after that, you kind of get into the flow of the school and it slows down. It was honestly not as bad as I expected. I would tell others if they ever come to a school like this, they keep you on your toes, but don't shy away from it."
Bennett, who lives in Conway, was recognized as the youngest graduate and Jennings, who lives in Stanberry, was honored as the road march champion. They serve with the 3-135th Theater Aviation Battalion, of Lebanon, and Battery A, 1-129th Field Artillery, of Albany, respectively.
The course was conducted by 13 National Guardsmen from Company B, Warrior Training Center, of Fort Benning, Ga. These Soldiers, from all over the country, work full time in this specialized training area to conduct this school about 15 times a year throughout the United States.
Company B's Air Assault noncommissioned officer in charge, Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Wade, who lives at Fort Benning, said that an 83 percent graduation rate after zero day is exemplary.
"They did a really good job," Wade said. "Some Soldiers could have come more prepared for Air Assault, but the ones who made it past zero day really pulled together and worked hard to finish the course. We lost only 10 people on our sling load training, which is our highest attrition rate, so that's really good."
The Missouri Guard began preparations for this school at Camp Crowder more than a year ago with the main point of emphasis being the need to build an obstacle course. Wade said he found the facilities to be first rate.
"I really liked the location and proximity of the training areas to each other," he said. "It was very convenient and served every need we had."
The reason Missouri wanted to host an Air Assault School is so it could more cost effectively get a large group of its Soldiers trained.
"It's much cheaper to bring us here," Wade said. "How much would it be to fly or drive 126 students to a course at Fort Benning, as opposed to paying 13 cadre to fly here? The cost analysis is that you end up training more than 100 Soldiers in skills that they use in Afghanistan on a day to day basis."
In addition to the cadre from Fort Benning, the Missouri National Guard's 140th Regional Training Institute, of Fort Leonard Wood, provided support staff.
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Missouri National Guard Spc. Cody Bennett, left, has his Air Assault Wings pinned on by Col. Wendul Glenn Hagler II during a graduation ceremony at Camp Crowder. Bennett, who lives in Conway, was recognized as the youngest of 105 graduates of the Missouri Guard's first Air Assault School.
(Photo by Matthew J. Wilson)