Pfc. Carlos Verdejo, center, completes his rappel Oct. 12 at the Sabalauski Air Assault School at Fort Campbell, Ky. After years of repeated deployments, the 101st Airborne Division is returning to the training that makes it unique as the military's only helicopter-based air assault division. (Jennifer Andersson / Army via AP)
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FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. — Less combat means more school for soldiers in the 101st Airborne Division as the Army's only helicopter-based assault force intensifies training for the kind of fast air-led deployment of troops and equipment that helped launch the Iraq war.
Years of repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan meant lots of preparation and battleground time for the division, which was created during World War II and has been at the front lines of most major U.S. conflict since then.
But with the Iraq war over and Afghanistan winding down, the division's commanding general has issued an order to send a majority of his 20,000-plus troops back to school to learn the basics of air assault operations.
Since the late 1960s, the division based at Fort Campbell on the Tennessee-Kentucky line has been using air assault techniques, which combine the use of helicopters with infantry and artillery on the ground to move troops and equipment quickly in battle.
The base is where the Army in 1974 opened its first training school to teach these methods, which include rappelling, using helicopters to lift and drop equipment such as entire Humvees, and "fast-roping," in which troops in rapid succession slide down lines like they were fire poles.
The division completed its longest air assault during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the helicopter-borne methods distinguish the 101st from other airborne divisions in the Army, which use fixed-wing airplanes to drop paratroopers.
Due to heavy deployment rotations over the last decade and large turnover in soldiers, only about 40 percent of the division's troops on average have gone through the Sabalauski Air Assault School in recent years, said Capt. James Prisock, the school's commander.
"You get busy for 12 years while you're fighting wars," Prisock said. "It's not standards getting eroded, but some loss of memory. You haven't had that time to focus on training because you are focusing so much on the deployment."
Division commander Maj. Gen. James C. McConville issued an order earlier this year that at least 70 percent of his troops should go through the tough 10-day course to earn their air assault qualification badges, which could take up to two years.
The school will nearly double the number of courses held each year and has added 12 more instructors to handle thousands of extra students. They expect to graduate around 6,500 students in the current fiscal year ending in October, compared to about 4,300 in the previous year.
Among the skills they learn is communicating from the ground with a helicopter pilot to direct fire or guide the craft to pick up a wounded soldier.
In one test, students are given just minutes to inspect several types of cargo a helicopter would carry suspended underneath, from an armored Humvee to 500-gallon fuel barrels, and then quizzed on helicopter lifting capabilities.
Staff Sgt. Eric Sutterfield, 28, an instructor at the air assault school, said moving heavy equipment and supplies by air from one forward operating base to another was critical during his last deployment to Afghanistan.
"It was very crucial to know sling loading to get parts and equipment from one FOB to another. We can get it from one base to another in a very short amount of time. If we didn't have those air assets, we would have to drive over pretty inhospitable terrain to try to get it there, and it would take longer," he said.
While soldiers from the division continue to deploy to Afghanistan, McConville said refocusing on training will maintain standards even as the Army starts to reduce its size in the coming years.
"Sending soldiers to the air assault school is an investment in the future of the Army," McConville said in a statement. "As the Army decreases in numbers, it is critical that our soldiers increase in skill and ability. This school stresses individual and team skills, perseverance, attention to detail, resilience, and is academically challenging. It is a component of continuing education for military leaders and teaches them enduring skills that will last a lifetime; even after the military."
All ranks and backgrounds are expected to go through the course, even those in noncombat jobs such as truck drivers, lawyers and logisticians.
"The school trains on the air-ground integration component that makes us successful in combat," McConville said. "This combined arms interaction is critical to training interoperability that will make us more lethal, agile and adaptive in combat."