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FORT CAMPBELL, KY. — The legendary Pathfinders have taken their final jump and the Red Devils aren’t too far behind.
The two paratrooper units — formally known as the 5th Battalion, 101st Combat Aviation Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division and the 508th Infantry Regiment — are closing out long histories as a result of the U.S. Army’s reconfiguration and budget cutting. Among the changes being made is a reduction in the number of parachute positions across the service.
“You have to make the best use of resources across the Army to make sure we’re using tax dollars as best we can,” said Jim Hinnant, a former 1st lieutenant and paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg and spokesman for U.S. Army Forces Command.
The military is capping parachute positions at 49,000 as part of the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, a plan detailing the development of military forces through 2020. The plan calls for some units, including paratrooper units, to change their focus.
Lt. Col. Don Peters, the team chief for Operations, Intelligence and Logistics with Army Public Affairs, told The Associated Press the reductions are being made in part because of reduced budgets and to reach the mandated maximum number of paratrooper slots 49,000. Peters said 24 units accounting for 2,600 soldiers across the country were removed from jump status. That includes 12 units with the 18th Airborne Corps and the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, N.C., and the Company F (Pathfinder), 4th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 159th Aviation Brigade at Fort Campbell, Ky.
“However, paratroopers continue to train and maintain readiness to execute airborne operations should a mission arise, and the impact on the reduction of paid parachute positions will not degrade the capability of the Army,” Peters said.
The Army kept three standing pathfinder companies: Company F (Pathfinder), 5th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 101st Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault); and Company F (Pathfinder), 4th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 159th Aviation Brigade, both at Fort Campbell, Ky.; and Company F (Pathfinder), 2nd Battalion, 82d Aviation Regiment at Fort Bragg, N.C.
The Pathfinder units are dropped into place in order to set up and operate drop zones, pickup zones, and helicopter landing sites for airborne operations, air resupply operations, or other air operations in support of the ground unit commander. They also handle rescues of downed pilots and helicopters.
In the case of the Pathfinders at Fort Campbell and the Red Devils at Fort Bragg, their units trace their history back to being among the first to drop into Nazi-occupied France at Normandy on D-Day during World War II, helping set the stage for the allied siege that eventually drove the Germans out of the country.
Current soldiers are aware of that history and what the loss of jump status means to their roles in the Army’s future. Some are dismayed by the changes, but generally believe the units can still carry out the missions.
“History is history. Being on jump status is history. It’s out of my control,” said Sgt. 1st Class Bryan Beville of Cheyenne, Wyo., a member of the Pathfinders. “We’ll continue to fine-tune what we do.”
Staff Sgt. Ryan Savage, an Elk Rapids, Mich., native and Pathfinder member, said soldiers prepare for every scenario imaginable and while no longer jumping in ahead of ground troops, they’ll be ready to tackle their duties without helicopters.
“It’s a real fancy and pretty way to do it,” Savage said of jumping from helicopters. “But, for every soldier, you still have to train and prepare to do the same mission.”
The cutbacks have some airborne alumni worried about the future of paratroopers at various posts. Kenneth “Rock” Merritt, a retired command master sergeant major with the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, N.C., said the military’s focus on special forces could be detrimental to units such as the one he served with until retiring in 1977.
“My big concern is ... I just wonder how long they’re going to keep the 82nd Airborne on airborne status,” Merritt said. “I’m wondering if some day, somebody’s going to get the bright idea and the 82nd Airborne is going to go back to the 82nd Infantry.”
Army officials haven’t publicly spoken about pulling units from airborne status. Current soldiers hope one day they’ll be allowed to return to making air jumps.
“We’re ready for anything,” said Sgt. Shea Goodnature of Clarksville, Tenn.