As we, the nine remaining candidates, laid down to sleep on Wednsday evening, we knew that jacket day was soon. However, the exact time and experience was still an unknown. We all had our thoughts on when and how our coveted jackets would be presented. None of us could have guessed what the devious Cadre actually had in mind.
We were resting peacefully in the early morning hours on Thursday when it happened. Sometime between 0300 and 0330 we awoke to blaring Heavy Metal music on our P.A. system, nearly twenty strobe lights sterewn all over our room, and strategically placed Cadre in every corner with bullhorns and microphones. The chant of “Get up, get your PTs on” was barley audible over the wailing of electric guitars and screaming metal singers from the eighties. The Cadre were everywhere spreading confusion, the entire barracks felt like a madhouse. Although chaotic, the Cadre had a good handle on the event, that we later learned was very carefully orchestrated down to the minute. We all managed to sneak small whispers to one another “This has to be jacket day.” The only question was, “Can we deal with one more day of the suck?”
Physical training ensued, remenicent of week one. Sprinting, crawling, push-ups, bear crawls, you name it we did it. The session seemed like it would never end. After about two and a half hours we were told to shower and load the bus for the drop zone. The bus ride was a much needed break. Once at Laurinburg we set up the drop zone as quickly as possible in an effort to please the Cadre. Problem is there is no pleasing the Cadre on jacket day. The smoke session began again….
In what had to be our millionth hit-it drill we all heard the distinctive sound of the C-31 Fokker Friendship aircraft in bound from the west. Glancing skyward we could get a small glimpse of the plane through a red smoke haze as it flew directly over the drop zone. A small object with a few pilot chutes attached exited the left door. A Bundle !!! One of our teammates exclaimed. The Jackets !!! Yelled another. We all took off in a dead sprint in an effort to retrieve the bag that contained our tickets to freedom from the oppressive Cadre. We knew in our heart of hearts the bag just had to have our jackets in it. We approached, covered in sweat, dirt, smoke residue and grass trimmings. We opened the bag expecting to see the black wool of the Golden Knight’s jackets. Instead we saw white T-Shirts. Each one individually labled with each candidates name and a message on the back. It stated “I completed tryouts and all I got was this lousy T-shirt”. Our hearts sank. So many weeks of grueling misery, and this morning to top it off. A T-Shirt? Where were the jackets? Surley this is jacket day. We looked at our Cadre. Every face had a wide grin, obviously satisfied with themselves for crushing our very last hope.
So, we returned to our target area and the PT began yet again. Knee touch walks, flutter kicks, hit it drills, sprints, the low crawl. Even with our hearts crushed we knew we had to give 110 percent. Letting the Cadre be satisfied with their devious little plan was not going to happen. We knew our jackets were well deserved and today had to be the day. Then it happened ! The C-31 Friendship returned. We could barley see it through a billowing cloud of red smoke. We could barley hear it through the consistent yelling of several Cadre. But it was there, there was no doubt in our minds. This time a larger more distinctive bundle was released, followed by two jumpers. Again we took off in a dead sprint. Across a closed runway, through a freshly harvested cotton field. Nearly one mile to retrieve the new bundle. We quickly raced the bundle back to the drop zone. The Cadre were there near our target waiting for us. Scowls on their faces and their arms crossed. Finally SSG Dunning gave us the ok to open the bundle.
The Cadre at this point began looking like a proud father at Christmas watching his children open their gifts. We opened the bundle. Inside were several black plastic bags wrapped around our jackets ! We ripped the plastic off and began reading the names on the jackets. They were ours, no more tricks. The Cadre had finally rewarded us with what we had worked so hard to receive. Regardless of the fact that we had just ran nearly two miles we donned the jackets and congratulated each other.
A ripple of emotion made it’s way through our small team. It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced GKAS, but when you see that jacket with your name on it, it gives you such a sense of pride and accomplishment that it is unparalled to anything we have experienced previously. The jacket is a long standing tradition in the Golden Knights. It symbolizes the end of assessment and selection. But what it means to the candidates is that the program is over and that as a group we have gained the respect of our Cadre and the acceptance of the entire team. What it means to the Cadre is that through the last eight weeks they were able to transform nine people from weekend skydivers, into demonstration ready parachutist, worthy of the title “Golden Knight”. GKAS is complete, we graduate soon and move into the next phase of our training. We will be assigned an “Old Guy” and begin our “New Guy” year on the Demonstration Teams. Thank you to all of you that followed our stories and showed us so much support. Thank you to our families for standing behind us and maintaining faith in our abilities. Thank you to our Cadre, whom we know sacrificed their personal lives daily to get us through this program safely and prepared. Winter Training? New Guy Year? No problem !!!