QAYYARAH WEST AIRFIELD, Iraq — “Air assaaaaaauuuuullt!”
The rebel yell ricochets across the plains of northern Iraq, 150-voices strong.
It’s military music to the ears of the 101st Airborne’s commanders here, affirmation that combat training in a combat zone is working.
Their soldiers are earning their air-assault badges while deployed.
It’s the first time the Fort Campbell, Ky.-based Sabalauski Air Assault School — named after legendary Command Sgt. Maj. Walter J. Sabalauski, veteran of combat in World War II, Korea and Vietnam — has moved operations to both a combat zone and a foreign country.
“We’re excited to be here,” said Sgt. Maj. Ronald Emerson, the school’s outgoing first sergeant who’s on his way to sergeants major academy after almost two years at the Air Assault School. “Now we feel like we’re contributing to the success of the mission.”
The battle-tested soldiers run from task to task, bellowing “air assault” on every left footstep, as ordered. Those who choose to swear — officers and enlisted alike — find themselves doing 50 push-ups, as ordered. They wake up at 4 a.m. and finish at 8 p.m., as ordered.
They love it.
The atmosphere at the transplanted school borders on giddy, belying what many of the soldiers face day-to-day on the job. Some of the students have been with the division, deployed since March, for more than a year and have not had time to earn a badge. Others, mostly the younger soldiers, are new to the division and performed some air-assault tasks during combat without the benefit of formal training.
Instructors see a clear difference between these in-the-field war veterans and the students they see back at Fort Campbell, Ky., who at the end of their day go home to their families.
“The students are more focused. [With] everything they’ve been through the past seven months, they have a grip on what the Army’s about, especially the younger soldiers,” chief instructor Sgt. 1st Class Mark Larocque said.
BRINGING TRAINING TO THE TROOPS
Since deployed troops couldn’t get to the training, the instructor cadre of 19 took off from Campbell on Labor Day weekend and brought the training to the troops. They hauled all the equipment they could carry and set up shop. By mid-December, the school expects to have qualified about 2,300 101st soldiers from across the division’s area of operations in northern Iraq. The soldiers will be schooled in the art of sling-loading heavy equipment, rappelling and setting up a landing zone.
This, school commander Capt. Brian Beckno said, will have a huge impact on the division, which, by attrition, was losing several hundred air-assault-qualified soldiers every week.
“Now you know that every newly qualified air-assault soldier with all the skills and training they’ve received from the course will return to their units with those skills,” he said.
For the students, it’s an unexpected chance to qualify for the coveted air assault badge and to get away from the patrol beat.
“It’s a nice break. There’s a secure perimeter, no worries and no responsibilities except to learn air-assault operations,” said Sgt. 1st Class Richard Clinton, 33, of Madison, Wis., who joined the 101st in February after 12 years in the 75th Ranger Regiment.
Unlike the 10-day course in the states, the Iraq course is designed for six days and does not include the road march or the obstacle course, except for the rope climb.
The instructors plan to be home before Christmas, unless division leaders decide to extend the training. As of now, there are no plans to do so.