Members of the 776th graduate from Army's elite Air Assault school

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. -- Four soldiers from the 776th Maintenance Company and one soldier from the 771st Maintenance Company of Columbia, Tenn., which is attached to the 776th, graduated from the U.S. Army's elite Air Assault school last week.
   A fifth soldier from the 776th attended the school but sustained a leg injury during training. He will complete air assault school in July and will graduate at that time.
   Sgt. Christopher Pierce, Sgt. Richard Haney, Spc. Jeff Smithpeters, Sgt. John Lunceford, all of the 776th, and Spc. James Reser, of the 771st which was formerly stationed in Johnson City before the company was moved to Columbia, graduated during a ceremony held at Fort Campbell on Tuesday, June 24. Sgt. John McKeehan was the solider who sustained an injury during a forced run which was part of the training for the air assault school.
   According to Spc. Rick Gabriel with the 776th, attending air assault school was an opportunity that soldiers of a Maintenance Company are not often afforded. "It's not part of our typical job as a Maintenance Company," he said.
   The air assault school is opened for training a few times a year by the Army, Gabriel said. With many members of the Army and the National Guard currently on active duty in the Middle East, the school was opened to soldiers who are stationed in the U.S., including the 776th Maintenance Company.
   Soldiers who want to participate in the school first volunteer to attend rigorous training. They are then selected from the pool of volunteers based on their qualifications.
   "They volunteered for this," Gabriel said. "This is one of the toughest schools other than the Rangers that you can go through in the Army."
   Preparation began three months prior to the scheduled entry date for the school, June 9, and involved two to four-mile runs, five to 12-mile marches in full gear, and workouts on the obstacle course and the base gym facilities, Gabriel said. Training was scheduled before and after normal work hours, on weekends and in all types of weather.
   "Their first day, better known as 'Zero Day,' began with a continuous and unyielding regiment of exercises designed to weed out anyone who was not in top physical or mental condition," Gabriel said. "The next day and every day after that was a mix of classroom training and immediate testing to measure the skills of information and detail learning under high stress. The days all involved constant and surprise inspections on knowledge and equipment. The troops were constantly drilled and exercised beyond muscle failure, in order to learn to ignore pain and develop unity with each other."
   During the last four days of the school, the soldiers focused on training that hones their repelling skills. Soldiers repelled off of a 34-foot high tower and learned to perform a 50-foot fast rope repel as well as aircraft repelling. Haney and Pierce also participated in another form of repelling, called "Aussie Style," where soldiers repel head-first toward the ground to give them added mobility to fire their weapons.
   The last day of the class involved a 12-mile forced march in full gear with a weapon weighing approximately 50 pounds. The march began at 4 a.m. and ended at 7 a.m., giving the soldiers a three-hour time frame to complete the march and graduate at 11 a.m. the same morning.
   "Now these five are among graduates in the U.S. Army's elite fighting force known as 'Air Assault,'" Gabriel said.