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Bearkats Get 'Knighted' By 'Golden' Group

April 26, 2012
SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt

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Us with Golden Knights
(From left) Staff Sgt. Jon Ewald, Ashley Kamrath, Golden Knight Noah Watts, Chrissy Mafrige, Staff Sgt. Aaron Figel, and I get ready to skydive. The Golden Knights tandem team has tens of thousands of jumps combined. The ladies now have one each.

 

I was one of the 10 lucky people (depending on whom you ask) selected to represent Sam Houston State University in a skydiving event with the Golden Knights this week. Lt. Col. David Yebra, chair of the military science department, was presented the opportunity to send selected SHSU “VIPs” to join with other Houston-area representatives (including an ABC13 reporter) for the opportunity, so I—along with alumnus Todd Kercheval, alumna and benefactor Chrissy Mafrige, vice president of marketing for Military Relocation Support Ashley Kamrath, and eight others—met one of the four Golden Knights teams at the Family Life Church on April 25 for what would be for many of us our first time to jump out of an airplane. The other six SHSU representatives, including head football coach Willie Fritz, were divided between two other days.

tandem jumping
(Above) The view from my jump during the 45-second free fall. (Below) Just before the parachute deployed. —Courtesy of the Golden Knights.
tandem jumping

Lt. Col. Yebra (the Colonel, as many of us affectionately refer to him) chose me to skydive with the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights tandem team as a token of appreciation for the work we have done together in publicizing the ROTC Bearkat Battalion’s events and activities. Covering the ROTC was one of the first “beats” I was assigned when I became a full-time staff member in the SHSU Marketing and Communications Office almost nine years ago, and under the Colonel’s leadership I have been able to work with the cadets in several facets, from giving an in-class talk on what “public relations” issues they should be aware of, to helping the cadets themselves understand how they can publicize ROTC events, to writing stories on the blood drives and commissioning ceremonies (I’ve witnessed so many cadets become second lieutenants I can almost recite the “Oath of Office” by heart). In many ways I really feel like I was being rewarded for doing my job.

Col. Yebra also selected me because I had told him about two previous attempts a friend and I had made to go skydiving—after the second was canceled due to the weather, we decided God was trying to tell us something and held off rescheduling indefinitely. When Col. Yebra called me a couple of months ago and asked if I wanted to be added to the list as an “alternate” and told me to give him my personal information for a background clearance, “just in case,” I thought “what the heck…I’m just the alternate.” Then I received an email last week telling me everything was “a go.” I had almost forgotten about it, so I replied, “But I’m just the alternate, right?” Nope. I, too, was “a go.”

So on April 25, Sgt. Plant, a recruiting officer with the Army National Guard, met my mom and me at 5:30 a.m. (or 0530) to escort us to Family Life Church, where we would be trained in how to tandem jump and eventually would land. As we pulled up, my mom made a joke about the appropriateness of being at a church, so we could “say our prayers before heading out.” As the participants gathered around the training table, Staff Sgt. Aaron Figel told us that they were doing a “wind dummy load” to make sure the wind wasn’t blowing too hard for us to jump; it was pretty windy that morning, and I began looking for those “signs” from God again. While we waited, he introduced us to the Knights, we watched a few videos about the “dos and don’ts” (most of which I would forget exactly when I needed to remember them) and he talked to us about the equipment and what to expect before making us sign wavers saying that if something went wrong, neither we, the jumpers, nor our families, could hold the Army responsible. And on that comforting note, we were paired with our tandem partners and videographers.

Noah Watts, Todd Kercheval
Noah fits Todd Kercheval's harness before they leave for the airport.

Because there were 12 of us total, we were taken up in four runs of three, as each of us would be flown 13,500 feet with our tandem partner and our videographer/photographer, or nine people per trip. Each participant received a DVD of our jump and a CD with pictures, all of which were captured by cameras on our videographers’ helmets. I was in the third run, with Chrissy and Ashley, so while we anxiously waited (some more anxiously than others, by which I mean myself) we talked about why we wanted to participate in this. Ashley, whom I had just met but quickly gauged as something of an adrenaline junky, said that it was a “bucket list” activity for her. She had zip-lined many times but had never skydived. Chrissy, who was also a first-timer, talked about what an amazing opportunity it was and how she had wanted to jump with the Knights since she had seen the picture of them with Pres. George H.W. Bush, who had skydived for his 80th birthday.

After the first group went, my group was given the yellow flight suits, “helmets” (that looked like the 1920s football helmets George Clooney wore in “Leatherheads” and didn’t offer too much protection if something went awry) and goggles and were put in our harnesses. As we waited, we chatted with the Knights about their lives and their military service. They told us about how much training was involved to be on the tandem team; many of them were instructors now. They all had skydived thousands of times—my tandem partner, Staff Sgt. Jared Zell, has more than 4,200 jumps—and had acquired a whole repertoire of jokes to attempt to psych us out:
“Hi, I’m Aaron. Don’t jump without me.”
“You know the area right? Good, if we get separated, you can find your way back here.”
“You’re lucky. Jared has a fiancé and a dog. He has something to come back to. I just have two dogs,” eying his tandem partner mischievously.
When we got on the plane, Jared looked at my videographer, Ace, in a very concerned way and said, “I feel like we’re forgetting something…watch (a very fancy watch with a barometer. He touches it)…helmet (touches it)… goggles (touches his pair)…did we remember the parachute?”

Jared Zell, Jennifer Gauntt
My tandem partner Staff Sgt. Jared Zell, before we departed. I was only a little nervous at this point.

When it was our time to go, they did a pre-interview. Ace asked me questions about why I wanted to do this, how I was feeling, and what I thought of the bright yellow jumpsuits. And then we went to the airport. Once the plane got in the sky, they interviewed us again about how we were feeling (if it had changed) and if we wanted to give any shout-outs. In retrospect, I probably should have spent more time thinking about what I was about to do (and what I was supposed to do) but instead, Ace, Jared and I spent that time making jokes (my attempt to ward off my ever-increasing nervousness).

We buckled ourselves to our tandem partners, and then it was jump time. When Jared and I walked over to the door, I think for the first time the reality of what I was about to do actually sunk in. I started focusing so much on what I was told during our briefing that when I couldn’t get both toes over the edge of the bay, I panicked. Jared told me to “arch, relax and have fun” (I think) and pointed my head towards the camera, which at that point I had completely forgotten about. Panic morphed into sheer terror. In less than 10 seconds, I went from walking to the door to freefalling, screaming “Oh my GOD!” and “Oh [insert your favorite expletive here]!” I have pictures to prove this. It’s quite hilarious in retrospect. By the time I caught my bearings and remembered that I was being filmed, the 45-second free fall was nearly over and we were gliding with our parachute deployed. I remember yelling back at Jared, “That was the longest 40 seconds of my life!” It took a couple of minutes to make it to the ground, during which time Jared spun me  around a bit (we were allowed to take the controls at that point, but I was unexpectedly feeling a bit ill, so I let him continue navigating us). I remember being in awe of the landscape as it drew closer by the second, seeing the lakes and building tops and patches of green, like looking out the window on an airplane, but different, in an inexplicable way. At one point, I looked down through a cloud and saw a circle-shaped rainbow on top of it. I asked Jared if that was common, and he said he sees it on occasion. And then, just like that, we were on the ground. I did a brief exit interview with Ace, and it was over. What had seemed like the longest 40 seconds of my life, paradoxically changed in that moment, seeming like the shortest 40 seconds of my life. And even though I was a bit queasy (and a few shades whiter), I was ready to do it again.

Todd Kercheval lands
Noah and Todd descend from their jump, preparing to land.

When the three of us met Mr. Kercheval after his jump, which was immediately preceding ours, we asked him how it went. He had the biggest smile on his face and he expressed how spectacular it was. “Words cannot describe this feeling,” he told us. After my jump, I thought about what he said, and he was right. There is no feeling like skydiving. Even though my jump was less than perfect (unless you consider it a perfect combination of terror, nausea and amazement), I was proud of myself, and we were all proud of each other. There was a camaraderie among us all, even staff members who didn’t jump that day, because we all had shared this experience at one time or another. The anxiety (and in my case, sheer terror) gave way to this indescribable joy and no doubt made adrenaline junkies out of all of us. I literally shook from the adrenaline for an hour afterward. And we were all absolutely grateful for the opportunity, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to skydive with the most elite team in the world.

Jennifer, Ashley, Chrissy, with KnightAfter all four runs, the Knights presented us each with certificates and distributed our videos. We watched a couple, including mine, which gave everyone a good laugh (Ace commended me on my “great verbiage;” I’ve rated my video “R” for adult language). I think the worst part of the day was saying goodbye to the guys and gals of the Golden Knights tandem team. They are remarkable people and all have outgoing and fun personalities. In talking to a number of them, we learned about their histories and their goals. One of the female members wants to open a horse ranch for less fortunate children in Texas when she completes her Army service. She said she was poor growing up and always wanted a horse, but, of course, her family could not afford one; that she would go to bed at night crying because all she wanted was a horse. Through a ranch of her own, she wants to provide other poor children the opportunity to have a horse, even if it’s just for a day. All of the members I spoke with agreed that they had the best job in the world, and I was reminded of something Aaron had told us when we began our training: Soldiers first. That’s one of the mottos of the Golden Knights. They are all members of the Armed Services (Noah was a Marine before joining the Golden Knights); they have all served multiple deployments overseas, including in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. I’m extremely thankful, as an American, for their service to our country. But I’m also extremely thankful for their continued service as Golden Knights. Though it’s skydiving, it’s still a job for them. It’s hard to imagine an ordinary day at the office being to jump out of an airplane, but Jared, Noah, Jon, Reese, Rachel and Ace all jumped four times that day. As members of the tandem team, they are still serving us by giving those of us lucky enough to be chosen that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For me, Chrissy, Todd and Ashley—and I’m sure everyone who participated over those three days in Lake Jackson—it certainly was a privilege and an honor. In my opinion, they have earned the right to have the best job in the world.

 

 

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