With the wind in his face, Col. Campbell Cantelou made his softest – and possibly most historic – parachute landing of his 30-year Army career on Monday at Fort Gordon.
Not only was he making his last drop before his retirement in September, but he also was recruiting a soldier to follow in his footsteps as a member of the Army Special Operations Command, a top-secret unit that provides voice, data and video communications for 22,000 operators worldwide.
Cantelou said he awoke at 4 a.m. to travel to Augusta from Fort Bragg, N.C., to jump from 1,200 feet onto Barton Field, a drop zone that military leaders described as a rare experience, even more so than the German and Japanese landing areas over which special-ops soldiers usually parachute.
“This is a special moment for me,” Cantelou said, comparing Monday’s drop to the 245 others he has completed, none of which occurred at Fort Gordon. “I entered basic officer training at Fort Gordon as a brand-new second lieutenant in 1984, and now, 30 years later, I am working to preserve the future of Army special ops. It’s kind of historic.”
The unit being showcased for Monday’s jump was the 112th Special Operations Airborne Signal Battalion at Fort Gordon, Cantelou said. The two-hour event consisted of 13 drops from a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, with each lasting about 90 seconds and including three to six soldiers strapped with a parachute on the back and a reserve in the front.
The flyover began near Jones Hall and ended about a mile away at the Barton Field reviewing stands. More than 200 soldiers watched from the bleachers and along each side of the field’s 3-mile track, some recording the event on smartphones.
Command Sgt. Maj. Ron Pflieger, of the Fort Gordon Cyber Center of Excellence, said 10 to 20 of his soldiers volunteer every two weeks to go to Fort Benning, Ga., and graduate from the Army’s Basic Airborne School after completing five jumps, including one night jump.
“We have a lot of young, impressionable signal leaders that want to do something after Fort Gordon, and we are working to get the right people,” Cantelou said. “We definitely get the most bang for our buck here.”
Staff Sgt. Jon Fukushima, a satellite communications instructor at Fort Gordon, was one of the dozens of soldiers lined up after the demonstration to get more information on the program. Fukushima said he will soon join the post’s recruiting command for three years, but after that, he is open to the idea.
“It’s interesting what they do and how they do it,” said Fukushima, who was impressed at how the soldiers safely steered their parachutes clear of one another while thousands of feet in the air.
Sgt. Maj. Tim Lehman and Lt. Col. Jeth Rey, of the 112th Special Operations Airborne Signal Battalion, said they began coordinating Monday’s drop two months ago after 300 soldiers attended a similar drop the unit performed at the post’s Preston Drop Zone in January.
“This is an opportunity to demonstrate to our soldiers what careers are available to them in the Army outside advanced individual training and how the Army inserts its soldiers into live situations,” Rey said. “This helps them make an educated decision on their future.”
Lehman agreed. He had trouble, though, describing the thrill of the jump.
“Until you experience for yourself, there is no way to truly put it into words,” he said.