FORT BRAGG, N.C. — If President Trump really wanted to do a proper military parade showcasing the might, speed and derring-do of America’s finest, the Sicily Drop Zone on this sprawling Army base would have been a good place to begin.
For a handful of spine-tingling minutes on Thursday, 770 paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division hurled themselves out of five C-17 cargo planes at 1,000 feet, like a swarm of birds, toward a cheering crowd of 10,000 people. Just when it looked like the planes could surely not disgorge any more paratroopers, more peeled out.
They hovered in the air, attached to their individual chutes, one seemingly atop another. It was a stunning culmination of the Army division’s annual All American Week, an in-your-face performance that was topped by two Chinook helicopters that roared through the sky and dropped, with pinpoint precision, two M-119 howitzer artillery pieces onto the field — demonstrating that when American paratroopers advance from the sky, they can bring their own heavy equipment with them.
Luis J. Gutierrez, a former Green Beret who came to see the show, watched, grinning, from the stands. “This is where President Trump should come, if he wants a real parade,” he said.
What about the parade planned for Washington in November, inspired by the one Mr. Trump witnessed in Paris that spurred him to seek his own?
Mr. Gutierrez shook his head, and motioned toward the field in front of him.
“This is action,” he said. “Paratroopers doing the real thing, in front of everybody.”
Mr. Gutierrez certainly has a point. By virtue of location — somewhere in the capital, likely near the Mall — the coming military parade that the Pentagon is reluctantly planning will not come close to showcasing how the American military actually fights.
Sure, the 1.4 million men and women that make up the American military know how to march and run in step to patriotic songs. Most of them learn how to do so in basic training.
But they also know how to execute far more impressive feats — including what the 82nd’s Airborne Review demonstrated that last week at Fort Bragg.
Besides hurling paratroopers into the air, the division blew up a building in the field, assaulted a mock enemy unit, led mock killings of insurgents, buzzed by the crowd in Black Hawk and Apache helicopters, and fired off a number of booming long-range artillery rockets.
They also mimicked Roman gladiators, with individual paratroopers body-slamming each other in a ring during the Thunderdome Competition portion of the review, celebrating what Maj. Gen. Erik Kurilla, the division’s commander, called “the warrior spirit of our paratroopers.”
“This isn’t about trying to say we’re better than anybody else, or beating our chest or anything,” General Kurilla claimed afterward, straight-faced. “This is about showing our culture, our warriorlike skills.”
Not one to be outdone, General Kurilla was the first one out of the plane during the airborne assault portion of the review, despite a leg half-made of titanium, rebuilt after a 2005 battle in Mosul, Iraq.
Mr. Trump famously watched the annual Bastille Day military parade in Paris last year and promptly decided that America could do it bigger and better, ordering up his own.
The White House estimates that the public display of the United States’ military might could cost $10 million to $30 million. The latest defense authorization bill that is making its way through Congress would fund the parade.
That has set off a round of grumbling among Democrats and Republicans (publicly) and Pentagon officials (privately) who call it a waste of money.
But Defense Secretary Jim Mattis chooses his battles with the White House carefully, and has drawn up plans to coincide the parade with a long-running Veterans Day parade in Washington in November.
The plans call for some kind of air component — fighter jets will most likely be buzzing the Capitol and helicopters will disgorge troops. But there are no plans for tanks to roll down Pennsylvania Avenue because metal tracks could damage Washington’s already potholed-ridden streets.
And, as yet, the Grenada war re-enactors have not been invited to participate. They were on hand at Fort Bragg last week, though, putting on Rambo-looking makeup in their booth. “No, we haven’t been invited to Washington,” said Christopher Hansford, an event coordinator with Living History and Commemoration Association. “The president has his own desires for that; I try to stay out of it.”
Instead, Mr. Hansford and other re-enactors were focused on showing family and friends who came out to Fort Bragg what it was like being an 82nd Airborne soldier during the four-day 1983 American invasion of the Caribbean island, population 91,000.
Standing behind a sign that said, “Communism Stops Here,” Mr. Hansford and Brandon Palladino, a retired specialist in the 82nd who was probably in kindergarten during the Grenada invasion, brandished the props that a 1983 American paratrooper might have had in his pockets: packs of Marlboros, camouflage rags on their heads (which earned one unit in Grenada the nickname Cabbage Patch Kids), clunky looking 1980s belts.
Despite the brevity of the Grenada invasion, the military still suffered losses. Nineteen American troops were killed, and the 82nd Airborne lost three of its own: Capt. Michael F. Ritz, Staff Sgt. Gary L. Epps and Sgt. Sean Luketina. Three helmets were staked in the ground next to the Grenada booth to memorialize them.
It is hard to see how a parade in Washington would have the emotional impact of the 82nd Airborne Review, let alone its bang in theater.
Even with all the parachuting out of planes and blowing up of buildings and pounding artillery, and even with Kenneth “Rock” Merritt, 94, who parachuted into Normandy on D-Day and joined more than 100 other storied veterans of the division who marched by reviewing stands as the crowd watched tearfully, the 82nd still had one more crowd-pleaser ready to display.
First, soldiers blew clouds of mist across Sicily Drop Zone, which was named after the World War II aerial assault on the Italian island that was not only the 82nd’s first, but also the first large-scale American airborne assault in combat history. The mist was supposed to simulate battlefield smoke, used to obscure a major movement of an assault force.
Then came a voice over the loudspeakers: “Ladies and gentlemen, if you look to your front, you should now see the division, led by Maj. Gen. Erik Kurilla and Chief Sgt. Maj. Michael Ferrusi, crossing Sicily Drop Zone, advancing through the smoke headed toward the reviewing stand.”
And sure enough, there they were, coming across the field and emerging from the mist dramatically. Some 15,000 American troops, the 82nd Airborne Division, marched in lock step behind their commanding general, who had just jumped out of a plane with a titanium femur.