DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The 82nd Airborne Division is turning 100 years old this week. Its soldiers gained fame in major battles of the World Wars, and they've become the nation's go-to troops for rapid deployment. Jay Price of member station WUNC traveled to Fort Bragg to look at the long story of one of the world's most famous military units.
JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Sometimes after Specialist Kevin Bogucki jumps out of a C-17 transport jet, he hits other stuff before he hits the ground.
KEVIN BOGUCKI: It's maybe 20 seconds in the air. And that whole time you're trying to make sure your chute is open, you're not running into guys. You know, you're not bouncing off other dude's chutes.
PRICE: You ever bounced off a chute?
BOGUCKI: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. You go spread-eagled and try bounce off. I've bounced off of chutes, had my chute bounced off. Never gotten tangled with a guy.
PRICE: One of his friends broke a hip after another soldier came through his parachute. Like all paratroopers, Bogucki volunteered for this. The 82nd is the nation's largest unit of paratroopers. It was formed in World War I. But its identity, its culture is built around one thing - parachuting into combat. And that began in World War II.
KENNETH MERRITT: They told us nobody was better than the paratroopers. He could whoop five men. Any paratrooper could. That was what they told all of us.
PRICE: Kenneth Rock Merritt was 20 years old when he was the second man out of a C-47 transport over Normandy, hours before the first landing craft hit the beaches.
MERRITT: On D-Day, my entire chain of command got killed. Not wounded, not captured, all of them got killed.
PRICE: Merritt says nearly 2,100 in his regiment made that jump. After a month of fighting, fewer than a thousand were left. Later, he parachuted into Holland. The combat jumps were harrowing.
MERRITT: If somebody tells you, no, you're not scared, he's either lying or he's a fool.
PRICE: But he jumped and fought and became part of the 82nd's history.
JOHN AARSEN: An 18-year-old in 1943 jumped out of a door over Sicily and did what he needed to.
PRICE: John Aarsen is a historian and director of the 82nd's museum. Every new paratrooper is brought here.
AARSEN: And you are an 18-year-old in the United States and what I'm asking you to do is no different than what happened on that dark night in Italy. And you can do it.
PRICE: The full sweep of the unit's history is almost too much to absorb - World War I hero Sgt. Alvin York, the Normandy invasion, and after the war, the first Army division to be permanently integrated. It kept order at the desegregation of the University of Mississippi and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But the big parachute assaults it became famous for often had heavy casualties and mixed results and prompted a question that goes right to the heart of the unit's identity - a question people are still asking.
AARSEN: So for 74 years of 75 years of airborne history, everyone's been saying, do we need this capability in the army?
PRICE: The 82nd fought in Vietnam and has been almost constantly deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan but without big combat jumps. The last one was in 1989 in Panama. The 82nd's ability to deploy rapidly with or without parachutes has kept it a go-to unit.
AARSEN: The 82nd is the only unit in the army they can load on an airplane 18 hours after you call it up and be moving to wherever you need to because it's rehearsed.
PRICE: And 82nd is trying to keep big jumps relevant. It's experimenting with a light-armored vehicle that can be dropped by parachute. The idea is soldiers and vehicles could be dropped a short distance from an objective like an airport. They would be out of range of its anti-aircraft defenses but close enough to attack quickly with that can-do paratrooper attitude Merritt had in Normandy.
MERRITT: And of course, as you know, we got no replacement. Everybody had to move up. But we were trained to move up two jobs, two slots.
PRICE: Merritt, now 94 years old, retired after 35 years with various army units. None, he said, matched the 82nd for morale or spirit. Minutes before he jumped for the start of an overnight combat exercise, Bogucki agreed.
BOGUCKI: Absolutely. You can't - you don't go on training things like this all the time without - it has to pay some dividends.
PRICE: Then he and dozens of other paratroopers stood, all burdened with heavy packs, rifles and parachutes.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible).
PRICE: They filed back to the two open doors. And without pausing, Bogucki jumped.
GREENE: That was Jay Price reporting from Fort Bragg, N.C.
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