Elite German troops leap into Tennessee skies, lifestyle

Tuesday, June 29, 2010
By Paul Martin

By Michael Lollar
TheCommercialAppeal.com

A hearse sits on the grounds of West Tennessee Skydiving in rural Fayette County with an advertisement on the side that says, “If It Can’t Kill You It Ain’t A Real Sport.”

Overhead, 14 Germans are jumping from a two-engine plane at 23,000 feet, aiming for an 80-foot bed of pea gravel in the center’s front yard.

The yard is like a pasture along a rural stretch off U.S. 64 near Somerville. Surrounded by cotton and soybean fields, the skydiving center has become part of annual training for some of the world’s elite military special forces.

“It’s like you have to inspect your car every year,” says a chief master sergeant for Germany’s version of the U.S. Navy SEALs.

His swimmers, the Kampfschwimmers or “combat swimmers,” are trained for underwater operations, jungle and desert warfare. Like fictional special agent James Bond, the swimmers are known for stealth and clandestine operations.

“No names,” says the sergeant, a training commander for the Germans.

Their two weeks of skydiving in Somerville are followed by two more weeks at the Mid-South Institute of Self-Defense Shooting in Lake Cormorant, Miss. It is a shooting range devoted exclusively to military, police and government agencies.

The Kampfschwimmers receive the same parachute training as Navy SEALs, says West Tennessee Skydiving owner Mike Mullins, a FedEx pilot and former Army helicopter pilot. The Germans have trained in Somerville for five years.

At altitudes higher than 15,000 feet, the jumpers use oxygen masks. From that height, they can glide 5 miles, but a 40,000-foot jump can mean silently gliding for up to 40 miles across borders to precise landing targets in enemy territory.

Unlike their home base on the Baltic Sea, Fayette County has “good and stable weather,” says the sergeant. And there is little wasted time. Mullins’ plane, a King Air B90, can climb to 14,000 feet in just seven minutes.

The Germans’ landings are so gentle that the soldiers look like they are nimbly stepping from a car onto a grocery store parking lot.

Their parachutes are 300 to 400 square feet. Each is shaped like an airplane wing and guided by pulls that tilt the chute to provide last-minute lift and soft landings.

Each chute has numbers printed on the bottom so the sergeant can easily identify a soldier who needs coaching.

“See, he is turning too sharply,” says the sergeant, pointing skyward. “If you turn too sharp, you can go into a dive.”

Modern chutes have speed and altitude sensors that cause them to open automatically within about 700 feet of the ground.

“If that happens, you may have a bad landing,” says the sergeant.

Between jumps, most of the Germans speak English with British accents. They share more than training with their American counterparts. Serving in Afghanistan, they are away from home for long stretches.

“The worst part is that guys are separated from their families,” says their commanding officer.

On weekends, they visit tourist attractions such as Beale Street.

“The Germans haven’t met a beer they didn’t like,” says West Tennessee Skydiving instructor Chris Welker.

The German officer says his men also have become fond of a Chinese buffet in the food court at Wolfchase Galleria in Memphis. In Somerville, The Hut, known for its barbecue, is a favorite along with the Huddle House.

“They eat a lot of eggs,” says the officer.

From motels in Somerville and Oakland, the soldiers arise as early as 4a.m. and run all or part of the 12 miles from U.S. 64 to the skydiving center. They do at least four jumps each day and, at night, go to a gym in Oakland for weight training.

After repacking their 60-pound chutes, the soldiers relax between jumps. They are among the world’s best swimmers, but their current service is in a land-locked country with no major bodies of water. They are like fish out of water, but their commanding officer says they are committed to the mission.

“The reason we are fighting is that Afghanistan has long been a haven for terrorists,” he says.

The Germans — always reminded by history of Nazi aggression — are careful of their international image, but NATO forces play for keeps.

“NATO requires that soldiers be willing to shoot people. They expect us to be aggressive,” says another officer.

One of his young soldiers discovers a unicycle leaning against the side of the main building. It belongs to one of Mullins’ sons.

The soldier tries to balance himself, but soon discovers that a unicycle may be one of those devices that can kill you.

“No more,” he says, abandoning the unicycle to prepare for his next jump.

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