Paratroopers Stage Spectacular Return to Fort Bragg
FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) _ Nearly 2,000 paratroopers filled the sky with light green parachutes Friday morning as they floated earthward on their triumphant return home after invading Panama.
Several thousand spectators roared with delight as the parachutes popped open and the soldiers drifted 800 feet to the ground from 20 C-141 transport planes.
The commanding general, Lt. Gen. Carl Stiner, was the first to jump as the planes swooped down to Fort Bragg’s Sicily Drop Zone.
″Our experience gives meaning to the expression that freedom isn’t free,″ Stiner, his face painted with black and brown camouflage smears and wearing a battle helmet, said during a welcoming ceremony at the drop zone.
Stiner praised the 23 soldiers killed in the invasion, including four from Fort Bragg, as well as those injured.
″Everyone knew there would be personal danger but not a single one hestitated to go or to enter a battle,″ Stiner said. ″You would have been very proud of your soldiers. No one has ever been more disciplined under fire or more mature in carrying out their duties.″
As the 1,924 soldiers approached the ground, they lowered their packs and rifles on a line to lighten the load of the landing. Stiner said the troopers’ backpacks weighed 100 pounds when fully loaded with ammunition, as they were during the invasion.
The soldiers, wearing battle gear, gathered their parachutes after landing and got into military formation.
Four soldiers received minor injuries in the jump. Master Sgt. Michael H. Hartt, a spokesman, said he had no details but usually the injuries involve turned ankles.
Families and soldiers had 30 minutes to greet one another before the troops resumed formation to march to their barracks and turn in weapons and gear.
Staff Sgt. Vicki Zamora, 27, one of two women on the division’s manifest, was stationed in a Panamanian building that was under mortar fire the day before she arrived.
She was greeted by her husband, Gus Zamora, 34, and their three children. While her children tugged at her uniform and told what they received for Christmas, she said she felt good about leaving the children because ″they were in good hands being with their daddy.″
Asked if women should fight in combat, she replied: ″We all train as a team and we need to fight as a team.″
Stiner said everyone in the invasion came under fire because the troops attacked 27 targets simultaneously.
″I’m not going to get into a debate on what women can and cannot do because they amaze me every day,″ Stiner said at a news conference.
Signs dotted the crowd proclaiming welcome messages, including ″Leo: Super Duper Paratrooper,″ and ″Welcome Home, Pookie.″
The fiancee of one paratrooper said she was told he ″wanted some pizza″ because he had eaten so many bananas and pineapples in Panama.
Karie Wilkinson, 20, said she planned a quiet welcome with Pfc. William Short, 22, and would open Christmas presents and gifts for their Jan. 26 wedding.
Ms. Wilkinson said she often worried that Short wouldn’t return from Panama in time for the wedding.
Capt. Lewis Boone said the soldiers jumped on their return because, ″Their primary means of deployment is jumping. They will jump whenever possible - over here, over there, anywhere.″
The homecoming crowd was taken to the drop zone before dawn to be in place for the soldiers’ return. A military band played ″God Bless America″ and patriotic marching songs while waiting for the planes to arrive.
The troops were involved in the Dec. 20 invasion of Panama that resulted in the ouster of Panamanian dictator Gen. Manuel Noreiga.
The 82nd Airborne Division troops conducted a night parachute assault onto Tocumen-Torrijos airfield east of Panama City, secured the airfield, and moved out within hours to secure other targets, officials said.