FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — Whatever fear 1st Lt. Bennis M. Blue may have had when she joined the 82nd Airborne Division was quickly set aside shortly after she arrived to her unit in 1978.

Blue was the first female paratrooper to be assigned to the 82nd Airborne. And the prospect of joining the all-male All Americans was a daunting one for the young officer.

That is, until then-Maj. Gen. Roscoe Robinson Jr. walked into her unit, looked her in the eye and shook her hand.

Robinson — then commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division and later, the first African-American four-star general — welcomed Blue and other female soldiers with open arms.

In a statement issued to the division in 1978, Robinson made clear that the women - five female paratroopers joined the division in June 1978 — were as much paratroopers as any other soldier in the unit.

"As troopers of the 82nd, they will share in all the hard work, as well as in all the professional respect that members of this famous division receive," Robinson said. "They will be full-fledged members of the All American Division. As professional as you are, so shall they be. As airborne as you are, so shall we all be."

Blue served in the 82nd Airborne Division from June 1978 until April 1979. On Thursday, she returned to Fort Bragg for the first time since then to participate in the division's ongoing centennial celebration.

And she found a familiar, warm welcome.

In the 82nd Airborne Division headquarters, paratroopers sought her out to thank her for blazing a trail for others to follow.

"It's an honor to meet you," said Sgt. Martha Cobble.

Cobble, a cook in the 82nd Airborne, said she has a daughter of her own now.

"When my daughter gets bigger, I hope she becomes a paratrooper, too," she said.

Command Sgt. Maj. Michael D. Green, the senior enlisted leader of the 82nd Airborne Division, offered his hand as he welcomed Blue back to Fort Bragg. He said Blue remains a paratrooper, even if it has been years since she donned a parachute.

"I really wanted to come and meet you," Green said. "Welcome back to your division."

Blue, a retired college professor who now lives in Garner, deflected much of the praise.

She didn't open the door, she said. She was just the first to step through it.

"Somebody has to go first," Blue said.

Blue made 10 jumps in her Army career. She said each time, she felt close to God.

"It was the best job I ever had in my whole life," she said. "I felt like part of the elite."

Army guidance issued in December 1977 opened the door for women to serve in non-combat roles within the 82nd Airborne Division.

Blue — along with 2nd Lt. Holly A. Hileman, Spc. Opan V. Forbes, Spc. Corrine E. Cote and Pvt. Laura L. Williams — were the first to arrive.

The 82nd Airborne Division converted two barrack wings of 24-rooms each to house the women and others who would come after them.

Today, about 9 percent of the 82nd Airborne's more than 18,000 paratroopers are women — up from 7 percent last year. And at least two female infantry officers are serving in the unit following a recent change to allow women into combat jobs.

Blue grew up in Raleigh and, from a young age, appeared to be destined for the 82nd Airborne Division.

At 9 years old, a brother dared Blue to jump from the roof of the family home. She was quick to oblige, earning her first "jump wings." Later, Blue said she watched as members of her family joined the Army. She was inspired to follow in their footsteps.

At first, that meant serving as an enlisted soldier in the Army Reserve. Blue was a clerk for a Reserve unit in Virginia before attending Virginia State University, where she would be commissioned an officer through the Women's Army Corps Program.

As a new lieutenant, Blue was training at Fort Lee, Virginia, when a fellow soldier told her she wasn't good enough to attend the Army's Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia. The first female graduates of the school had passed through several years before - with Pvt. Rita Johnson and Pvt. Janice Kutch becoming the first to graduate in December 1973.

Blue took the remark as a challenge.

"I always liked challenges," she said.

Despite being scared of heights, Blue soon found herself among a small group of women training at the Airborne School. It wasn't easy. She recalled running in intense heat — the soldiers would start their runs by walking through the showers. By the end of the run they would be bone dry — and performing so many pushups, Blue said, she was sure the soldiers were pushing the state of Georgia deep into the earth.

"They called us the Powder Puff Platoon," Blue said, describing how the women always had to run behind their male counterparts.

On her first training jump, Blue said she learned not to look down. She was scared at first, but said that by the time her canopy was overhead, she was sold.

"I felt like I was flying with angels," she said. "I would have jumped for free."

After graduating from the Airborne School, Blue would have to wait before joining the 82nd Airborne Division.

When she arrived at Fort Bragg, she served instead with the 1st Corps Support Command. But she always had her sights set on the 82nd Airborne and that maroon beret.

"That was my first wish, my heart, my soul and my goal," Blue said.

Once in the 82nd Airborne, Blue served as a property book officer in the former Division Support Command. She said more experienced soldiers were eager to take her under their wings to help her adjust to the 82nd Airborne Division.

After her time in the 82nd Airborne Division, Blue left active duty. She returned to the Reserves and served in New York and Germany before finishing her career as a captain and company commander with 24 years of military service.

As a civilian, Blue has held teaching positions at multiple universities, including her alma mater, Virginia State University, and the University of Mount Olive in North Carolina.

On her return to Fort Bragg, Blue toured the installation and met with soldiers. She said she hardly recognized anything.

"It's like a whole new world," she said.

Blue said there's nothing quite like the 82nd Airborne Division. The camaraderie was unlike anything she has ever felt.

"The air here is different. I spent the last 40 years among legs," she said, using a pejorative term for a soldier who is not airborne. "It's nice to feel airborne again."

"You can feel it, that swag in your soul," Blue said of being back at Fort Bragg. "This is home."

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Information from: The Fayetteville Observer, http://www.fayobserver.com