At an altitude of 13,500 feet, Sgt. 1st Class Joe Jones and the civilian strapped to him pitched forward through the hatch on the side of the 1958 twin-engine Otter aircraft and began to tumble.
The civilian, wondering if he was arching his back or gripping his shoulder straps tightly enough, was yours truly, and I watched as the horizon gyrated wildly before being swallowed by the golden, sporadically mountainous Inland Empire region of Southern California.
For just shy of a minute, Jones and I were in freefall while being directed by a GoPro camera-wearing photographer to smile and give the thumbs-up sign. In spite of the roar of air whipping past my ears and the grinning, gesticulating photographer, I felt a deep, almost spiritual silence. My crocodile brain, sensing I'd ignored its pleas, stomped off, temporarily leaving me to contemplate the pull of gravity.
I was falling toward a dropzone in Perris, Calif., being used as a staging area for a May 22 recruiting event for the U.S. Army, in which educators, journalists and other influencers would take a leap like mine with members of the Golden Knights parachute demonstration team, one of three such teams sanctioned by the Department of Defense.
The idea was for the participants to get a taste of life in the Army. Among my cohort was Las Vegas-based Univision reporter (and former competitive kickboxer) Jasmina Gonzalez and Rich Nye, who was recently appointed superintendent of the Ogden, Utah, School District. Both of them thoroughly enjoyed skydiving, and Gonzalez's eyes glowed when an Army interviewer asked her if she'd do it again.
Minutes after landing safely, I was the one asking the questions. Sgt. 1st Class Adrian Hill, an infantryman from Alabama, has been jumping for the past 21 years of his Army career and has been an instructor for the Golden Knights for the past seven years. In all, Hill has participated in more than 6,000 jumps since first leaping from a plane flying over Georgia in 1996.
Hill has seen combat all over the world and conducted elaborate parachute demonstrations for audiences, but it was the personal details of his extraordinary life and adventures that grabbed my attention. His favorite skydiving experience was with his daughter three months from her 18th birthday. He said his hands didn't shake the first time he jumped from a plane.
Conflicts spanning the globe and an increased need for military preparedness have kicked recruiting efforts—including special demonstration teams like the Golden Knights—into overdrive. The Army's goal for active duty service members was revised from 460,000 to 476,000 this year, which would mean enlisting 62,000 people by Sunday, Oct. 1. President Donald Trump has said he would like to raise the bar higher still, adding as many as an additional 60,000 troops.
In response, the Army has spent $300 million on ads, sponsorships and other recruiting tools to add 6,000 soldiers to its ranks. It's a staggering sum of money being spent to speak to millennials in particular.
In a collection of essays titled Warriors and Citizens: American Views of Our Military, contributors Matthew Colford and Alec J. Sugarman described the tendency among millennials to "underappreciate the positive contributions of some service members, misattribute blame for failures to others, and, overall, fundamentally misconceive the nature of the military and its relationship with civilian policymakers and civil society" due to "a lack of awareness and exposure."
Millennials like myself tend to have a high opinion of the military but precious little understanding of it. Despite a passing knowledge of my grandfather's service in the Pacific theater of World War II, my only previous exposure to the armed forces came in the form of a phone call from a recruiter, who asked me if I planned to go to college and what I wanted to study. I told him and he said,"Well, if you know anybody who's interested in engineering or science, have them give me a call."
I was not in his target demographic.
More than a decade later, however, I was the first person who came to mind when my editor received a call from a Salt Lake City-based Army recruiter looking for journalists to tandem skydive with the Golden Knights.
Weeks—and thousands of feet in altitude—later, Jones' parachute deployed and I felt a tug on my harness. I considered the many documents I'd signed releasing Skydive Perris and the U.S. Army of any liability. One asked if I'd be an organ donor. Had a heart, liver or retina ever survived a fall from that height?
Jones tapped my side and the harness that bound him to me loosened from "intimate" to "passing acquaintance," disrupting my thoughts. I looked over my shoulder at him and he proffered the nylon strap we would use to steer the parachute to the landing site. With every pull on the strap, we would sweep a wide radius and edge closer to the ground.
With the green grass of the landing zone rapidly approaching, I pulled my knees to my chest and braced for an impact that never came. The landing was smooth, and when a Golden Knight rushed to me and unhooked me from Jones, I couldn't wipe the grin off my face.