US Army reduces number of paratroopers, say goodbye to the Pathfinders & 508th PIR

Budget cuts may spell bad news for the legendary Pathfinders and the Red Devils.

The U.S. Army are making major and inevitable changes due to budget cuts and reconfiguration. An effect of the slashing of budget of the U.S. Army is the reduction in number of paratroopers including that of the two units, the Pathfinder and Red Devils, also known as the 5th Battalion, 101st Combat Aviation Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division and the 508th Infantry Regiment.

“You have to make the best use of resources across the Army to make sure we’re using tax dollars as best we can,” said Jim Hinnant spokesman for U.S. Army Forces Command. Hinnant, himself is a former 1st lieutenant and paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg.

The U.S. army is planning to cut down the number of parachute positions to 49,000 through 2020. The reduction in number is part of the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance which instructs some of the units of the military, including the paratrooper units “to change their focus”.

The Army Times reports that according to Lt. Col. Don Peters, the team chief for Operations, Intelligence and Logistics with Army Public Affairs “the reductions are being made in part because of reduced budgets and to reach the mandated maximum number of paratrooper slots 49,000″.

The army has already started implementing the changes with already 2,600 soldiers of 24 units out of the paratrooper units. Affected by the cutbacks are 12 units, including the 18th Airborne Corps and the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, 4th Battalion, 159th Aviation Brigade at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, 101st Aviation Regiment, and the Company F (Pathfinder).

“However, paratroopers continue to train and maintain readiness to execute airborne operations should a mission arise, and the impact on the reduction of paid parachute positions will not degrade the capability of the Army,” Peters explained.

The Army kept three standing pathfinder companies: Company F (Pathfinder), 5th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 101st Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault); and Company F (Pathfinder), 4th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 159th Aviation Brigade, both at Fort Campbell, Kentukyy.; and Company F (Pathfinder), 2nd Battalion, 82d Aviation Regiment at Fort Bragg, N.C.

The well-known Pathfinder units carry out airborne operations, support of ground unit operations, air resupply operations. They set up and operate drop zones, helicopter landing sites and pick-up zones. They also go on rescue missions in critical zones saving downed pilots and helicopters.

The Pathfinders at Fort Campbell and the Red Devils at Fort Bragg earned their fame because their members were among the first of the Allies to brave the hostile skies of Normandy, France which was then occupied by the Nazis during the World War II. The brave paratroopers of the Greatest Generation were able to establish a strong opposition on the ground during D-Day that eventually defeated the German invaders.

The current soldiers are saddened that the legendary units are drastically affected by the financial adjustments in the Army. But, they believe that the paratroopers are not entirely out of the picture as their roles merely evolve. A majority of the soldiers are still looking forward to do airborne missions in the future.

“History is history. Being on jump status is history. It’s out of my control. We’ll continue to fine-tune what we do, ” said Sgt. 1st Class Bryan Beville of Cheyenne, Wyoming, a member of the Pathfinders.

Staff Sgt. Ryan Savage, an Elk Rapids, Mich., native and Pathfinder member, shared that the paratroopers are still ready to do new missions even without jumping from the skies. They will continue to train for other scenarios that do not require them leaping from helicopters and planes.

When asked what jumping from helicopters was like, Savage responded, “It’s a real fancy and pretty way to do it.But, for every soldier, you still have to train and prepare to do the same mission.”

Many of the alumni from the airborne units are worried of the effects of the budget slashes and reduction in number of paratroops to the future of the Army. A retired command master seargeant major of the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Kenneth “Rock” Merrit that the shift of the military’s focus on special forces would be unfavorable to the airborne units where he served until 1977.

“My big concern is … I just wonder how long they’re going to keep the 82nd Airborne on airborne status.  I’m wondering if some day, somebody’s going to get the bright idea and the 82nd Airborne is going to go back to the 82nd Infantry,” Merrit said.

Army officials have not yet issued a public explanation on the removal of some units from airborne status. But, current soldiers anticipate the day when they would be allowed to return to their jump status.

“We’re ready for anything,” said Sgt. Shea Goodnature of Clarksville, Tennessee.


Siegphyl is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE