Well after midnight on a recent hot night, John Cvikota, a lean, 26-year-old Chicagoan, strapped on a hundred pounds of gear (helmet, body armor, weapons, ammunition, rations and water, parachute, safety chute, radio, combat first aid kit, gas mask), waddled out onto the runway with 64 other paratroopers, clambered up the rear ramp of a C-130 cargo plane and squeezed into the canvas sling seats along the fuselage.
After the ramp went up and the C-130 trundled out onto the runway and labored into the air, it got really hot. One paratrooper slumped over as a heat casualty and was dragged into a corner and treated by a medic.
The battalion's first casualty, Cvikota thought, and they hadn't even gotten to the fight yet. They were headed into 12 days of intense war games at the Army's Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana. The training is to prepare the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team to fight in an area like Iraq and Syria against an enemy like ISIS -- in the event that things there spin out of control and the Obama administration's "no boots on the ground" policy becomes inoperative.
At a shouted command from the jumpmaster and blinking lights that signaled 10 minutes until the jump, Cvikota and the others staggered to their feet, each hooking up to a steel cable that would ensure their chutes were yanked open after they jumped. Many carried extra gear: a bulky radio, a mortar base plate or a machine gun barrel. All were struggling to remain upright under the weight. Sweat ran down their faces and soaked their body armor. Legs shook from the strain as the plane swayed toward the drop zone. "It was a nightmare," Cvikota said later.
One paratrooper's chute suddenly burst from his pack, a horrifying premature release. "People were freaking out," said Cvikota. Some, no doubt, were thinking of Sgt. Shaina B. Schmigel, a member of Cvikota's brigade who was killed during a training jump last May, an incident still under investigation.
When Cvikota could finally lean out the door and let his weight carry him off into the night, it was a relief, he said.
All this transpired the night before Congress fled from Washington to indulge in its fall campaign and vacation, without having bothered to debate or vote on war.
In mid-October the 2nd Brigade will become the core element of the U.S. Global Ready Force, on standing alert to assault into any trouble spot. Whether Congress debates it or not.
There has always been a vast gulf between those who practice politics and those who practice war. Part of that divide is defined by who's doing hands-dirty, grueling, up-all-night work. Paratroopers were training hard, living in the dirt, getting four hours of sleep a night if they were lucky. Congress was at home. And occasionally engaging in the kind of personal nastiness that wouldn't be tolerated in an airborne platoon.
I thought about that as I squatted down in the Louisiana woods to talk with Cvikota. Four days after his jump, he was standing chest-deep in a fighting position with his weapon aimed at the woodline, taking his turn on guard duty after having worked all night as the battalion's battle captain. That job requires organizing, coordinating and supervising all the missions underway. The previous night one of his platoons was hit by an IED and then small arms fire. The paratroopers, using blanks, fought their way clear. "Not a big deal," Cvikota said.
Then the enemy broke into a chemical weapons storage site. "That's when it got hectic," he said. "I work up the colonel for that."
I asked him what he thought about ISIS, about the beheadings of Americans they'd held hostage, and whether he was eager to go fight. He thought for a while. "We have a pretty aggressive mission," he said finally. "We jump into hostile territory when nobody else can get there. We work hard at that -- these paratroopers are working hard," he said, nodding at a line of weary, sweat-stained soldiers plodding in from a patrol.
Nobody wants war, he said. "But you want an opportunity to serve your country."
This post has been updated to correct the spelling of John Cvikota's name.