June 18, 2007

No room for error at rappel master school

By Sgt. Jesse Houk
Virginia Guard Public Affairs

Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Tomkinson, lead instructor of the rappel master school, coaches Spc. Jason W. Elliott from the Fort Pickett Maneuver Training Center as he prepares to rappel from the tower at Fort Pickett. (Photo by Pfc. Geoff Dudley, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

FORT PICKETT, Va. – Hours of studying and practice are invested into getting things right. The information is pounded into the minds of the participating students with the intention of stressing safety. After a meticulous examination, it is determined that everything is a “go.”

There is no room for error because the risk of injury or a fatality weighs so heavily upon the accuracy of the inspection.  Peoples’ lives literally hang in the balance. This is a description of a rappel master school that took place at Fort Pickett June 11-15.

Soldiers from Reserve and National Guard units located throughout the United States converged here to take part in training that would give them the qualification to become rappel masters. The training was provided by a rappel master instructing team that was made up entirely of Virginia Guardsmen from the 1st Battalion, 183rd Regional Training Institute.

“We are the only accredited rappel master course in the reserve component,” said Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth “Rock” Tomkinson, rappel master instructor.  “And it brings good light not only on the state of Virginia, but Virginia Guardsmen. No only do other states send their soldiers here to train, but we also to travel to other states to teach them and that reflects highly upon Virginia.” 

The air assault obstacle course was established in 2004.  The course not only allowed Fort Pickett to provide Virginia Guardsmen with challenging training, but it also made it possible to host numerous schools. 

The quality of the course and equipment is among the best across the country. 

“It’s nice to know that we have the premier rappel master course in the United States and that other states send their Soldiers here to be trained,” said Staff Sgt. Jeffrey S. Cheney, rappel master instructor.

The five-day course taught the Soldiers rappelling techniques and procedures, and qualified them to serve as rappel masters during ground and aircraft rappelling. They learned everything from common knots used during rappel operations to the rigging of a rappel point on the ground or in an aircraft.

Although the course was considerably short in comparison to most military schools, rappel master school has a reputation for being near the top when it comes to the mental demands that are placed upon the students.

“This course is very similar in respect to jumpmaster and pathfinder because there is so much information put at you in such a short period of time,” said Tomkinson. “It’s inherently difficult mentally. There’s no physical pressure. There’s no playing with Soldiers or dropping Soldiers. It’s a gentleman’s course in regards to that type of discipline. But mentally it’s extremely challenging.”

Taking this course is like trying to drink out of a fire hose because there is just so much information to take in such a short amount of time, said Tomkinson.

Although the long days and intense training can become taxing on the instructors the fulfillment of passing on the knowledge that was passed on to them is worth it.

“I love instructing Soldiers,” said Tomkinson. “I love teaching Soldiers. I’ve been in for a long time and I love sharing the wealth with them and seeing the light come on when they get it.”


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