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NEWS | Sept. 26, 2014

Florida and Wisconsin Guard Soldiers complete rigorous Pathfinder course

By Master Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa Florida National Guard

STARKE, Fla. – National Guard Soldiers from Florida and Wisconsin completed a rigorous two-week specialized course in north-central Florida recently, earning the right to wear the coveted U.S. Army Pathfinder Badge.

Under the guidance of instructors from the Army National Guard Warrior Training Center, 49 Soldiers from the two states graduated from the Pathfinder course at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center in late September. The intense course mirrors the Pathfinder training for active-duty Soldiers, and enables the graduates to establish safe landing zones for aircraft, paratroopers, and air assault units.

First Sgt. Jessie Parsons of the Warrior Training Center said the course is specially designed into a two-week block so Army National Guard Soldiers can attend the course in lieu of their annual training. Parsons and seven other instructors challenged their students to learn all aspects of landing zone operations – from supporting a helicopter slingload mission to setting up navigational aids for incoming aircraft.

“The job of the Pathfinder is to be the technical advisor to the ground-unit commander on multiple operations – slingload operations, dropzone operations, troop movement, air assault planning, air assault insertions and even aerial resupply,” Parsons explained.

Since the course started in early September with 65 officers and enlisted Soldiers, nearly 25 percent of the students were unable to keep up with the rigorous and demanding academic expectations. Parsons said that a 75 percent graduation rate is actually pretty high for the Pathfinder school.

“This is one of the most academically challenging courses that a lot of these students will ever take,” Parsons said, explaining that the Pathfinder Soldiers are expected to memorize and comprehend large amounts of information in a short time. Precise arithmetic skills and attention to detail are required before a Soldier can graduate and pin on the flaming winged-torch worn by qualified Pathfinders.

On Sept. 24 the Pathfinder students participated in a final field training exercise, working with Florida Army National Guard aviators to complete a variety of missions throughout the 73,000-acre post using CH-47 Chinook and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. For one mission the Soldiers were airlifted by teams to Camp Blanding’s north post, where they set up an actual Ground Marked Release System (GMRS) drop zone using signaling panels. After the drop zone was established, a UH-60 Black Hawk dropped a supply bundle by parachute into the area designated by the ground teams.

Pathfinder student Capt. Jonathon Bruister, who serves as commander of the Florida Army National Guard’s 221st Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit, explained that the practical exercises during the final week were a welcomed relief from the academic aspect of the course.

“This has been very difficult. All of the expectations that we were told coming into the course definitely hold true,” Bruister said. “It has been mentally exhausting and frustrating, but it is very rewarding.”

1st Lt. Justin Hofmann of the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 257th Brigade Support Battalion (BSB) said that actually being able to practice with the helicopters was helpful because he has had few opportunities to work with aircraft at his unit.

“We learned a lot,” Hofmann said. “The training was good. The environment was good – nice and hot as compared to Wisconsin.”

The Florida Army National Guard’s Staff Sgt. Giovanni Torres echoed the sentiments of the other Pathfinder students in that the academic portion was truly the toughest part of the course. He also affirmed that it will make him a better Soldier.

“It required us to do a lot of memorization and formulas, and a lot of things we don’t do on a daily basis. But it has been a really good experience to learn new things and actually apply them,” Torres, a member of HHC, 1st Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment, said. “It will definitely help me with my attention to detail, because this whole course is about attention to detail.”