Since World War II, the United States Army has fielded an elite force of paratroopers known as Pathfinders. Need for Pathfinders became apparent after airborne operations resulted in paratroopers landing more than five miles away from their initial targets. Taking inspiration from the British military, paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division began to send in Pathfinders ahead of the main body. These paratroopers would take equipment with them to guide follow-on aircraft as they flew over drop zones to ensure troops and glider forces landed within their intended targets.
On Sept. 13, 1943, Pathfinders undertook daring missions for the first time in combat for the jumps into Italy.
Also renown for their actions during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, they led the way for Allied forces entering Europe. Since then, Pathfinders have played a crucial role as the need for troop insertion and airdrops has increased due to challenging terrain throughout the world. Now these prestigious paratroopers serve within units throughout the entire Army.
This month, the 82nd Airborne Divisionís 2nd Brigade Combat Team hosted a Pathfinder Mobile Training Team at Fort Bragg. Comprised of instructors from the United States Army Pathfinder School in Fort Benning, Georgia, the MTT is a cost-efficient way to train that benefits the entire Army.
"The hosting unit only pays for travel, lodging and per diem for 12 instructors versus having to pay travel, lodging and per diem for 60 students," said Master Sgt. Nathan Bryant, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the course. "Itís a fifth of the cost to conduct an MTT versus sending Soldiers to Fort Benning."
For three weeks, service- members from the Army and Air Force trained to become subject matter experts and developed the skills to manage successful airborne operations. Pathfinder students are trained to plan air assaults, work as air traffic controllers, set up helicopter landing zones and drop zones, and supervise sling load rigging and inspection. This includes unique sling loads not taught in any other course in the Army.
"This course is very mentally challenging and requires superb attention to detail and great memorization skills," said Bryant.
With only 419 service- members graduating from the course during the entire 2014 fiscal year, Pathfinder School is a daunting challenge for most. Less than one percent of active-duty servicemembers bear the distinguished badge.
"I feel humbled to be a Pathfinder," said 1st Lt. William Dyer, one of the courseís students and the air officer for the 27th Engineer Battalion. "I feel honored that Iím finally part of the Pathfinder Family."
On Friday, Dyer and about 20 other service- members from Fort Bragg received their Pathfinder badges during the courseís graduation ceremony. The prestigious badgeís winged torch comes from ancient Greece, symbolizing the runners who opened the Olympic Games and means "To Light the Way."
"Itís one of the hardest academic courses in the military," said Dyer. "I studied nomenclature before the course started and even during the course. During the course, the study guide never left my hand."
Dyer said he feels becoming a Pathfinder is a milestone to further his career and become a better leader.
"I plan to help teach feature air OICs (officer in charge) with in-depth operations," said Dyer. "If you can carry this on and pass it on to your Soldiers than you can better them and your unit."