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NEWS | Oct. 17, 2016

Army Reserve Soldier reaches new heights; earns coveted badge

By Sgt. 1st Class Brent Powell 335th Signal Command (Theater)

East Point, Georgia –  Many people set high goals for themselves, but one Army Reserve Soldier here set his goals higher than most, aiming at an achievement that would take him more than 12,500 feet above the ground.

Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Justin P. Morelli, a combat cameraman, assigned to the 982nd Combat Camera Company, 335th Signal Command (Theater), watched his goals become reality recently when he became the first combat cameraman to earn the coveted Free Fall Parachutist Badge after successfully completing the four-week military free fall course in Yuma, Arizona.

To earn the badge, the military member first must receive all necessary ground training, have earned the Parachutist Badge (be jump-qualified), and must complete all of the course required free fall jumps, which include night operations, jumps with full combat equipment, and jumps utilizing an oxygen system.
“This goal has always been a dream of mine,” said Morelli.  “When I first started in this specialty, I read in some of our doctrine that the combat camera field had military freefall qualified personnel, but as I started to meet people and talk to them about it, I never met anyone who had actually been through the course.  So about a year ago, I dug deeper into the regulations and began making a case that we need to start a free fall program.”

The next step in the process was convincing his command to approve the idea, find a seat in the school, and ensure funding was available for it.   He also had to pass several in-depth physicals.   “The command was very supportive of me pursuing this opportunity, and offered assistance when and where it was needed.  The process itself was pretty lengthy because the free fall physical is much more in-depth than most.”  Morelli had to travel to Fort Rucker, Alabama and go through a hyperbaric pressure chamber to ensure he could withstand the pressure and oxygen changes at high altitudes. He also had to travel to Fort Benning on three separate occasions to complete the qualification physical.

Once he was medically cleared and had a reserved seat in the course, he showed up at the school and began in processing.  “It was very evident to me early on in the course, that the instructors and the personnel in charge of the school were very supportive and really wanted to make this capability available to combat camera,” said Morelli.

The first week of the course is ground week which encompasses a lot of classroom time and time in the wind tunnel, where students learn how to properly position their body in the air during the free fall.  “All of the main free fall fundamentals necessary to complete the course are covered during that first week,” said Morelli. “You learn about your equipment, your procedures, and how to pack a parachute.”
The second week of the course, the students make their first free fall jump and then continue jumping and practicing their skills 2-3 times a day until the end of the course.  “Each jump is a progression,” he said.  “You start off jumping with just a parachute, your plate carrier, and a helmet, so that you learn what free fall feels like.  By the end of the course, you will be part of an entire team of free fall personnel jumping at night at a high altitude with oxygen, full combat equipment, and your individual weapon with the goal of landing on a target no more than 100 meters from the first person to the last.”

Morelli, who completed 20 free fall jumps during the course, felt it was important for him to achieve this goal because it adds another capability to his career field.  “As a combat camera operator I’m supposed to document a mission from start to finish, but if I can’t get to work that day because I don’t have the qualifications to jump with the rest of the team on a mission, then I don’t have a complete story and can’t provide my full capability to the elements that need it.”
Now that he successfully completed the course, Morelli looks to the future and sees more of his fellow combat camera Soldiers following in his footsteps.  “I believe that information can win wars without bullets and what better way to provide information than through still and video imagery,” he said.  “As our specialty becomes more well-known and our information campaign is implemented throughout the theater of operation we are in, I want my combat camera operators to be looked at as what they are: force multipliers and enablers that can move around the battlespace and provide the best product possible to battlefield commanders.  To do that they need more tactical training, more infiltration capabilities and a solid understanding of an operational environment.  With those things they will be able to consistently perform their job and provide outstanding products to our customers.”

Morelli also has some advice for others who have set high goals for themselves.  “Just because someone says it can’t be done doesn’t mean there’s not a way,” he said.  “Set your sights on something that’s important to you and work the different angles to see if it is indeed a possibility.  If it’s possible, talk to the right people who will support you and help you along the way, and do what you can to prepare yourself to achieve that goal.”

With graduation from the course now behind him, Morelli hopes to continue taking to the skies and eventually log 200 jumps.  “I’m just going to continue jumping and learn as much as I can about my new capability,” he said.