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Flying high: The joy of being a Golden Knight

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Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Ries, of the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team, left, speaks with guest jump partner Cara Wiley in the plane prior to making a tandem parachute jump over Moapa Valley, Nevada, on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020.

U.S. Army

OVERTON, Nevada — The saying goes, “Choose a job you love, and you you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”

For the U.S. Army Parachute Team, better known as the Golden Knights, few things could ring more true when you spend most of your days skydiving for a living. At least that is technically their military vocation aside from their original MOS — military occupational specialty — which is Army jargon for a job.

Members of the Army’s demonstration and competition parachute team spend their days practicing their craft, which literally involves jumping out of perfectly good airplanes day after day.

“I started skydiving in my personal time,” explained Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Reis. “I did it as a hobby and thoroughly enjoyed it, found out about the team and thought, ‘Why not mix my favorite hobby and make it my job?’ It was the best decision I ever made.”

The Tacoma, Washington, native initially enlisted in the Army right out of high school, prompted by a strong desire to serve his country.

“My senior year was 9/11, and I felt like I needed to do something a little bit more with my life,” he said. “I had originally had a dream of playing professional football, but things didn’t work out that way. So I figured I would join the military, pay for college and go that route, 16 years later, here I am.”

His original job specialty was as a parachute maintenance technician, but he decided to reclassify to become a communications satellite operator. When he’s not jumping with the team, he spends time on his new avocation working to attain his pilot’s license.

Before joining the Golden Knights, Reis had taken up skydiving on his own, having logged over 200 freefall jumps before learning of the opportunity that would change his life.

“There’s three requirements you have to have in order to join a team,” he said. “Have a minimum of 100 freefall skydives, a clean military and civilian record, and be active-duty Army.”

Having met all those qualifications, he submitted his packet and was accepted to try out in 2016. A year later his dream came true.

“My passion is my job. How many people get to say they truly love their life? I legitimately and truly love my job,” Reis said. “I get to experience first-time skydives with people that have never done it before. I get the opportunity to be there with them, I get to take them through that threshold of being nervous, being scared, overcoming that fear and seeing that face on the other end — you just can’t beat it.”

He also noted the numerous locales he is able to visit with his team.

“I get the opportunity to travel all over the U.S. (and) occasionally internationally,” Reis said. “I get to skydive and talk about the Army. Best job I’ve ever had!”

For Staff Sgt. Blake Gaynor, who was initially trained as a truck driver, his journey to the Golden Knights began soon after returning from a rather lucrative duty assignment.

“I was stationed in Fort Polk, Louisiana ... with the 10th Mountain Division. I basically had come back from a deployment, and I had a lot of extra money because you make a lot of extra money while you’re deployed,” he said, “I discovered a skydiving center that was really near my base. So I started skydiving there a lot. At first, the Golden Knights wasn’t the goal. I was just skydiving because it was fun. It was something I like to do to enjoy myself on the weekends.”

Raised as a military brat near Wichita Falls, Texas, he had seen the Golden Knights perform at an air show as a kid and thought of them as “superheroes.”

“I remember at the time thinking that because of all the cool stuff they did (like) freefalling and flying the parachutes and landing on the target,” he recalled. “As I started learning to skydive, I realized that all the skills and all the things that they were doing in the performance that I saw that made me in awe of them were all skills I was learning. It was all normal skills that you learn in skydiving.”

It was then he realized he wanted to try out for the team. After more time honing his skills, he applied for the team and went to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 2012. Following two months of grueling training, he wasn’t sure he had performed well enough to be selected.

“It’s just a training environment that has a lot of induced stress with a lot of performance measures. I think what they were looking for was that we just kept showing up and kept trying,” Gaynor said. “So that’s what I did, I kept showing up every day, putting one foot in front of the other.”

Having been fortunate during his time in the Army, Gaynor said his experience is something he shares with young recruits who may be unsure of their military path.

“A lot of times we travel around, and we might talk to people who are thinking about joining the Army, but they don’t really know what to expect from it. For younger people, they might only think about the fact that they have to get their hair cut and they have to wake up really early. And yes, you do a lot of that,” he said. “But on the opposite side of that, look at what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis. Our job is to jump out of airplanes. Now, not everybody in the Army gets to do that. But it is an opportunity that’s available to you if you try hard enough, and your heart’s in it.”

While Gaynor and Reis get to live out their dreams of being adrenaline junkies, the skills they learn as parachutists do have some very practical applications.

“Let’s say there’s a global disaster, there’s a hurricane, and we have to go into an island that’s not very accessible or in a high mountain region. Well, you need soldiers that have other skills and be able to jump out of the plane. You need a soldier that can fix an electrical grid, you need a soldier that can build a communications structure, you need a soldier that may be able to fix a vehicle or a bulldozer to clear gear that’s already there, right?” explained Lt. Col. Raphael Vasquez, commander of the Salt Lake City Army Recruiting Battalion.

“So all these soldiers join the Army and they get (a military occupational specialty), a real Army job, like a truck driver, communication specialist or heavy equipment operator,” he said. ”Then they have added skills, and that skill is parachuting. You have a person that can jump in, clear debris, fix an electrical grid or setup a communication system while we wait for the remainder of services to arrive.”

He said the benefit of offering such specialized training is to show a young recruit the array of opportunities that exist if they join the Army.

“At the age of 18, they get a job, they get skills, they get discipline and if they decide they want to jump out of a plane for a living, this (could be) their job,” Vasquez said. “This is a duty assignment, so they have a job. And this (would be) their duty assignment.”