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U.S. Army Golden Knights show the sky is the limit for potential recruits

Cara Wiley (in yellow), supervisor of the Nursing Advisement Center at Brigham Young University​​, skydives with the Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Reis of the U.S. Army Parachute Team, known as the Golden Knights, on Nov. 4, 2020, above Overton, Nevada. The team conducts tandem jumps with local community leaders, influencers and media to build relationships and share information about Army opportunities.
U.S. Army Parachute Team

OVERTON, Nevada — For years, the U.S. Army urged prospective soldiers to “Be all you can be.” For a select few, that credo led them to pursue their dreams beyond what they might have thought possible for a military career.

However, getting more people to consider the Army can take a more creative approach in the recruiting process, according to Lt. Col. Raphael Vasquez, commander of the Salt Lake City Army Recruiting Battalion who oversees 300 recruiters in 46 recruiting stations across Utah, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Wyoming. Speaking on a warm cloudless November morning at an airfield in Overton, Nevada — a town in the unincorporated Moapa Valley 65 miles northeast of Las Vegas — he said attracting candidates often involves dispelling old notions about the military.

Enter the Golden Knights, and the thrill of jumping from a perfectly good airplane.

Vasquez arranges skydiving outings with the Army’s elite parachute demonstration and competition squad, offering tandem jumps with local community leaders, influencers and media to build relationships and share information about Army opportunities.

“One of my main goals as a battalion commander is to provide opportunities to educate our communities about what the Army is about. Most people have an idea because their grandfather or their father or an uncle or somebody they knew served somewhere,” he said. “An event like this gives you an opportunity to interact with actual soldiers that are in the Army right now and see us as more than just tanks and guns.”

“The Army is evolving, we’re super technologically advanced, we have all the jobs that you can find in the civilian sector,” he said, but “people don’t think that so this is an opportunity for me to show you something else that we do.”

Vasquez said there are 150 jobs in the Army parsed across a variety of career fields. “If there is something you can think of, the Army has that job,” he said.

When speaking to educators, he noted that sometimes there is a sense the Army is trying to “steal” students, when the reality is actually quite different.

“We’re not trying to do that. What we’re trying to do is employ your graduates,” he said. ”We’re trying to get your graduates to take advantage of all the skills that you’ve inculcated in them through 12 years of schooling, and we’re trying to employ them.”

For those community members invited to participate in the adventure, the experience can be a discussion starter with students who may be considering applying for military scholarships.

“I got to fly with the (U.S. Navy) Blue Angel a few years ago, so I’ve got that picture up on my wall in my office and I’ll do the same thing with the Golden Knights, and it certainly elicits some conversations from students,” said David Kaiser, clinical professor and chief health professions adviser at Brigham Young University. ​​”It does open that door in terms of being able to talk about the military, especially for medical officers.”

He said he often has military recruiters come make presentations to students about money available for students who want to pursue medical careers, which can “cement those relationships as being positive” professionally with BYU. He added that while jumping with the Golden Knights is an exciting experience, his students are probably more interested in the economic advantages that potential military service could provide.

“The biggest incentive for them is simply the financial benefits because the scholarship program they have for dental and medical school (is the best) going by far,” Kaiser said. “They pay for everything, full tuition, whatever fees they have, books, laptop, whatever is required they pay for it. And they give them a stipend of $30,000 a year on top of that.”

For colleague Cara Wiley, supervisor of the Nursing Advancement Center at BYU, the jump was also a fun way to learn more about the potential perks of Army service.

“It was amazing! It was so much fun. Had a great time. Definitely I’d do it again if they would let me,” she said. While few people in her profession would likely become a Golden Knight, she was able to pick up some good information that she wasn’t previously aware of.

“Just listening to what they were saying did dispel some of the myths I had about the Army and what they were able to do,” she said. “I didn’t realize all of the information and all of the many scholarship programs (that were available).”

“Hearing from some of the guys, especially the Golden Knights, instead of the recruiters was good for me because they are the “regular Joes” that are in the military and doing their own jobs and also doing the Golden Knights.”

For military recruiters, the best thing about such outings is to let people see “the other side of the Army.”

“For the most part, a lot of people think it’s very rigid, you do your job and that’s it and there’s no other opportunities out there,” said Sgt. 1st Class Donald Freenor, a U.S. Army health care professional recruiter based in Salt Lake City. “There’s more to doing the Army as a doctor or dentist or nurse or whatever have you. There are other opportunities out there for you.”

He noted the purpose of exposing influencers to events like skydiving is to show people the opportunities may exist beyond your primary military career field.

“(For) many of the doctors have when we’re looking at medical professionals, there’s two sides to it. There’s those who want to go into the office, do what (they) do there and want to go home at the end of the night,” he explained. “Then there are others who were like, ‘Hey, I want to actually be out there with (the soldiers).’ Those are the individuals that we’re looking for as well.”

Capt. Brett Christensen, commander of the Missoula, Montana, recruiting office, said providing influencers the experience to jump with the Golden Knights definitely helps him do his job of recruitment a little more effectively.

“Events like this are the perfect way for us to showcase really what the Army can do in a bunch of different ways,” he said. “We bring an administrator out here and we’re not only giving (them) a great time, but what we’re doing is showcasing the skills of a kid that used to be in high school and that kid joined the Army at 18 years old and developed into the strong leader.”