The annual water jump at Dawson County’s lakeside War Hill Park isn’t just a tradition for the U.S. Army’s Ranger Training Battalion as a whole. It’s something that many soldiers eagerly anticipate each year, too.
After completing at least one water jump into Lake Lanier Thursday, Staff Sgt. Alex Gardner joked that he’s done “much more than five” water jumps given the multiple years he’s taken part in the event.
“And I’m about to do it again,” Gardner said, gathering his supplies. “I just have to grab my other parachute.”
These soldiers’ excitement was as palpable as the crisp morning air, with many lining up for equipment checks while spectators set up along the shores of War Hill Park’s beach the morning of May 4.
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The water jump event is a part of the soldiers’ time at Ranger School. Training starts during the “Benning Phase” at Columbus’ Fort Benning. Qualifying soldiers then go on to the second “Mountain Phase” at the Dahlonega area’s Camp Frank D. Merrill, followed by the third “Swamp Phase” at Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base.
Once the event started, each of the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters took turns launching from War Hill Park’s boat ramp parking lot and pivoting away from the Dawson-area part of the lake before flying straight over the lake’s waters.
Soldiers leapt out of the helicopters from a height of 1,500 feet. Once they began descending, they relied on a combination of their parachutes, winds and directions from below to help guide their movements before landing.
Colorful flares, ranging from chalky white and a pollen-like yellow to a vivid violet, were used to direct the soldiers to move with the wind in mind.
Upon landing in the water, soldiers met the boats assigned to them and began the journey back to land.
In the past, military spectators, their friends and family members have watched the water jump, along with a range of residents from counties neighboring Lake Lanier.
Janeane Marshall, who’s lived in the Hall County area for about two years, was glad to catch a glimpse of the parachuting soldiers.
“It’s really cool,” Marshall said. “I could only see them from my house when I first came out. I couldn’t see them fall or [see] in between the trees…so I came over [to the park] after the first round.”
U.S. Army 46th Victor combat camera operators Sgt. 1st Class Austin Berner and Sgt. Eric Kestner relished the opportunity to take a refreshing jump in the lake and catch photos and videos of many other soldiers doing the same.
Thursday marked Kestner’s fifth water jump and Berner’s first such jump.
“I loved it. I mean, I'm afraid of heights, but it's exhilarating,” Berner said, noting the sky-high views of the area, from the lake to the mountains. “In Ranger School, you have to jump five times, so by the fifth jump, it got easier.”