Our youth, our future: soldiers celebrate graduation

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KINGWOOD, W.Va. (WDTV) - Young men and women of the Army National Guard came from nine different states to attend the first ever Air Assault School at Camp Dawson in Kingwood.

A soldier prepares to go through an obstacle course during air assault training.

"We teach them combat assault and sling load operations, which is the helicopter's external method of carrying cargo. We also teach them how to rappel from the helicopter," Sergeant James Bates.

The training consists of three phases: combat assault, sling loading, and rappelling. The day of graduation, the cadets have to endure a 12 mile rucksack march before they can receive their wings.

While air assault is useful and necessary in combat situations, it's a crucial skill set in case of natural disasters like last years flooding in West Virginia, or the recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida.

"Our duty here at home in the state of West Virginia is, whenever we do have a natural disaster, I'm prepared and trained to get supplies and food out to those remote areas we can't reach on the ground," said 22-year-old Corporal Zachary Winters, who joined the Guard when he was 17.

To say that the two-week training course is intense would be an understatement.

"Air assault school has a reputation for being the 10 hardest days in the army," Bates said.

"It was both mentally and physically demanding," said Lt. Abby Wilson, who was one of only two female soldiers to complete the course at Camp Dawson.

"Air assault school is probably the most mentally and physically challenging training that I have participated in," said Winters.

198 soldiers started the course but by graduation, only 126 remained.

"It's the top ten percent that even get a chance to come here and those that graduate are the top of those. It's always a pleasure just working with the best soldiers in the National Guard," said Staff Sergeant Gerald Peck, an instructor from Fort Benning in Georgia.

Despite the tough training, the soldiers say they're grateful for the opportunity to learn skills that will help them serve others.

"To have the opportunity to come to Camp Dawson and get to do this is a morale booster," Abby said.

Winters added, "It felt awesome. Since I was a kid, growing up all I ever wanted to be was a soldier, wear the uniform, and help people."