March 23, 2022
Kyle Wade, Editor in Chief
“It’s so weird, at the time, you’re just living your life and going where your passion takes you. I had no idea that I was breaking ground for women,” Teri Berryman said as she opened up a photo album.
Berryman and her dog, Cocoa. Kyle Wade
According to First Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (SEAC1) Joe Gainey, to his knowledge Berryman could have been one of the first women Jump Masters.
Berryman, whose father was a Korean War veteran, joined the United States Army in February of 1980 and spent her first three years as a Topographic Surveyor with the 82nd Engineer Company in Fort Belvoir located in Virginia from 1980-83.
Berryman described it as a “fabulous place to be”, she was near Washington D.C. so she had the opportunity to visit America’s capital. She had made some friends along the way too, she flipped the page in her photo album, “This is Renee,Vernell and Steve and Ukie, we were all like roommates in a pod.”
During Berryman’s time at Belvoir, her unit wasn’t actively mapmaking because there were no serious conflicts at the time. Berryman found herself mowing grass and picking up cigarette butts more often than fulfilling the job she had enlisted for. She recalls watching war movies with her cousins as a child and thinking, “oh my goodness, those are the most incredible human beings who can go do these things. I always imagined it would be such a challenging, world-changing experience and I’m out here mowing lawns.”
The opportunity presented itself to do more than base beautification, one day her unit announced an opportunity to volunteer as a lifeguard. Against the advice of her father, “do not ever volunteer for anything”, Berryman took the opportunity. She recalls pondering if there was a catch as she volunteered, “it’s gotta be better than mowing lawns, right?”As a child, she had taken swim lessons and was confident she could pass the two-week American Red Cross Lifeguard Certification Course, and she did.
During her time as a lifeguard, Berryman took the opportunity to focus on her physical fitness, “I was in such good shape.” She said that along with a swimming routine, she was also running and weight training at the gym in her freetime.
Lifeguard duty would present Berryman with her first encounter with the 82nd Airborne when they did a jump at Belvoir, “I was like ‘wow’, I mean they were strapped! Ya know? Cutting-edge, sharp, motivated- everyone of them had that fired up attitude, they were on fire. They were alive compared to the zombieville I was living in.”
Berryman had come across one of the Airborne soldiers and he invited her out to watch a jump. “I went out there and watched them jump and it just lit my soul on fire. I said, ‘wow that’s what I want to do.’” Berryman says that she will always recall this as a “life changing moment” and at this moment her motivation shifted to becoming a soldier of the 82nd Airborne Division located at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Through a friend of a friend, Berryman found an opportunity to visit Fort Bragg, “I said, ‘Hey, I’m going on post and I’m gonna talk to these guys.” Berryman found 82nd Airborne Headquarters and walked in with the intent of finding out how to become an Airborne soldier.
The answer she found, “Well, you can’t”, Berryman said.
“I said, ‘What do you mean, why can’t I?’” Berryman recalls asking the soldier, “he said, ‘Well, you’re a female.’”
She had done thorough research and read through all of the regulations and knew that this answer was incorrect. “So I told him that I wasn’t aware of any regulation prohibiting women,” Berryman said.
According to Berryman, that soldier quickly pointed out a regulation that had potential to end her dream as soon as it started. Since she was technically an engineer, if she was a soldier assigned to 82nd Airborne, her unit could experience combat. During this era in the Army, there were regulations prohibiting females from combat roles. According to the Army.mil, in 2016, these regulations were lifted.
Berryman was not going to let this put out the proverbial flame she said had ignited within her soul, “Well, I said, ‘I can change my MOS (military occupational specialty)’ and then I said,’Well, what do you need?’”
Nearing her reenlistment, Berryman decided to perform a lateral move (change her Army MOS) to Administrative Assistant. This move would be dependent on unit approval, requiring her to pass her new MOS school and achieve a passing score on the specialized Airborne Physical Fitness Test. The test includes a timed, two-mile run that follows two-minutes of maximum repetitions of push-ups, sit-ups and pullups. Failure to meet the Airborne’s expectations in each respective category could terminate Berryman’s chance of joining the 82nd.
Berryman would meet the Army Airborne standard on her fitness test and would be approved for her reenlistment and lateral move. “So I packed up my stuff and headed to Fort Ben Harrison, Indiana to train as an Executive Administrative Assistant,” Berryman said. She describes the school as challenging, noting that it had focuses on English, grammar, proofreading, stenography, protocols for formal events and was training to be “basically a General’s secretary.” Berryman would graduate at the top of her class.
”So I got through that and then I went to Benning for Airborne training,” Berryman flips to a page in her album, “I don't know if you’ve ever been to Benning? Well, you walk on post and you know that this is the place that makes or breaks some of the best and it was very intimidating.” She describes arriving at the Airborne Training Unit, Fort Benning, Georgia, where they had three “huge” barracks buildings and a mess hall across a field from three 250 foot towers. “They pull you up in a parachute and click and release as a part of your training. So you’re standing here looking at all this and there’s groups of troops everywhere, running, singing cadence and they’re running in their combat boots, we ran (physical training) in tennis shoes,” Berryman said.
Berryman describes this moment as being “a little bit overwhelming because I realized that at this moment I am on the precipice of a life changing experience.” At this point, she had earned the rank of Sergeant, an E-5 in the Army, and she says that this meant “ there was nowhere to hide, there’s no being shy, I’m very introverted and shy naturally. But this is it, ya know, get over it and get out there and get after it.” She would be one of ten females in her class and the only female Non-Commissioned Officer(NCO). At this point, she would no longer be referred to as Sergeant Berryman, instead she would be November 10 (N-10, ‘N’ referring to her status as an NCO and the ten signifying that she was the only female NCO in her class).
The Basic Airborne Course (BAC) was the next and final obstacle standing between Berryman and becoming a member of the 82nd. In BAC, there were three weeks of training: Ground Week, Tower Week and Jump Week. “Ground Week is all about pounding the ground, you run everywhere, you don’t walk at all; if you do, you get screamed at,” Berryman said. During this week she would learn how to execute a proper parachute landing fall, all while being monitored by her newly appointed Airborne instructors whom she refers to as “Black Hats”. “These guys were Vietnam-era, hardcore combat vets who didn’t play around,” Berryman said as she points out her instructors in a photo.
Berryman’s class, flanked by her instructors “Black Hats”, Teri Berryman
“We were like steel being forged in fire, they (the instructors) have to call out the weak, incapable, incompetent and the unmotivated from the herd, otherwise there will be major malfunctions down the line,” Berryman said. According to her, they took their duty seriously, critiquing every student’s actions, constantly observing and writing on their clipboards. Ground Week would be pertinent to the soldiers, ensuring that they could minimize physical harm when performing a parachute landing.
T-10 parachutes. Creative Commons
“Back then we had T-10 parachutes and you would hit the ground at around 35 miles per hour and this (proper parachute landing techniques) was necessary to prevent the breaking of bones,” Berryman said as she demonstrated the technique. She describes it as a way of springboarding herself using her legs as she guards her face with her arms to protect from any debris or tree limbs. The day-to-day in Ground Week consisted of a constant bombardment of a specific command: ‘prepare to land, land.’ Berryman said, “We would just hit the ground wherever we were and I tended towards my right side, we would just slam into the ground and try to flip over.” After a couple days of Ground Week she recalls it being “pretty rough.”
Ground Week was more than just practicing falls on the ground, Berryman’s class would graduate to ziplining from six-foot platforms where they would receive the ‘prepare to land. Land!’ command. “If they were not perfect, they (instructors) would say, ‘You’re a no-go, do it again Airborne’,” Berryman said.
The last two days of Ground Week was devoted to perfecting parachute landing falls and according to Berryman, she had to get three ‘go’s’ to move on to Tower Week otherwise she would be recycled into the next group and have to do Ground Week all over again.
“I remember the fourth day I was still a ‘no-go’ and I hurt so bad, I literally couldn’t hardly walk back to the barracks so I remember going to the little PX (Post-eXchange, military general store) that was a block away. I bought a tube of Bengay and a bag of ice and I rubbed the Bengay all over my right side that hurt so bad and I layed the ice in my bed and layed on it,” Berryman said, “I fell asleep on that bag of ice and I woke up the next day and I was feeling pretty rough. That’s when I stood on the precipice of being a personal failure or personal success and I had to decide, ‘how badly do I want this?’” This is where she made the decision that she was going to push herself until she succeeded or physically was unable to continue noting that she wouldn’t be able to look herself nor her father, family and friends in the eye and tell them that she had quit.
On the fifth and final day of Ground Week, Berryman found herself being the very last soldier on the platforms as a ‘no-go’, the ‘go’s’ for that day were released to rest and recuperate before Tower Week. She cycled through, over and over, just her and the Black Hats. “My body was naturally recoiling due to the pain, I had two ‘go’s’ and needed three to pass, I can’t remember how many times I would hear ‘no-go’ and run back to the platform until finally they said ‘you’re a go, get out of here, and if you get hurt don’t come back to me. You’re gonna bust your ass out there on the dropzone and you’re gonna cost the Army a lot of money but if that’s what you want go on!’” She was a go.
“After the first week, I got a lucky break, they called for volunteers again,” Berryman said, “they wanted an Airborne chorus that would perform for the original Test Platoon.” She recalls thinking of her father’s advice against volunteering, “but this sounded like a cool opportunity.”
Berryman would pass the screening and be accepted into the chorus group. During physical training sessions and lunch breaks her and the group of volunteers would work on developing their performance routine. “Everyone else was out there running and we were singing, so it was a pretty good volunteer gig,” she said.
After a weekend of recovery, Berryman was now moving forward to Tower Week, “The tower is 34 feet and you go up these stairs, they zig-zag up, and every other level you’re getting that sense of uneasiness, that spinning head thing that comes with ya know, your depth perception, feeling like you’re gonna fall and looking down like ‘don’t look, just don’t look.” She remembers being thankful for her classmates around her, she would look at them and think, ‘If they can do it, so can I.’
During Tower Week, Berryman explains, the soldiers were learning everything about in-flight procedures such as proper door position, Airborne shuffle and proper handling of a static line (a fixed line connected to the aircraft used to open parachutes automatically for paratroopers). “If you don’t do it correctly, you could really get yourself hurt, you could become entangled in your static line, hit the side of the aircraft, I mean a lot could go wrong,” she said.
From the tower, Berryman and her classmates would practice jumping from an aircraft using proper Airborne techniques. “It was easier physically, but more difficult mentally than Ground Week,” she said pointing out that 35 feet is the maximum height at which one still has an association with the ground and the distance from the ground, “once you get beyond that, you lose that perspective and that relationship between you and the ground so you don’t have as great a fear of falling, but at 35 feet your fear of falling is at its greatest or most intense. So again, it’s a make you or break you kind of thing, they do it deliberately to try and weed out those who mentally cannot manage their own fear in these situations.”
The clipboards were out once again, the Black Hats were observing every move, every emotion that their students were exerting on and off the tower. “I found that when I focused on the procedures, the process and the choreography of the whole thing that my fear was at its lowest. ‘Don’t focus on looking at the ground, don’t let your brain focus on this “fear talk” and that got me through Tower Week, I have a terrible fear of heights,” she said. She also points out that her class dropped quite a few soldiers to the tower, “I feel for them and seeing someone not be able to do it makes you think, ‘can I do it? Maybe I can’t, I don’t know, I don’t think I can, I’m pretty sure I can’t, oh God, this is scary, don’t look down’. I mean, you get all this crazy talk in your own head and you have to learn how to manage your own thought processes otherwise these scary thoughts turn into a freight train of emotion because everything’s scary up there.”
Berryman’s Tower Week was a success and it was onward to Jump Week, she recalls the excitement of walking onto the airfield and hearing the roar of the plane engines, seeing the rear hatches opened up awaiting the soldiers of her class. The Black Hats would then organize her class into two sticks with her being one of the last in line, this excited her as she would get to watch others jump before her until she realized that the last ones in were the first to jump. “We were the closest to the door, the tailgate goes up and the plane starts rolling down the tarmac (runway) and I was like, ‘eh, I don’t feel so good’, and I could’ve done that, I could have quit.” Anyone who freezes at the door is held aside and sent home upon landing.
“The person you’re fighting is yourself,” Berryman says, “and the fear is intensified, when you look out the window and I tried not to look but you’re 2,000 feet in the air.” She says that she went back into the mindset of not focusing so much on the fear and more on the procedures and techniques that would lead to a successful jump.
At 2,000 feet, Berryman said there’s a choreographed in-flight procedure, “The jumpmaster says, ‘outboard personnel, stand up. Inboard personnel, stand up. Each side is now stood up and the next command is, ‘hook up’. So you take your little static line and you hook it to the cable in a specific way and you stand a specific way… then when you’re all hooked up, lined up and shuffle to the door, then, they open the doors.”
“That’s when it really hits you, the door is open and we’re goin’ out there,” Berryman said, “when they opened the door I got intensely terrified, not just terrified but intensely terrified. I think I was the third to go and thank God, because I don’t know if I would’ve done it had I been first.” She recalls focusing her energy on thinking good thoughts for the first jumper and then in her mind she thought up a prayer, “I had decided that this was my leap of faith. I thought, ‘Okay, this is where I walk in faith and so I’m jumping into the Lord’s hands, my fate is literally in God’s hands and I’ll do everything like I was trained, whether I live or die is up to the Lord.” This prayer empowered her as she approached the edge of the aircraft’s door.
Photo of one of Berryman’s jumps Teri Berryman
Berryman stepped into the door and jumped, “All of a sudden, it’s silent, and you’re out there in tremendous turbulence. The speed of the aircraft literally takes you sideways and the opening of your parachute jerks you and then swings you like a pendulum. Then all of the sudden it’s so quiet and it’s so still and you have most spectacular views, I mean, I could see the curvature of the Earth on the horizon. I just looked all around me and was like, ‘I did it! I did it!’”
Berryman’s elation was interrupted by the sound of a Black Hat’s voice via bullhorn, ‘feet and knees together Airborne, feet and knees together!’ She had seen the smoke from the drop zone as she approached, they pop smoke on the drop zones so that the soldiers can tell the wind direction. Berryman turned into the wind while pulling her risers to reduce her speed and was prepared to land. “Man that was fast, that was too fast,” Berryman said, “and boy let me tell ya, in those days, when you hit the ground, phew man, it’ll knock the wind outta ya.” She equates it to a one-story jump without a parachute. She had a successful landing and went through her procedures and ran back to the drop zone assembly area, “I was like ‘wow!’, that was the most incredible experience of my life, honestly, I loved it.”
After her first successful jump, four more would follow. Berryman would continue to have successful jumps although she does recount one flaw that no Black Hat had noticed; On one of her lands, she hit her head very hard. “I hit my head so hard that I saw the little Tweety birds goin’ around, stars goin’ in circles and something started gushing out of my nose, I thought, ‘oh crap, is that blood?’ Well it wasn’t, so I was like, ‘oh thank God’ because they would know if they saw blood and I didn’t want them to see that I had screwed up,” she said, “but I was a go, so I flew under the radar with that one.”
Upon graduating BAC at Fort Benning, Berryman would join the soldiers of the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, her dream had become reality. “One of the first things that was said to me by a fellow NCO was that they weren’t too happy to see me. Nobody cheered, no one was proud of me, it was more like, ‘what are you doing here?’So, I learned to say, ‘I just graduated Airborne School and I’m here to work as a 71C ( Executive Administrative Assistant).’” She was sent to a replacement detachment because the Army’s 82nd Airborne, unbeknownst to Berryman, didn’t have a spot open for her newly appointed MOS.
After a week in the replacement detachment, Berryman was notified that there was a spot for her in the G-1 conducting administrative duties. “I was good with that, I was in the 82nd! I would’ve swept floors, I didn't care,” she said. Once she checked in to the G-1 and began working, one of the soldiers noticed that she was an NCO and advised her that NCO’s should be Jumpmasters. This would require twelve more jumps and a successful tour through Jumpmaster training back on location at Fort Bragg. On average, the G-1 soldiers were making jumps once every three months, this troubled Berryman because it would ultimately extend her path to becoming an Airborne Jumpmaster.
“I thought, ‘that’s not going to work’ but I worked for the coolest guy in the G-1, Sergeant Major DeJesus and he really kinda mentored me and opened some doors that I don’t think would’ve opened otherwise. He told me to call around and find anyone who has an empty slot, they will let you jump because they don’t want to waste that opening,” Berryman said. Anytime she could find availability, DeJesus would allow her to jump. After three months, she had completed eleven jumps and was notified of an upcoming Jumpmaster Course but she needed one final jump to be in contention for a spot.
This is where Berryman’s choir connections would come into play. The 82nd Airborne Chorus was flying out for a performance and on their arrival in Fort Bragg, they were going to jump back in. She found a cheap flight to arrive where the chorus would perform, checked out a parachute from the 82nd Airborne and flew commercial taking only her parachute and equipment in hopes of flying back and jumping with the chorus the very next day. The jump would be canceled due to high winds. Although this put a kink in her plans to proceed to Jumpmaster Course, according to Berryman, it would inevitably give her more time to prepare and be more efficient for the next course.
Berryman took the notion of becoming a Jumpmaster very serious, realizing the importance of the billet, “you’re it, you’re taking a group of 120 jumpers, you’re issuing them all of their equipment, you’re inspecting all of their equipment head-to-toe, you’re going through all of their pre-flight operations with them, loading them on the aircraft according to manifest order, coordinating with the Air Force and when that plane takes off you’re responsible for everything that happens to everyone and everything.” Jumpmaster Course, at the time, had about a 50% attrition rate so she had devoted every moment not working to preparation and studying.
“I finally got to Army Jumpmaster School, passed all my check-off’s and passed the first time and I loved it! It was just my passion, like the nomenclatures, you would think it was a new Chanel purse for me or something. I’m memorizing every piece of stitching, every piece of fabric, it just really clicked with me as my thing. I felt like I had finally had a purpose in the military, I had a mission, I was making a contribution and it was something tangible,” Berryman said.
Upon graduation, the new Jumpmaster, Sergeant Berryman would continue to jump at every opportunity she had, she would take on the billet of Jumpmaster whenever available. Although she had proven herself as a Jumpmaster and a motivated NCO, she would still be a part of the less than one percent of the 82nd that were female. “The norm was there were no females. I didn’t cross paths with any females on my day-to-day functions and there were men who found my presence disturbing,” Berryman said, “and there were occasions, sometimes monthly, sometimes every couple of months, who would say, ‘What are you doing here?’ and I would, ya know, usually try to make a joke of it, ‘Just doin’ my job,’ and they would say, ‘Look, women don’t belong in the division (82nd Airborne), it’s a combat unit, you don’t belong here, you’re not capable’. They really would really go into attack mode and I didn’t have much to say to them, to me, I was following my passion, my path in life and I realized that I was the square peg in the round hole, that I was changing things, that I was a part of change and I was unusual. That was noticeable to them and offensive to them but my philosophy of change has always been to build a bridge, to demonstrate ability, competence to build trust and to me, when you do that, you create positive change. You build a pathway to an improved landscape, where people accept you as one of them.”
Berryman would inevitably have some of the very men that doubted her belonging as jumpers when she assumed the role of Jumpmaster. “I was going to make sure that they were safe and that things were done right, I took it seriously and I took it to heart. I had seen some pretty careless and incompetent Jumpmasters who didn’t take it as seriously as I did, so I think the fact that I was an outlier made me try harder but I was always on my A game, giving 100 percent. I hope that I had won a few of them over along the way, ya know there’s a lot more women now in the division. Things have changed quite a bit after that,” she said.
In her three years at 82nd Airborne Division, Berryman would accumulate over 100 jumps, she wasn’t only gaining experience but also a tight-knit community of mentors of friends who had helped her along the way.
Berryman would not reenlist in 1986 as she had started a family, her son was only two months old at the time and she came to the realization that she couldn’t leave her son in the case that a rapid deployment event were to happen. “When I looked at that little guy, my son, I realized that I couldn’t drop him off to daycare and call somebody else to come take care of him for the next few months and possibly not come home,” Berryman said.
The 82nd Airborne hosts a reunion event annually, All American Week, which is a week of events including a firepower demonstration, a Division Review and a jump. “I went a couple of years ago and everywhere I would go, I would notice that there would be a female in the crowd and I’m like, ‘yes!’ It was good to see that there are more opportunities there for women,” she said.
”It still feels like home when I go back there, it’s like a family, like a brotherhood and they really, to me, are exceptional humans. Everyone of those folks volunteered, not only to join the Army but volunteered to be Airborne and overcame all those same barriers that I did to get through Airborne School and it’s not easy for anyone to get there,” Berryman said.
Although Berryman’s intent originally was to retire from the Army she has no regrets, “My kids really are my greatest joy in my life.” She would go to school, originally in pursuit of a law degree, and earn her bachelor’s degree in english with a minor in sociology along with an associate’s to become a registered nurse.
She currently works at the Veterans Affairs Hospital and has been there nearly 15 years, “ It has really been that career path I have been looking for, there’s alway opportunities for advancement, growth and new challenges. It means so much to me to be serving veterans.”