In April 1988, Edward “Pacer” Reina, III joined the U.S. Army a month before he graduated from high school. Reina decided to join the military because he wanted to venture off the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.
“I had the means to go to college, but at that time I saw some of my friends leaving and had a good friend leave to Florida,” said Reina. “He was my best friend in high school. He invited me to come out to Florida and work with him and his father before I had to leave for the Army, so I did.”
When Reina signed up for the military, he told only his father, who was all for the experience, and his uncle, who talked about all the benefits that would come from joining the military, such as travel and college funding.
Reina was certain about what expertise he wanted to gain from the Army that would be beneficial to his future when he returned to Salt River: he wanted to be a heavy equipment operator, a job that was on the rise in Salt River during that time. Reina went into an Army recruiting office with the intention of doing just that, but he came out signed up for Infantry Airborne with an option to become a Ranger.
“On August 9, 1988, I reported to the military,” said Reina. “I ended up in Atlanta, Georgia, and went to basic [training] at Fort Benning at this place called Harmony Church. I think we were one of the last groups to go through this old World War II–style military barracks before they tore it down.”
When Reina was young, he read a lot about military history and always wondered what type of mental toughness it took to go through Airborne training and to actually jump out of an airplane.
“Basic training was fun, but the jump school was really exciting for me because I had always read stories about the Airborne and paratroopers as a boy,” explained Reina. “Their accomplishments in battle and mental toughness always appealed to me. I also wondered what goes through your head when you do that. And [when you have] to do it in combat, there is that possibility that you’re being shot at, with shells flying around you and explosions.”
When he got to Airborne school, Reina found out it wasn’t like the books he had read or those black-and-white World War II movies that always glorified war. “The training was a lot tougher than I thought it was going to be,” he remembered. “The runs were short, but they were real intense—we ran over ditches, through canals and up hills. We did push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups for two hours with no breaks. I quickly learned that mental toughness.”
During Reina’s third week of training, he was able to come home for Thanksgiving break. When he returned to Salt River, no one recognized him because he had lost nearly 60 pounds. His brother and sister didn’t even recognize him; he knocked on the door, his brother answered it and said, “Can I help you?” and it took a few seconds to recognize him.
After Thanksgiving, Reina returned to training and went straight into four days of continuous airplane jumps.
“I will never forget the first day of jumps. I was so nervous just thinking about everything that was going to happen,” he said. “We had to go through a whole process for putting our parachutes on and getting them checked; then we had to follow step-by-step instructions to jump off the plane. Then there were more instructions once you jumped off the plane.” That first morning he remembered the parachute harness was very tight. “It was like [I was] being compressed, it was very uncomfortable.”
The students went up in the plane in groups of 10. Reina was the very last to jump out of all the jumpers in the first round.
“We were all excited ’til the time came when they told us to stand up. I thought to myself, ‘Am I going to do this? Why am I even getting ready to jump out of this airplane? What am I doing here?’” But he answered his own questions. “I thought, ‘You’re doing this because you signed up for the signing bonus, you dimwit.’ There had already been three others who didn’t jump, and they were sitting there. I looked at them and thought, ‘OK, just don’t be them, still sitting on that plane.
“I was ready to go, standing there at the door, telling myself, ‘If you think about it, you’re not going to jump,’ so the mental toughness kicked in and I had the ability to block out all the what-ifs,” explained Reina.
Reina handed his static line to the Black Hat (the jump instructor), who gave him a pound on the chest and turned him toward the door. He stepped out into the air swirling and roaring all around him, and jumped.
“I kept my eyes open and I just see the tips of my boots, then I see blue, then I see green for about four seconds but it feels like a very long time; and finally that parachute opens up,” Reina said. “You make sure that it opens, otherwise you have maybe two or three seconds before you hit the ground. The chute opens up and you check and make sure it’s OK. There are so many things you have to look out for, and it all went back to the training and having the mental ability to take care of what you need to in the air. Thankfully I never had any problems in the air.
When that chute opens up and I’m floating down, it’s the most peaceful thing in the world. Flight has always fascinated me, and having that ability is like you’re walking on clouds. I was amazed how small everything looked, and as I got closer to the ground they got bigger. It’s really interesting to see.”
Reina approached the ground and did what is called a parachute landing fall. He reminisced about lying there on the ground after his first landing, watching the planes fly over and other students jumping out, and thinking to himself, “Hey, I made it!”
Desert Shield and Desert Storm
Reina served with the Charlie Company, Second Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division. Upon arrival to the C co. 2/505, Reina and other new arrivals were told they were leaving for the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt for a Multinational Forces and Observers , a peacekeeping operation.
“It isn’t really well known, but it was designed to watch the Israeli-Egyptian border,” said Reina. “We were sent there and they were just coming out of a war, so it was really a barren area. The side we were on was once a tourist spot; today it is back to that state once again, but when we were there they were just rebuilding.”
Reina and his unit did a six-month tour there watching the border; they watched for planes, ships, troop movements and things of that nature.
“One time I was in the tower looking over the Red Sea (or Gulf of Aqaba) and I could see Saudi Arabia. I thought to myself, ‘I wonder what it’s like there,’” Reina recalled. “I wondered how they lived and if they were like the United States.” Reina would soon find out.
Once they got back from Egypt, they went right into training mode and prepared themselves to be placed on the readiness unit status for the 82nd Ariborne Division. They went through training, and about two weeks before they were to assume the readiness unit mission, Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990.
While training in Arkansas Reinas’ unit was told to immediately return back to Ft. Bragg and prepare for deployment and to assist the current “readiness unit” deploy. One week later reina’s unit was on it’s way to Saudi Arabia. Upon arrival “We started supporting the men that were there and we started training and rotating back and forth on those lines,” said Reina. Just before the ground war started we received and assumed quick reaction force status for the embassies in Baghdad, which meant if the Marines weren’t able to hold the embassies, then we were going to be called in. So we sat on the helicopter pad for about three weeks.”
His unit then went to secure the bridges to stop the retreating Iraqi forces. “We were called the ‘Hail Mary Pass’ because we were a light unit; “You hear a lot about the 101st Airborne, they have the capability to travel and come out of the helicopters (Air Assault). They had more of a speed capability than we did. We came up behind them with the French, a light armor unit, which was good because we didn’t have any armor capabilities and we knew that the area where we were going, was a heavily fortified area. We knew that there were going to be a lot of bunkers and defensive structures, and sure enough there were. On the third day we finally saw these defensive positions the Iraqis had built.
“We realized very quickly how much we really loved the U.S. Air Force, because after we got there we saw a lot of the area bombed out,” Reina continued. “There were a lot of things there that I won’t ever forget. I told my family one -day that I have seen what man is capable of doing to another man, and it’s not a friendly thing especially when it comes to war. I told them it’s not something you ever want to see, imagine, or think about, and it’s certainly something you would like to see happen to your own people.”
As Reina and his unit pushed through there for about five miles of defensive structures, they took some prisoners, had shots fired at them and reacted accordingly to how they were trained. They accomplished their mission and started the process of cleaning up, which Reina said was fun, although they had to be on their toes and be aware of booby traps.
“Me and my assistant gunner went down this small trench; we were walking and I stopped because I saw a small glint and it was a trip wire. We snipped it and continued down into this bunker,” said Reina. “It was a large room and it looked like someone’s dorm room because they had a TV stand, a radio, a hot plate and other things. We continued to check the area for three or four days until we were told to stand down and continue clean-up.”
A Beautiful Scene
Reina remembers one night-training mission his group went on. There was a full moon that night, they started at around 10 p.m., and they were sitting at the bottom of a sand dune. Once they got on top, they knew it was just going to be sand. “It was going to be a slow training mission. I was just sitting there and waiting and we finally got up to go. At that time I was a machine gunner, so I had an assistant gunner and ammo bearer following behind me. I got to the top of the dune and I helped the two men up, and as I helped the last guy I turned around to get information. I looked up, and the scenery was this light powdery blue and it was rolling, and [with the sand dunes] it felt like we were walking on clouds. I thought to myself, ‘If I could walk on another planet, that is what it would look like.’ It was real interesting. I remember it vividly till this day.”
Fourth of July
Reina’s good friend and fellow soldier from New York City always talked about the Fourth of July; for them, the Fourth of July was watching the scud missile attacks in Baghdad. “We were sitting there drinking tea, watching these things explode into the sky. We were far enough out so there was no danger to us,” he said. Another time they went into the town on an Air Force base and again they heard the sirens and wandered outside to watch the missiles. They didn’t notice that everyone in the Air Force unit was running to take shelter, and they were looking at Reina and his friends just standing there and enjoying the show.
“Those Air Force guys thought we were crazy,” Reina said.
Military Training Helped During Hard Times
Reina returned home in 1992 after being honorably discharged from the Army. “Now I think about everything, life in general, I find that there are still peaks and valleys and everyone has their highs and lows. But that mental toughness I developed at Airborne school and later on with the 82nd Airborne Division and going into a combat zone helped me overcome the challenges,” explained Reina.
“Once we got back to the United States, I got into a car accident and I broke my ankle, so I was unable to jump out of planes. That was a painful time,” explained Reina. “When I found out I couldn’t jump anymore, it was the worst feeling in the world.
“But a friend told me once when I was having a hard time, ‘We’re 82nd Airborne, we always keep our weapons, we load up and holster them and bring them out when we need to; don’t ever think that things are tough. Remember all the training that we went through and the war, remember all that because that’s what’s going to get you through this hard point in life.’”
Reina prides himself on being mentally tough and able to overcome life’s challenges, including a recent divorce. He has used it to make positive changes in his life and for his children, all of them for the better.
“I am really glad I made the decision to go into the military, because what I have learned there has kept me strong through the tough times,” said Reina. “I keep in touch with friends from the military. My real good friend who lives in New York City went through some tough times as well. He told me that he was also able to function and get through his hard times because of the ability to be strong mentally. It makes all the difference.”