TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It was a perfectly good airplane.
Nothing was mechanically wrong with it. And, yet, a young Robert Brackbill III – an 18-year-old from Carlisle, Pa., at the time – was determined to jump from it on what would be his first of 63 jumps.
A war movie buff, he had dreamed of doing this — jumping out of airplanes with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers, made famous in World War I.
The only problem … things didn’t go the way he planned in the friendly skies of jump school that day in 1996.
“There were seven jumpers at each of the aircraft doors,” Brackbill said. “I was fifth out of seven on one side. The green light comes on, and jumpers start going. In my mind, I was like ‘I’m going to hand my static line off and then just jump,’ so then I wouldn’t be scared of exiting the aircraft anymore because it’d be too late.”
Six jumpers jumped. When it came time for Brackbill to leap the 1,250 feet out of a plane traveling 150 mph, a red light came on.
“In my mind I was saying, ‘no, I want to go.’ So the aircraft was circling for another pass, and I would now be the first jumper on the second pass.
“I kept looking at the door thinking, ‘oh, this isn’t so bad.’ Then the realization came that ‘I’m about to jump out of an airplane. Oh Lord.’ Then I looked away, but the other door was open to so I couldn’t get away from seeing the ground from this plane.
“The jumpmaster told me to stand in the door. I stood in the door, and I had my chin in my chest because that’s the first thing you’re supposed to do when you exit. I’m standing there ready to go looking down, and he is screaming at me telling me to look at the horizon. I am going ‘no, no, I am not looking at the horizon.’ He is screaming at me. Then the green light came on, he tapped me, and I just went.”
After a 4-second rush of free falling and about 26 seconds of peaceful gliding with parachute deployed, Brackbill touched down in a clearing of trees on the Sweet Home Alabama side of Fryar Field Drop Zone at Fort Benning Military Reservation on the state line of Columbus, Ga., and Phenix City, Ala.
Now, 21 years later, the retired 39-year-old jumpmaster is back in Sweet Home Alabama. This time, he’s not jumping out of airplanes. Instead, he’s completing another first: crossing the stage at The University of Alabama’s Coleman Coliseum as a member of the 2017 graduating class.
Brackbill retired from the Army Oct. 31, 2015, as an E6 staff sergeant after 20 years of service and five overseas combat deployments – Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2002; Fallujah, Iraq in 2003; Camp Taji, Iraq in 2006; and two additional deployments in Afghanistan in 2011 and 2013.
It didn’t take him long to figure out his next move.
“I thought the No. 1 thing holding me back was a degree because I had a ton of experience leading people and guarding billions of dollars worth of equipment, but I didn’t have an education,” he said.
“I remember watching the 2015 national championship game, and I told my wife, ‘there’s only one place I want to go.’ My wife said, ‘Bo, ask them.’ I did. I didn’t apply anywhere else. UA accepted me, we packed up the truck and came here.”
Brackbill, who’s receiving his bachelor’s in operations management, said he couldn’t have made a better choice than UA. His wife of seven years, Meta, is originally from Alabama, so they had family in the state to help them with their son, Robert Brackbill IV, who is 5.
He said his academic adviser and professors were phenomenal.
“When I transferred in, I had a great adviser that told me to look at the operations management program since I did logistics in the military. When I researched it, I was like, ‘these are all the things I had knowledge in,’ so it made sense. And The University of Alabama’s operations management is like top four in the nation.
“In the military, we’re told that we don’t train for second place. We are the absolute best because there is no second place in war. You’re the winner or you’re non-existent. That’s the mindset that I approach things with, and I wanted to attach myself to a university and a program that was a winner.
“It has just been great. I, by far, had some of the best teachers. When I went to them when I couldn’t understand something they’d explain it to me like, ‘what did you do in the military?’ Then they explained it to me using my military experience, which was awesome. They also knew I was a grown man and respected that.”
Brackbill got involved with the Campus Veterans Association during his two years at the Capstone, serving as treasurer of the veteran support group.
He said he was pleasantly surprised at how students treated him.
“UA students want to know our stories as veterans. They want to understand and keep us involved. I got to see those kinds of relationships flourish since being here, and it makes me love UA even more.”
Brackbill said his next step, he hopes, is graduate school at UA.
“I bleed crimson, and that’s why I want to continue my education here.”