HARTFORD, Conn. – Just minutes before the starting lineups were introduced during the University of Connecticut Men’s Basketball game against the University of Cincinnati, Feb. 24, four ropes dropped from the ceiling rafters of the XL Center.
When fans in the crowd looked up, they saw four rappel-trained Guardsmen of the 1-102nd Infantry Regiment, locked in the traditional, “L” position that signifies the beginning of a descent.
Fans were quick to grab phones to record the occasion. After just a few moments, the four completed the nearly 90-foot drop, where safeties waiting on the court helped unhook them to raucous applause.
One Guardsman, Spc. Benjamin Wilke, the Regiment’s reigning Soldier of the Year, walked to center court after pulling the game ball out of his ruck sack and delivered it to the on-court announcer. Again, the cheers nearly drained out the public address system.
The game ball delivery was on the heels of the unit’s first performance during UConn Men’s Hockey game against Boston University, Feb. 15.
Prior to the basketball game, the entire team gathered on the catwalk high above the court to check ropes and knots while going over the safety protocols you’d expect to hear time and time again before undertaking a mission like this.
“To qualify as a mountaineer is no small feat. It takes a lot of study, hard work and constant practice to be proficient enough to partake in this event,” said Sgt. 1st Class Chris Vincent, Rappel Master and Assistant Operations NCO for the 1-102nd Infantry Regiment. When it comes to rappelling, he is one of the Connecticut National Guard’s most experienced. “Everyone involved should be extremely proud of being a part of putting on such a professional, and safe, display.”
Although a Connecticut National Guard unit, the 1-102nd Infantry Regiment falls under the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, headquartered in Vermont. Other subordinate units falling underneath the 86th include units hailing from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Colorado and Vermont itself.
As a unit trained in mountain warfare, the 1-102nd and its higher headquarters specialize in rappel operations, with many of its Guardsmen graduating from the highly-challenging Army Mountain Warfare School, located in Jericho, Vermont.
Earning the “Ram’s Head” tab signifying graduation from Army Mountain Warfare School is not a walk in the park, according to Vincent. Especially for those who go in the winter.
“Jericho can be very unforgiving if you go during the colder months,” Vincent said. “You need to be on top of your game physically and mentally, and you need to know your knots backwards and forwards.”
The pre-game isn’t just an opportunity to inform the public about the Connecticut National Guard – it is a legitimate training exercise. Vincent said it doesn’t get more realistic than hooking into rope and seeing nearly 90 feet between you and the ground.
“There’s most definitely a training value there. Just because you aren’t conducting the operation on the side of the mountain, or under fire, doesn’t mean you can’t use the opportunity to better your Soldiers,” Vincent said. “Staring down at that court from the top of the XL Center, that’s as real as it gets.”
The 1-102nd hopes to conduct more events to help raise awareness of what Connecticut Guardsmen are capable of.