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Down and Dirty: The Life of an Airborne Ranger

By Spc. Micah E. Clare, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

BANBAR COMMAND POST, Afghanistan, Oct. 23, 2007 – Army Sgt. Jim McKinzie has always made a living out of getting dirty.  Judging from his smiling face and his combat uniform -- soiled and stained with dirt, oil and gasoline -- it looks like he’s not planning to change that any time soon.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Army Sgt. Jim McKinzie, a mechanic, squad leader and truck commander in Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 782nd Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, helps secure a drop zone that will soon receive an air supply drop in Afghanistan’s Paktika province, Oct. 10, 2007. Photo by Spc. Micah E. Clare, USA
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

McKinzie, a 35-year-old generator mechanic, squad leader and truck commander in Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 782nd Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, is known for being one of the hardest-working noncommissioned officers in his unit, as well as the only Ranger-qualified NCO in the battalion.

“He’s a down and dirty guy,” said Spc. Evan Grabenstein, a communications operator from Houston. “He’s always the last one to be working.”

McKinzie said he doesn’t find his work in the Army to be nearly as hard as the staggering number of civilian jobs he has worked.

“I’ve done air conditioner and heater repair, carpentry, auto mechanics, iron-working, filling fuel tanks and construction, to name a few,” McKinzie said as he hooked up chains from a crane to emplace a trailer-sized refrigerator at an isolated outpost in Afghanistan’s Paktika Province.

Even though he loves his work and may not show any signs of slowing down, he admitted there are some days when he can feel the strain.

“I’ve done a lot of manual-labor jobs,” said the Fort Worth, Texas, native. “But at my age, it’s starting to wear on me a little. I try taking a supervisory role more often.” His soldiers would disagree with him on that note, though.

“He’s still the first one to volunteer for work,” exclaimed Spc. Cara Allen, a driver in the 782nd BSB from Trenton, N.J. “Then he’ll make you do it with him!”

“I couldn’t ask for a better squad leader,” said Army Staff Sgt. Gerald Mickelson, McKinzie’s platoon sergeant. Mickelson chuckled as he watched McKinzie still working on a truck after dark, when everyone else had gone to dinner.

“He’s not afraid of getting as dirty as possible to get the job done,” said Mickelson, who’s from Monroe, Ga.

McKinzie attributes his attitude about work to a strong desire to put his whole heart into a job.

“It’s not about pleasing anyone; it’s about making it happen, regardless of what kind of job it is,” he said in his Texas accent. “Therefore, get in there, get in dirty, and knock it out. The sooner you get it done, the sooner you can get back to chilling out and relaxing.”

Even though McKinzie has never minded the sweat, dust, dirt or grease required to complete a mission, he loves to get cleaned up at the end of one.

“I’m no prima donna,” he said. “I don’t need a shower every night, but there is nothing better than having one at the end of a long, dirty mission.”

There was a time though, when McKinzie’s whole life was less than cleaned up. McKinzie, his wife, Angela, and daughter, Brianna, were living in the projects and were very poor, he explained. However, just like in his work, all McKinzie needed was a good cleaning up to get back up on his feet and start over.

“God really delivered me and cleaned me up from the inside out,” he said excitedly. After a few years of straightening up, he decided to volunteer for the military. While he was in the recruiter’s office, something really caught his eye.

“I saw this poster showing the “double A’s” (the 82nd Airborne Division patch) with the Airborne and Ranger tab above it. I thought that had to be pretty high-speed,” McKinzie said.

Shortly after, he graduated from basic training and went to his advanced individual training to become a generator mechanic. There he was given an opportunity to fulfill his dream of earning Airborne wings.

“I always wanted to go, even though I figured I would barely make it through,” he said. “Even in basic (training), I prayed that God would give me a love for running just so I could pass the (physical fitness) test.” He did pass Airborne Basic Course and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division.

Once at his unit, it wasn’t long before another exciting challenge presented itself, when his battalion commander told him that Ranger school had opened to all military occupational specialties. “Go get your tab and we’ll make you an NCO,” he recalled his commander telling him.

“Even though I was an old man, I knew I was going to jump on that,” McKinzie said, laughing.

Despite a lot of discouragement, McKinzie said he knew nothing was going to stand in his way of that tab. Preparing mentally and physically for success, he trained hard for six months before going to Ranger school, even when there wasn’t an established training program for him, he said.

Just as he had been used to his whole life, Ranger school was no walk in the park.

“You get dirty, all the time,” he said. “We got messed up there. It took a lot of self-discipline.” Not until he finally graduated did he learn why he had been sent there in the first place.

“You don’t go to Ranger school to become a leader,” he said. “You go because you are a leader. You accept the challenge and make it happen. You have to get it without having your hand held.”

Now, more than a year after graduating, McKinzie employs his leadership skills as a squad leader and truck commander in the 782nd BSB’s “Market Garden” Combat Logistics Patrol, running supplies to far-reaching outposts in southeastern Afghanistan.

He enjoys his work, and most of all is glad for the support he gets from his wife and daughter while he does what he loves best: getting dirty.

“I do spend most of my time getting dirty,” McKinzie said. “But I’m very blessed to be where I’m at.”

With an Army combat uniform as badly ruined as his, stained again from a recent hydraulics fluid eruption, most people would probably be complaining. But for a man who has made a living out of getting dirty, McKinzie just jokes, “That’s one more set of ACUs I’m down. The Army better be supplying me with more.”

(Army Spc. Micah E. Clare is assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs Office.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Sgt. Jim McKinzie, a mechanic, squad leader and truck commander in Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 782nd Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, pulls security when his convoy comes to a halt in Afghanistan’s Paktika province, Oct. 10, 2007. Photo by Spc. Micah E. Clare, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAfter a hard day's work, Army Sgt. Jim McKinzie, a mechanic, squad leader and truck commander in Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 782nd Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, finally gets to fall asleep while at the Bandar Command Post in Afghanistan’s Paktika province, Oct. 10, 2007. Photo by Spc. Micah E. Clare, USA  
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