On June 24, Highland resident and Vietnam War veteran Dave Simpkins was awarded an honorary Air Assault Badge during a special presentation at Fort Campbell, Ky., home of the 101st Airborne Division.
The Air Assault Badge is an award given to soldiers who complete the U.S. Army Air Assault School, also at Fort Campbell. The school trains soldiers, primarily those assigned to the 101st, in survival and assault skills relating to sling loading and rope rappelling from helicopters as well as cliffs and buildings.
The intensive training has been called the “toughest 10 days in the Army” and is reported to have a 55 percent failure rate, according to a CNN report of 2001.
Recently, the Army began presenting the Air Assault Badge to qualified soldiers who did not participate in formal training but whose service demonstrated the qualifying air assault skills in combat. In Simpkins’ case, his airborne assaults predated the military’s creation of formal air assault training program and the establishment of an air assault school. (Major Gen. Sidney B. Berry established the air assault school in 1974.)
Simpkins served with the 101st, also know as the Screaming Eagles, in 1968-69 and participated in airborne assault activities during combat operations in Vietnam. At that time, rather than learn the air assault skills in training, soldiers were developing their own methods for jumping and rappelling from helicopters during battle or when facing a crash.
Some didn't realize it but they were pioneering a new specialized set of skills and tactics that would later become a trademark of many of the nation’s elite military and rescue units.
When speaking of the air assault activities, Simpkins said he and the other soldiers were just doing what they needed to do to stay alive.
“In the heat of battle we were just doing something under fire to get into battle or save our lives. We didn’t realize we were creating something; it was just something we felt would benefit our lives,” Simpkins said.
“If a helicopter lands it's a sitting duck. So, we started working with the pilots and told them to keep moving and we’d jump out,” Simpkins elaborated.
As a Screaming Eagle, Simpkins completed his advanced training at Fort Campbell before departing for Vietnam. He has also made periodic visits to the base and its memorials to remember and honor the men he served with who died in Vietnam. Simpkins especially remembers his high school classmate Carl Horner who served with Simpkins in his unit. (Horner is also honored on Highland's Daniel D. Yarnell Community Memorial, which lists 11 Highland residents who died serving in the Vietnam War.)
“It’s never easy going back, but this time it was a pleasant experience,” Simpkins said of returning to his unit’s home base for the award ceremony.
At Fort Campbell, an active duty soldier presented the award, a uniform pin, to Simpkins, pinning it on his lapel. About 200 veterans received the award at that ceremony, according to Simpkins.
“A general stood up and said, ‘Welcome home,’” Simpkins said. “That’s something we didn't hear 50 years ago when we first came back.”