Round Canopy Parachuting Team

There are only a handful of times in my life when I have been struck utterly speechless.  Being invited by Unilever and the Round Canopy Parachuting Team to Normandy, France for the 70th anniversary of D-day was one of them.  I was incredibly honored not only to have this once in a lifetime opportunity, but also to be the sole representative of the Unilever Military Team.  Giving back is at the core of what Unilever stands for, so I was thrilled to be able to see firsthand how our sponsorship supported the RCPT.   
As I stepped off the train in Carentan, France I had to move quickly to avoid being trampled by a camera crew.  I looked around (from a safe distance) to see what the cause of the fuss was.  It turned out that a WWII vet had been on my train, and the media was excited to greet him.  “Is that her?  That might be her” I heard from two strangers headed my way.  I was relieved to hear a language I understood, and even more so when my RCPT got close enough that I could recognize his voice.  My group was here and the adventure had officially started! 
My first stop was at ‘the camp’, a tent city set up for the 328 RCPT members that would be participating in the jumps.  While I was there, I had the chance to talk to Hubert Achten, the President of the association.  I came to the conclusion that he is a wonderful, passionate individual, but he might also be just a little crazy.  
Anyone who volunteers for such a massive, complicated undertaking has to be slightly out of their mind.  I still can’t comprehend the thousands of hours it took to arrange for 13 aircraft and 328 people from around the world to make more than a half dozen parachute jumps.  As Hubert explained, each flight is a mission that requires authorization from the local authorities and the French FAA.  As if this long, multi-step process wasn’t enough, Hubert also has to respond and react to all the special instructions and contracts the authorities send through.  And then translate them for all the participants.  I started to wonder when he had last slept.  
Of course, my first reaction was to blurt out “Oh my God!  How much does this cost?”  The answer was just about 500,000 Euros, or approximately $680, 000.  This just covers the logistics: bringing the planes over, fueling them, airport charges, pilot fees, etc.  Each and every jumper pays the entire cost of their trip, plus close to $300 for each jump they participate in.  My second question was “Why do you do it?”
 Hubert’s answer surprised and saddened me because the inspiration came from a trip he made to Key West, Florida.  Upon pulling into a rest stop, he saw WWII vets giving coffee and cookies to weary travelers.  It struck him that they seemed “a little forgotten about.”  Hubert was shocked since, in France, “those are our movie stars.  They deserve respect and admiration.”  He knew that “this isn’t right – (their service) can’t be forgotten.”  
The experience inspired him to donate a monument to Robert Wright and Kenneth Moore, two American 101st Ariborne medics, to the village of Angoville-au-Plain.  The two were known for treating the wounded, both friend and foe, inside a small 12th century church in that village.  Hubert also started an association to preserve the church and funded the stained glass window project there.  As a result, Angoville and its heroic medics started to become remembered again.  Hubert continued on his mission to honor veterans who fought and died to restore Europe’s freedom, until eventually, the RCPT was founded in 2009. 
Over the next few days, people began to pour into Normandy from around the world.  The young, the old, veterans, active duty service members, the media, and of course the re-enactors, were everywhere.  You couldn’t go anywhere without running into someone dressed in a WWII style uniform, or try to avoid being hit by a caravan of 1944 jeeps.  
My group was fortunate enough to have a high ranking active duty service member with us, as well as two distinguished veterans.  No matter where we went, people wanted to meet them, take pictures and get autographs.  As amazing as that was, it couldn’t compare to the level of respect shown to the WWII vets.  As Hubert had said, they were treated with a reverence and excitement that is normally reserved for celebrities.  The first time I saw a mob of people surrounding someone, I wondered if the President had shown up.  No - they were all rushing to greet and thank a WWII veteran. 
I couldn’t help but compare this demonstration of respect and emotion for our Veterans from those gathered in Normandy to how these same men were treated back home.  Again, Hubert’s words played through my mind:  it wasn’t right.  These men and their service couldn’t be forgotten about.  I think that’s the moment I truly ‘got it’ and was humbled by the importance of what I was seeing and experiencing.  I was also incredibly proud to be there as a representative of a company that truly ‘got it’ as well. 
Once people found out that I was representing their sponsor, or noticed the Unilever logo on my polo, everyone wanted to pass along their thanks for our support and share what participating in the jumps meant to them.  Many had a loved one who had served that they wanted to honor, while others were veterans or active duty members themselves looking to recognize their brothers in arms.  The contingent that surprised me was those who had no military ties but simply wanted to keep the memory of those who sacrificed alive.  
Our days in Normandy were a whirlwind with our schedules packed with ceremonies, remembrances, and RCPT parachuting. Many of these ceremonies were conducted at monuments that the citizens of Normandy had paid to construct and maintain.  Even though most were in remote locations, people packed in to attend.  Incredibly, one remembrance we attended was at a private home.  The couple who owned it had turned their front courtyard into a memorial to our D-Day heroes. They hosted a ceremony on June 6th to honor the 70th anniversary of the largest invasion in history, and to pay tribute to the heroes that had fought to liberate Europe.  It was a very moving experience.
Fortunately for my mascara, the parachuting demonstrations were a different kind of emotional.  From June 3rd thru June8th, RCPT had scheduled multiple aircraft formation approaches and jumps.  RCPT anticipated that these events would be observed and recorded by hundreds of thousands of French citizens, as well as an international host of military and civilian visitors.  They were not wrong.  The number of people that swarmed to the events was staggering, especially considering a jump could be canceled at a moment’s notice.  
I was fortunate enough to have access to the drop zones – the target landing areas for the jumpers – so for most of the missions, I had a first row view.  What a view it was.  To see a formation of beautiful aircraft flying low and slow was enough to get the crowds to cheer, but when the parachuting started everyone went crazy.  I could hear the yells and excitement from where I stood even though I was a good quarter mile away from the crowd.   It seemed like the jumpers were nearly as excited as the onlookers when they landed – everyone was grinning ear to ear.  
Turns out my front row seat was about to turn into a bird’s eye view.  As a special ‘thank you’ to Unilever, RCPT arranged for me to have a highly coveted seat on the Drag-‘em-Oot, a true veteran of WWII, during the June 8th massive parachuting jump at La Fiere.    I was so excited I could barely remember my own name when I boarded the bus to head up to the Cherbourg airport.  
Once we arrived at Cherbourg, the sight of the aircraft brought a nearly instantaneous change over the group – they were intense, focused, and looked every bit of the paratroopers they were honoring. These were men on a mission.
Unfortunately, the mission had to be put on hold for several hours leaving us out on the airfield to wait and hope that we would still have the opportunity to takeoff.  After the agonizing hours of waiting, the other planes in our formation took their positions around us on the tarmac in preparation for takeoff.  As the nose lifted off, we all gave a simultaneous, joyful yell.  The realization of where I was, and what I was doing hit me so hard that for the first few moments that I gazed at the beaches of Normandy, I couldn’t think let alone remember my camera to start capturing the moment.  
We circled the drop zone a few times while the jumpmaster started his series of commands.  As a unit, the first group stood, hooked up, and gave the person in front of them one last quick inspection.  They were ready, but it turned out that the area was not.  I saw the jumpmaster droop with disappointment as he held his arms up across his chest in an ‘x’.  “No jump” he shouted and we headed back towards the airport.  It was heartbreaking; everyone looked crushed when we landed.  We waited to see if there was a chance we could make the mission happen, and at long last, got the go ahead to take the aircraft back up.  The jump was back on.  
I wasn’t able to get back up in the aircraft for this second, successful attempt, but I was so thrilled with the experience and honored to be a part of it that I didn’t mind.  It also meant I was able to get to La Fiere just in time to catch the tail end of the series of jumps.  This demonstration was the conclusion of RCPT’s events to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of D-day, and as I stood and watched the last few parachutists float to the ground, I couldn’t imagine a more perfect ending to my adventure.  


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