Thursday, March 5, 2009

Airborne 'family tradition' passed down through four generations

When 1st Lt. Nick Conley (center, photo above) received his wings as he graduated from Airborne School alongside more than 460 fellow students, it represented three weeks of intensive training for Conley.

Moreover, it represented more than 65 years of tradition for his family.

“It’s indescribable … fantastic; it’s tradition,” said retired Sgt. 1st Class Brunk J. Conley, Nick Conley’s grandfather, who traveled from his home in Oregon to Fort Benning, Ga., to help pin the wings on his grandson, during a ceremony held in late December, 2008.

The 65-year-old grandfather earned his wings at Fort Bragg, N.C., in 1961, 20 years after his father, Nick Conley’s great-grandfather, did in 1941. Nick Conley’s father, Oregon State Command Sgt. Maj. Brunk Conley, also earned his wings at Fort Benning, Ga. In 1972.

That makes Nick Conley number four in a line of Airborne soldiers dating back to 1941--the earliest days of the paratrooper in the Army.

Named by his father (who took a fancy to the surname of farmhand George Brunk), the eldest paratrooper Brunk Winston Conley parachuted into Normandy and Holland during World War II.

Those were among the first combat jumps ever made, said his son, who inherited both the family name and the love of all things Airborne from his father.

“To me, it was just kind of natural. I wanted to be just like my dad,” said the second generation paratrooper, who hoped to join the 101st but was sent to the 82nd Airborne Division instead.

“If they’d let me jump today, I’d do it. I always tell people when a plane hits the ground, that’s when you get hurt. If you jump out of it, you got a better chance.”

Command Sgt. Maj. Brunk Wesley Conley, the Oregon National Guard Command Sergeant Major, took that chance, following his father’s footsteps and enlisting in the Army at 18, with plans to join the 101st Abn. Div. like his grandfather, or the 82nd Abn. Div. like his father. When he found out the 101st had become an air assault unit and the latter was full, the undeterred soldier joined a ranger battalion instead.

“Joining the Ranger battalion was the best thing that could have ever happened to me,” Command Sgt. Maj. Conley said.

It also gave him the opportunity to be Airborne.

“I like to jump out of airplanes,” he said. “Plus, for those adrenaline junkies in life who like to be on the edge of things, it’s a pretty exciting lifestyle.”

Growing up with Airborne stories, 1st Lt. Conley chose to call that lifestyle his own. After receiving his commission, he attended the Infantry Basic Officer Leadership Course on Fort Benning. While there, he was lucky enough to attend jump school, he said.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “I grew up with it. When I was little, my grandpa used to tell me stories about my great-grandfather and my dad. These were the kinds of lessons I learned: hard work, dedication, leadership.”

Like his dad, the younger Conley plans to attend Ranger School. He heads there this year before deploying to Iraq with the 41st Brigade Combat Team in late spring.

Nick Conley said he is proud of his heritage, something he plans to pass on to his own family one day.

Pinning the wings on the youngest paratrooper in the Conley family, both father and grandfather said they were proud of their soldier.

If the first Conley paratrooper could be here, he would be proud, too, said “Grandpa” Conley.

“The only thing that changes in the history of the world is technology,” he continued.

“From 1941 to 2008, it’s the same esprit de corps of the paratrooper. It’s a challenge, (but) once you jump, it gets in your blood. It’s an aura you get around you, a confidence. It’s pride.”

Story by Cheryl Rodewig, The Bayonet (Fort Benning, Ga.)

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