Face of Defense: Fourth-Generation Paratrooper Continues Family's Legacy

FORT BENNING, Ga. --

Service members wearing olive-green helmets marked with black numbers and letters lined up on steps here at the Airborne School as they waited their turn to practice their parachute landing falls.

Cadet Meghan Copenhaver, a trainee at the U.S. Army Airborne School assigned to Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, returns from her first jump at Fryar Drop Zone at Fort Benning, Ga., Aug. 14, 2017. Copenhaver is the first fourth-generation Army paratrooper. Army photo by Markeith Horace
Cadet Meghan Copenhaver, a trainee at the U.S. Army Airborne School assigned to Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, returns from her first jump at Fryar Drop Zone at Fort Benning, Ga., Aug. 14, 2017. Copenhaver is the first fourth-generation Army paratrooper. Army photo by Markeith Horace
Cadet Meghan Copenhaver, a trainee at the U.S. Army Airborne School assigned to Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, returns from her first jump at Fryar Drop Zone at Fort Benning, Ga., Aug. 14, 2017. Copenhaver is the first fourth-generation Army paratrooper. Army photo by Markeith Horace Paratroopers
Cadet Meghan Copenhaver, a trainee at the U.S. Army Airborne School assigned to Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, returns from her first jump at Fryar Drop Zone at Fort Benning, Ga., Aug. 14, 2017. Copenhaver is the first fourth-generation Army paratrooper. Army photo by Markeith Horace

In the crowd, one Army Reserve Officer Training Corps cadet wore a helmet with the letter and numbers C30 printed on it.

Of the 30 females who started this journey in Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Cadet Meghan Copenhaver is one of the 12 to make it to graduation. Nonetheless, it's not the number 30 or the number 12 that sets this particular female apart from her peers; it's the number four. Copenhaver is the Army's first fourth-generation paratrooper.

Copenhaver's parents and her maternal grandfather and maternal great-grandfather all graduated from the Airborne School. Her great-grandfather, John Anderson Hughes, jumped into Sainte-Mère-Église, France, just east of Normandy Beach on D-Day. He was a master parachutist who served in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam and retired from the Army as a colonel. Her grandfather, William Hughes, also a retired Army colonel, was the featured speaker at the graduation ceremony, Aug. 18.

Making the Decision

"It's kind of scary, but it's also amazing," Copenhaver said, who's approaching her junior year as an ROTC cadet at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. "I came to Airborne School because I wanted to get my wings, distinguish myself as a cadet, and prepare myself for a good career. Now, I'm able to follow in their footsteps in my own way and make my own path, and do what my family did before me."

Although she comes from a long line of Army paratroopers, Copenhaver said it took her a while before she decided to join the Army and attend Airborne School.

"Sophomore year of high school is when I threw around the idea, because that's when you start really thinking about what you want to do in life, and where you want to go to school," she said.

She enrolled in college in 2015 as an ROTC cadet and immediately set her sights on achieving challenging goals.

"When I got my ROTC scholarship, I knew I wanted to do everything to distinguish myself as a cadet, so when the opportunity arose freshman year, I put my name in for airborne and another ROTC program called CULP [Cultural Understanding and Language Proficiency] where you can travel. I got CULP instead, so I went to Africa instead of airborne last summer," Copenhaver said.

She was persistent and determined to go to Airborne School.

"The opportunity arose this year, and I asked my cadre if I would be eligible, and they said yes based on my high physical fitness scores, [grade point average] and persistence in the program of being a good cadet, so I got the slot, which was very exciting for me," she said.

Lessons from Family

Copenhaver said she began an intense workout regimen before she left for the school, taking advice from her friends who had attended Airborne School, as well as her father.

"My dad shared a workout program with me that I followed, which was a lot of cardio-based and upper body," she said. "I went to the gym every day and ran four times a week up to 6 miles a day."

Copenhaver's mother, Carolyn Hughes, helped her daughter prepare as well.

"First and foremost, anybody that she would talk to would tell her to keep her feet and knees together [when landing after a jump], so that came up in about every conversation that we had to kind of engrain it in her brain," Hughes said.

She relayed to her daughter her own experiences in Airborne School in order to help her get prepared.

"We focused a lot on the physiological aspects of the course, and the things she might be exposed to, and how she could mitigate some of that away," Hughes said. "As a woman, biologically and physiologically we're built a little differently than men, …  so her being of sound mind and body was going to be critical and essential for her to be able to get through the course."

Copenhaver reported for school four days before her start date in order to acclimate herself to the new environment. She said her experiences were challenging but fun.

"There are some days where we're running -- like we've had a couple of 5-milers, and I'm fit to run the 5 miles -- but we run it at a pretty fast pace, so I have to focus on breathing and push through," she said.

‘Get Yourself Together’

During swing landing training, where trainees practice their landing techniques, Copenhaver hit her head a couple of times after jumping from the platform, but she didn't let that discourage her.

"I was like, 'You know what? Get yourself together. You need to qualify, so you can jump,''' she said, describing the pep talk she had with herself that day.

Outside of making her family proud, Copenhaver said she doesn't believe in quitting or giving up no matter how hard something may seem.

"I don't let myself get to the mentality of, 'I can't do it.’ There's never, ‘I can't,'" she said. "It's whether or not I'm going to have to push really hard. On certain days when we're running everywhere in boots and full uniform with our kits and everything, it sucks, and sometimes I don't know how far we're going to run, but I just tell myself to get my breathing under control, and just push because no one else is going to fall out. There's never been a time in my life where I have let myself quit."

VIDEO | 01:51 | Army Graduates First 4th Generation Paratrooper

Family Support

She also continued to receive motivation from her mother.

"Every day single day that we would talk in the morning or in the evening when she was done with training, first and foremost I would tell her that I was proud of her," Hughes said.

Copenhaver's grandfather and uncle also showed their support.

"My grandfather has been the happiest man ever since he heard I was going to Airborne School," Copenhaver said. "My uncle texted me, and he was so excited. He said, 'This is for the family. You got this.'''

Outside of the constant motivation and support from her family, Copenhaver said the training she received from her instructors helped her to prepare for her first jump. She said she felt ready after completing mass exit training, which teaches the trainees how to properly exit an aircraft.

"I felt very confident after that, and I called my dad that night and said, 'I'm so ready to jump out of an airplane now,'" she said.

On Aug. 14, she got her chance and completed her first jump. The view she said on the way down was beautiful if only for a second.

"You really don't have much time to take it in," she said. "You have to focus on pulling your slips and get ready to go. It was amazing. It was something I wasn't expecting."

Copenhaver's mother was elated to hear about her daughter's first jump.

"She was really, really excited, and she said she felt exhilarated," Hughes said, recalling the conversation she had with her daughter. "She had a phenomenal experience."

Although Copenhaver graduating from Airborne School means a lot to her family, Hughes said it more than just her adding to the family lineage.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't thank the Lord that I have such a phenomenal child who is willing and capable to carry not only the family torch and legacy for family service, but is just a dynamic and very strong, young woman," Hughes said.