In a tower, 34 feet off the ground, Judith Niewender had come to the crucial moment. She looked at the antlike figures below and knew it was time to jump.
"It looks much higher from the top than it looks from the ground," she said of the Army's parachute-jump training tower. "I'm terrified of heights."
Last week, the 66-year-old college official from Egg Harbor Township, N.J., and 31 other Philadelphia-area educators learned about Army life and career opportunities up close during a rare tour of Fort Bragg, N.C.
They walked across campuslike settings and heard Arabic, Russian, and Chinese spill out of classrooms. They saw modern housing and visited community centers with outdoor pools, computer areas, and game and workout rooms.
They fired M-4 carbines on a computerized rifle range, visited the headquarters of the U.S. Army Parachute team, and dined at the Green Beret Club and the Officers' Club.
The effort, hosted by recruiters in their areas, was intended to create positive impressions of the Army that would be shared with students, parents, and fellow faculty members.
It also aimed to boost recruitment in this region, which until recently had "the lowest propensity toward military service in the nation," Army officials have said. In the latest quarter, active-duty enlistments were up 23 percent and reserve enlistments up 16 percent compared with a year earlier.
How better to capitalize on the gains than to educate the educators with hands-on experiences, including a simulated parachute jump?
Niewender, a special-events coordinator who works with recruiters and career-day planners at Atlantic Cape Community College, couldn't resist.
With her helmet firmly in place and a parachute and reserve parachute tightly strapped to her torso, she stepped from the tower into the air as fellow educators cheered her on.
Niewender jerked at the end of a harness like a rag doll, then rocketed down a cable angled across a field. She was abruptly halted by another cable that forcefully swung her into the air, heels over head, before landing.
"You OK?" a soldier asked as he disengaged her line.
"I'm good," said Niewender, who was among about two dozen who jumped, some more than once. "I couldn't let down my grandkids and my Sunday school class. I told them I would do this - and it was terrifyingly terrific."
Not everyone approves of the Army's efforts to reach students through their teachers and counselors. Many schools in the region discourage military recruiters from visiting, or strictly control contact with prospective recruits.
The problem isn't that educators would attend a public-relations event such as the one at Fort Bragg, said Oskar Castro, director of the Youth and Militarism program at the American Friends Service Committee, headquartered in Philadelphia.
The concern, he said, is that the tour's Army experience is "not genuine and it's not authentic."
He pointed out that sexual and racial discrimination, as well as a gang presence, could exist on a military installation and may not be in the talking points for educators.
"They're going to go home, and they're going to regurgitate that dog-and-pony show," Castro said. "We believe educators have an obligation to help their students critically analyze their decisions."
Mentors who give students a "glossy, glamorized" view of the Army could lead to "regrettable decisions," he said. "It doesn't catch up . . . until somebody says, 'I found out the hard way. Who do I blame?' "
The educators invited to the four-day tour of Fort Bragg said they had come away with a deep respect for the Army, especially the 69,000 men and women stationed at the base, the 251-square-mile home of the XVIII Airborne Corps, 82d Airborne Division, U.S. Army Special Operations (Green Berets) Command, and the U.S. Army Parachute Team, known as the Golden Knights.
Images of Gomer Pyle-style military housing were supplanted by the sight of modern buildings where soldiers take college-level courses and get high-tech training on computerized firing ranges and on topics such as humvee rollovers and psychological operations.
The visitors learned about the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery career-exploration program, administered in many high schools, which uses tests and questionnaires to help students match their strengths with possible military career paths. (Some school districts have opted out of the tests, or made them optional, after complaints that results were sent to the military without parental permission.)
They also heard about the offers of college tuition and military job opportunities at a time of widespread unemployment.
Two educators, both from New Jersey, expressed an interest in joining the Army Reserve.
"I've been impressed by the kind of training [soldiers are] getting here and how they're being taken care of," said Lynnette Coleman-Martin, a guidance counselor at Frankford High School in Philadelphia.
"I feel I can recommend this. I've seen leadership, integrity, and decision-making," said Coleman-Martin, of Elkins Park.
"I'm learning more from personal experience about what the Army has to offer to those who might not go on to college," added Lisa Sancho, a counselor at Central High School in Philadelphia, who lives in East Mount Airy. "The Army has been supportive of our students and has sent recruiters to our school."
Some students have shown interest in enlisting, although "a lot of parents don't encourage kids to go in," said Elena South, a counselor and military liaison at Burlington Township High School.
"They're afraid they'll be sent to an Iraq battlefield and die. The kids call me Sgt. South and say, 'Yes, ma'am.' I love to discipline, motivate, and encourage kids," said South, of Westampton.
Guiding the educators through their Army experience was Special Forces Lt. Col. Harry Woodmansee, who a week earlier took on the job of commanding the Mid-Atlantic Army Recruiting Battalion, which sponsored the trip.
He was stationed at Fort Bragg for years and has served in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and many other countries. His battalion covers recruiting in the Philadelphia region and most of New Jersey.
"Many think if things don't go right, they can go into the military," said Woodmansee, who lives at Lakehurst Naval Air Engineering Station in Ocean County. "But if you don't have a high school diploma, you don't get in. If you get in trouble with the law, or have a tattoo on your head, you don't get in.
"There is no greater honor than to serve the citizens - and that's from the bottom of my heart," Woodmansee said. "You don't join the Army to get rich or become a general. You just want to serve."
The Army, he said, wants to correct misconceptions about itself. "People think, 'They're going to get me in, give me a gun, and send me to Iraq or Afghanistan,' " he said. "But you can go into computers, electronics, psy-ops [psychological operations], and many other fields."
Last week's tour was only the second planned by Ernestine Montgomery, education-services specialist for the recruiting battalion. Attendees were equally divided between men and women from 25 high schools and seven colleges.
"I hope you'll take back to your school what you learned," she told the group. "It's OK to be in the Army. It's a great career."
The tour took educators across a fort that's a self-contained city with 11 shopping centers, 28 restaurants, and several elementary and middle schools. They walked through museums and memorial hallways, like mini-Valhallas, that honor the heroic deeds of members of the Special Forces and Airborne. But in the bus and at meals, the conversation always turned to one question: Are you going to jump?
Later, at the parachute-jump tower, they noticed an ambulance standing by as their tour bus pulled up.
When jumping, "step out vigorously so your buttocks don't hit the platform," a soldier advised them.
One after another, the educators lined up for their big leap.
"I was OK until the soldier said, 'Green light, go!' " said Steven Bird of Doylestown, who is head of enrollment services at Peirce College in Center City. "I almost turned around and said forget it. It was great, a lot of fun."
Watson Heilala, guidance counselor and football coach at Lacey Township High School in Ocean County, stepped off the tower and was whisked across the field.
"I absolutely closed my eyes," said Heilala, 37, of Brick, N.J. "You just have to have faith. Your brain tells you, 'This is no good.' "
Minutes later, Heilala, who plans to join the reserve, did it again. "You have to conquer your fear," he said.
"The Army pushes you further than you think you can go," said Staff Sgt. Alfredo Taveras, 32, of the Millville (N.J.) Recruiting Station at a dinner later.
"Half of you would never have gone to the tower, but you did it today. I'm a recruiter, and recruiting pushes you as a leader."
The intensity of the experience caught many of the group members by surprise.
"It was amazing . . . the history, camaraderie, pride, style, respect. You hear about it, but you don't feel it until you're part of the experience," said Jill Dorio, a counselor at Triton Regional High School in Runnemede. More than 356 graduated from her school this year; about 9 percent entered the military.
"Before, I could explain this factually from a book or brochure," said Dorio, 33, of Franklinville. "Now I have firsthand experience. I can speak about it with color, not just black-and-white. I jumped from a tower. I shot an M-4. I saw training on a day-to-day basis. This isn't just about war."
A video and a slideshow
of educators getting their taste of Army life are at http://go.philly.com/braggEndText