Army Paratrooper Veteran Chris Needels Reflects on Extraordinary Career

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Chris Needels relaxes following a round of golf. Photo by Bill Sterling.

By Bill Sterling —

Not everyone has a building named after him, much less while he is still upright to walk through the doors. But retired Army Col. Chris Needels, of Accomac, is such a person.

A 2014 inductee of the Skydiving Hall of Fame, Needels acquired the land for the headquarters of the U.S. Parachute Association outside of Fredericksburg, Va., through a donation and then designed the building while coordinating the construction process.

The association was so grateful for Needels’ contributions it named the building the Christopher J. Needels National Skydiving Headquarters in 2016.

“I was flabbergasted when I learned they were going to name the building after me. It was quite an honor and nice I’m still alive to enjoy it,” said Needels, who just turned 78 but looks years younger, maintaining the same weight of about 150 pounds he had during an almost 30-year Army career. That career was capped by three-and-a-half years serving in the White House as director of International Programs on the National Security Council Staff for former President George H.W. Bush.

Four years after Bush left the White House, it was Needels whom he asked to help him make his second parachute jump and first skydive. The first time Bush jumped out of a plane was when his torpedo bomber was shot down over the Pacific in World War II. Two of his crewmen did not survive, and Bush barely escaped, hitting his head on the ejection and being rescued from the approaching Japanese by a U.S. submarine.

Chris Needels, right, congratulates former President George H.W. Bush on a skydive seconds after he lands. Needels, who worked at the White House under Bush, conceived, planned, and executed the jump four years after Bush left office. Submitted image.

Needels, who conceived, planned, and conducted Operation Second Look, said Bush’s second jump was a long time in the making. “You can’t have any mishaps when a former president of the United States is involved,” he explained. “We trained for six weeks, planning on anything that could go wrong, from spinning out of control to being upside down. We had given him simple options such as being on a static line or jumping in tandem with a skilled instructor, but he wanted to do this on his own.”  Needels was among those who jumped with Bush, who was skydiving while staying with instructors assisting in free fall and then pulled his own parachute at 5,000 feet after exiting the aircraft at 13,000 feet. Needels and others were there to congratulate Bush when he landed on the ground.

He coordinated and participated in another jump with Bush several years later, but chose to pass the baton when asked to train the former president for later jumps that concluded by parachuting in tandem for Bush’s 90th birthday.

Needels has fond memories of Bush, who passed away at the age of 94 in 2019. “He was a firm leader who could compromise and show great compassion. 

“On a personal level, he was very friendly with probably 2,000 best friends whose names he never forgot. He was a great American hero.”

During his tenure at the White House, Needels, who has made more than 3,000 jumps, gave Bush a daily briefing in the Situation Room, occasionally showing up still wearing the fatigues from an early-morning military jump made just prior to the meeting. Needels, who doesn’t rule out skydiving again, describes the sensation. “The experience of free falling at 120 to 200 miles per hour is without peer. It is the realization of human flight. And for those who are afraid of heights? I won’t clean my first-story gutters from a three-foot ladder.”

Needels has jumped over three continents and witnessed some memorable scenery out the open jump door on the climb to 13,000 feet or higher, but he said there are also some awe-inspiring, panoramic views from 3,000 feet from under the canopy of the parachute. “Descending into Melfa ‘International’ while scanning the Eastern Shore from the Chesapeake Bay to the Barrier Islands is right up there with my favorite jumps,” said Needels, who noted that the first recorded parachute jumps were allegedly by Chinese cliff jumpers circa A.D. 1200.

Army Life

Needels chose the Army rather than the Army choosing him, although at first it was a reluctant choice. “Graduating from high school I wanted to either be an architect or go into forestry because I loved the outdoors. I was singularly unsuccessful at being admitted for either of those avocations, so I volunteered for the Army nine days after graduating from high school. I spent a year as a buck private and attended a military prep school before being admitted to West Point.”

The path to a life in the Army wasn’t all that strange for Needels, however, since his father was a career Army officer who also retired as a colonel. In addition, a close family friend, the late Brig. Gen. Chester DeGavre, who had retired to the Eastern Shore and bought an historic home near Deep Creek, convinced the Needels family to move to the Eastern Shore since they shared an interest in old homes.

Needels recalls coming to the Eastern Shore in 1965 with his parents, the late Van and Cathryn “K” Needels, while he was in college and looking at homes, with the family deciding on the Walston Place outside of Accomac. Now the home of Needels and his wife Conny, the Walston Place has been on the Garden Tour four times and has been restored to an appearance much like its 1802 origins.

Gen. DeGavre became a mentor to the younger Needels, encouraging him to pursue parachuting in the Army. DeGavre served in the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II and was a pioneer in military paratrooper techniques. Among his many deployments over a long military career, Needels was also a platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne Division.

Another post for Needels included commanding the U.S. Army Parachute Team, nicknamed the Golden Knights and based in Fort Bragg, N.C. The Golden Knights parachutist team demonstrates and competes worldwide for the United States.

While an instructor in the Ranger Command at Fort Benning, Ga., Needels met a veterinary student from nearby Auburn University who shared a love of skydiving. And it is she, now his wife, Conny, who can boast of a gold medal won in competition as a civilian parachutist against Russia, among other nations, in 1973 in Yugoslavia.

As a graduate of West Point with a degree in engineering, Needels volunteered for two tours of duty in Vietnam because “the war was heating up and that is what soldiers do.” A member of the First Infantry Division, Needels recalled some of the action from the late 1960s. “During the battle of Bong Trang, I became company commander before the day was out because my company commander and another platoon leader were both killed, and I was the last lieutenant still standing when the fight was over.”

Among Needels’ lingering memories of Vietnam is the loss of fellow Virginians, particularly those who entered West Point with him, graduated in 1965, went to war, and died for their country. “I was very close to Jack Hutton, who was the son of prominent Virginia Circuit Court Judge Hutton, and Spotswood deWitt, a descendant of 17th century Virginia Governor Spotswood,” said Needels.

During his second stint in Vietnam, Needels was infantry company commander and assistant chief of staff in the 101st Airborne Division. Needels said although he often thinks of those years in Vietnam because it was a part of his life, he doesn’t dream about it or suffer nightmares from that time. Needels is reluctant to talk about any awards or meritorious service designations he received, but the fact is Needels received an array of awards, including two Silver Stars, given exclusively for combat valor, and a Purple Heart, given for a wound Needels said was not all that serious.

After the War

Following the Vietnam War, Needels was able to attend the Navy Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and obtain a Master of Science degree in Operations Research before getting a second Master’s in Military Arts and Science at the Army War College.

His postgraduate education completed, Needels said he enjoyed his three years as a brigade executive officer with the 3rd Infantry Division in Germany because he had an opportunity to work with the latest armor and mechanized equipment.

Needels salutes his wife for having to pick up, relocate, and find work with the many moves he made. A veterinarian, she worked in Germany as well.

From 1984 to 1986, Needels, “got to sort of disappear” as a battalion commander of the Special Forces Unit, followed by a stint at the Pentagon with the U.S. Special Operations Command.

It was 1988 when President Bush tabbed Needels as director of International Programs for the National Security Council staff.

In 1992, with his White House duty completed and after nearly 30 years of service, Needels thought it was time to retire from the Army. He then spent a year working for below minimum wage doing all sorts of jobs at a golf course near his home in northern Virginia. “I loved it, being at the golf course in the open air and getting to play free golf when I was not working. I was captain of the golf team at my Washington, D.C., high school and once played to an 8 handicap, but can’t come near that now. But the pay didn’t quite cut it where I was living.”

Needels noted that his old high school, Western High School in Washington, D.C., now is home to the Duke Ellington Academy of Performing Arts, which he finds ironic since he can neither sing nor dance.

After a year at the golf course, he received an offer to become the executive director of the U.S. Parachute Association and felt it was a good fit, given his love of skydiving. He held that position for 13 years and now is executive director emeritus. He is also currently chairman of the International Skydiving Museum & Hall of Fame board of trustees and of the design committee planning the museum, which will be located in Orlando, Fla.

A Move to the Shore

In 2008, Needels and his wife moved to the Eastern Shore and have completed the painstaking restoration of the Walston Place with great attention to detail. His deep love of history led him to join the Eastern Shore Historical Society, which his father led in the early 1980s. He is now chairman of a Time Lines project that will tell Eastern Shore history from the meteorite that formed the Chesapeake Bay to the present. With local historian Dennis Custis, Susan Grove, and Barnaby Conrad on his committee, Needels said the five eras will include Pre-Columbian/Native American, Colonial, Revolutionary War and Political Prominence, Civil War and Reconstruction, The Golden Age, and the Modern Eastern Shore.

“We want it to be totally inclusive,” said Needels. “It can’t be Onancock-centric because the Historical Society is located there. We need to include everybody.”

While his wife enjoys gardening and riding horses — she once kept four horses in a stable near their Accomac home but now has only one — Needels plays golf regularly and broke 80 earlier this summer but is not happy with the state of his game now. “I have a hard time breaking 90 at the moment,” he lamented, “but if I can get back to where I was at the beginning of the year, who knows, maybe I can shoot my age one day.”

A fourth generation native of California, Needels pays tribute to his hometown of Martinez, a suburb of San Francisco and regarded to be home to the first martini, by having one — preferably dry — most nights.

He has much to contemplate during his quiet time: scenes of horrific battles from the jungles of Vietnam but also the sensations of more than 3,000 jumps which included free falling through the skies and views of grand vistas below. Needels counts himself a lucky man, saying he needed his reserve parachute only twice, much better than the average, and is still fit enough at 78 to play golf and active enough to lead a project that will hopefully capture the complete history of the Eastern Shore, a land he has grown to love.