Note: Some of the experiences written herein are unique to me. Many of them are not. If you’d like a more informative explanation of Ranger School--i.e. the format and why I was there-- then now would be a good time to reference the footnote labeled 1) at the bottom..
I stood at attention in front of a Colonel and Sergeant Major in a small room. They were seated at the center of tables arranged in a horseshoe around me. To my right and left, there were shadowy figures-- other officers I couldn’t discern. The location was Dahlonega, Georgia: The Mountain Phase of Ranger School.
I stood there with eight toenails. Two had grown black soaking inside my boots, and I had picked them off. My knees were swollen to the size of cantaloupes. For over five months, I’d packed 60 plus pounds of gear, standing and kneeling, standing and kneeling. I stood there fifteen pounds under my normal weight. Everyday in the field-- Ten days every month-- I’d rucked, ran, climbed or otherwise moved, from sun-up to sun-up, and in the same duration, was only allowed to eat two M.R.E.’s. My body had cannibalized my muscles; my sweat smelled like piss. I stood there falling over myself, sleeping on my feet. In the past five days, I’d only slept two hours and progressed through all the stages of sleep exhaustion: giddy laughter, hallucinations, talking to myself, talking to bushes….
“Do you want to recycle?”
I caught myself. Blinked hard. The Colonel had asked me a question. Did I want to recycle, meaning, did I want to repeat the Mountain phase again?
Lets think about this:
The first phase I attended was Pre-Ranger. Here, we-- only ranger candidates from Ranger Battalion--learned the basics we’d need to know going forward. It was structured a little different than the other phases, but it was also as challenging, if not more challenging than the other phases.
Part of Pre-Ranger’s challenge can be attributed to the fact that I attended in July. We were at Fort Benning, Georgia. It was stiflingly hot and humid. So hot, that during one field exercise, there was no way to sleep except completely naked. Everyone was. We were in a big field. Fire ants swarmed every inch of the red clay and terrorized our skin. We dripped sweat just walking to the field showers--these bags hanging on post that trickled sunbaked water. We’d wait in line to get our hair wet, and we’d sweat walking back to our rucks. Salt crystalized in our pores causing heat rash. It had covered my whole lower back, ass, and legs, and every time I moved, the salt crystals would turn into a million tiny razors. The only way to get rid of it was to get a buddy to scrape your skin with the edge of his I.D. card or knife. Not everyone passed this stage. Of the 60 of us, maybe a quarter recycled. One guy was taken away in an ambulance as a victim of heat exhaustion, but I moved on.
The next phase was Darby. Here I recycled once. I was the Alpha team leader (or navigator) for the whole squad, and I failed my patrol. The definitive moment in my failed patrol occurred when we got to a point where our only options forward were through a swamp or walking down a road. We’d specifically been told, “Never walk down a road,” and we’d seen an Op four (or the bad guys) Humvee drive down the road. So I decided to take the swamp, but the swamp, as it turned out, was very deep and very rank. Mud suctioned our boots to the bottom; sand and grit worked into our clothes and gear. I waded up to my armpits, and some of the shorter guys basically swam. We got to the objective unseen. But the Ranger Instructor (R.I.), who followed my patrol, was not pleased.
After another month, I did pass. I lead a strong, but unmemorable patrol, and I made friends with my teammates, thinking these are the guys I’ll go the rest of the way through with, but I was wrong. In Mountain Phase, the location, where I still stood with the bush colonel… the colonel…where the Colonel was asking me, “Do you want to recycle?”… Here, I had also been asked to recycle once before.
When I screwed up in Mountains, I wept. I had not wept earlier during a field exercise, when this R.I., who was the meanest bastard, marched us up “the wall,” which was the steepest route, straight up a mountain, and when we marched to the top, he made us go back down and marched us up again and again. Three times we did the “Wall”, and along with my large ruck, I was carrying the 240, the heaviest weapon, and everyone around me was sniffling, and they were holding back tears, and when we got to the top the third time and the R.I. made us do lunges in circle after circle with our gear, most the guys around me did weep, pathetically, without shame, but I did not.
The incident that broke me into tears took place on an ambush line that night. I still had the 240. The rounds were on the feed tray. I pulled the charging handle to the rear and went to open the feed tray cover to check the rounds were seated correctly, but the bolt had caught on the feed tray cover. It was gummed up. So as soon as I pressed the indents the bolt slammed forward firing a round. And that was it: a negligent discharge, meaning I had to repeat the phase. Luckily, the rounds were blanks. If the rounds were not blanks, in a live scenario, that could have meant death, or in the least giving away our position, and this added to the guilt, shame, and frustration I felt. But my buddies were encouraging. One patted me on the back, and with that, I wished them well.
There was a cycle break, which meant for 3 weeks, I waited at Dahlonega to begin the next session. You might think this would be a welcome reprieve, and in some ways, it was. The meals were large, and I got to sleep a good amount. There were maybe five of us, and for the most part, we were only assigned light details. But, during this time, I think now, I lost my mind.
There’s not a rational way to explain my thinking, but basically, the prospect of repeating Mountain phase, and in the best case moving onto Florida, or in the worst case failing, got inside my head. I started to plan on going AWOL. The Appalachia trail was close by. I could hop on that at night I thought. I had all the gear I’d need to survive, including maps, and I could make good distance before they started searching for me. This was all planned out. I was ready to go. Thankfully, my better senses prevailed.
I began the next phase as the cold started to set in. It was November. While we were in the field it sleeted on us, and we’d marched around wet in 30-degree weather or lower, all day and all night. There was no escape: no fire, no warm clothes, nothing. Just cold. The only way to stay warm was to grab the guy closest to you and spoon vigorously. I’m talking, two guys wet and smelling like piss grinding the ever-lovin crap out of each other trying to stay warm. Or maybe, you’d get three, four, or five guys to join, the more the merrier, and we’d all be one stinking dog pile. But it was the best thing we could do. That’s how cold it was.
Despite, or maybe in spite, of the conditions, I had led a glorious patrol. Warning: unabashed braggadocio ahead.
I was a Squad leader, meaning I had two teams. Our platoon (Again 4 squads) had been tasked to move through two known enemy areas. (K.E.A.’s) I.e. we were moving to contact. The platoon leader (P.L.) decided my Squad would lead the first K.E.A. and another squad would take the second. At least, that was the original plan, but it would it soon change.
[Note: some of the following info I need to brush up on. I’m going off memory]
It was a foggy, damp morning just after sunrise, perfect for stalking the enemy, or in this case, the Op four. About 100 hundred meters before the first K.E.A., I had my Squad pause, we looked, listened, smelled, and proceeded to creep forward through the trees on line. My alpha team leader swung to the formations far left, I stood in the center, and together we kept the guys straight. The guy to my right saw the Op four first, before they saw us, blank-rounds rang out, pop pop pop, and the Op Four assumed themselves dead.
We paused as I passed the report to my bravo team leader, and he passed it to the P.L. I then led the alpha team through the objective, a maneuver where anyone alive would be double tapped and the weapons near the bodies removed. About 15 meters past the objective we formed a line. I got ups on ammo and made sure no one was “hurt.” Then I sent two guys back to do a more thorough search of the bodies, and not five minutes later, we moved away from the area, so as not to be tracked by the earlier gunshots.
The movement to contact had proceeded exactly according to the Ranger Handbook. As a result, my P.L wanted me to lead through the next K.E.A. too, because the overall success or failure of the mission determined on whether he got his Go, as well as whether all the other squad leaders got their Go. My squad was carrying the whole platoon. Encouraged by our success, I agreed. And the second K.E.A., as it turned out, went even better. Again, we surprised the Op Four. Again, the violence of action was great. Again, we were on and off the objective in no more than five minutes.
After both K.E.A’s and all the movement, it was nearing sundown, and we still had a long way to go to our final patrol base. Okay, I thought, this day is a done deal. But of course, it’s Ranger School, and they had us going all night. The R.I.’s handed down a surprise “downed pilot mission,” meaning, we were going to rescue a 150-pound dummy they had heaved down a steep ravine. So, again, my P.L. is like “[my name] I want your squad to lead.” And for whatever reason, maybe I wanted to continue to prove myself, I don’t know, I tentatively agreed.
Long story short: My squad owned. We rigged up ropes and traversed up and down this ravine, on all fours, doing every part of the mission, alone. Everyone else in the platoon kneeled in the tree line above us pulling security. And what’s more, our squad, according to the R.I. did the mission in the fastest time he’d ever seen. The whole day, he said, went smoother than any he’d previously witnessed. I knew I had my Go.
Problem: pushing my squad to the degree I did had consequences. Namely, it created resentment---resentment I had also fermented through my dealings with one of the guys who the squad had rallied around since they all began Ranger School together. This guy was from the Special Forces community. He was your prototypical square-jawed, stout, All-American Green Beret, and also, Texan. So, our problems begin with him, walking around previous to going to the field, in the sleeping bay, all the time, naked. He loved strutting around with his dick out. It was like his favorite thing, and one day I did the stupid thing, and I said something about steers and queers and it was obvious what he was, and he got all pissy.
This action rippled throughout the whole course. For instance, one day, he was passing out M.R.E.s for the next few days, and he gave me three of the same, shitty M.R.E’s. it was something like beef rib, which is basically a McRib sandwich, only worse if you can believe it. So, I said, “Hey, trade me out a couple of these shit sandwiches,” to which he responded, “How about you quit your bitching, [my name].” And everyone heard and I became the bitching guy.
What this all comes down to was, that at the courses end, we did peer valuations—rank your buddies 1-10. The R.I.’s got a percentage out of this, and we had to have above a 60 percent. Normally, I got seventies, which is pretty good for a lower enlisted. Once, I even got an eighty. Anyway, we’d just gotten back from the field, we’d slept two hours in five days, we were cleaning our stuff, so we can get some sleep and graduate to the next phase, and the R.I. started calling out numbers. We all had numbers. The numbers he called out were the guys who were peered, and thus would do it all again, and I was hardly paying attention, cleaning, not giving a fuck, and then I heard it, my number. I did not weep this time. I just started laughing, almost hysterically.
Next thing I knew I was waiting outside the small room, inside of which, were the Colonel and Sergeant Major. It was freezing and my pockets were warm, and for a while, I was doing pushups, mountain climbers, and flutter kicks, because an R.I. saw me put my hands in my pockets, which is where they weren’t supposed to be. But I finally got inside the room, and I was standing there…
The Colonel asked his question, and the Sergeant Major chimed in,“ You’ll start again tomorrow.” I knew this, and I also knew, I’d be serving the guys who just peered me their breakfast, and again, I wanted to burst out laughing. But I kept my composure.
“No, sir.” I said. “I would not like to recycle.”
Ranger School was designed to teach students-- from every branch of the American Armed Forces to Foreign military personnel--how to lead patrols, raids, and ambushes. The format throughout Ranger School was something like ten days of instruction, ten days in the field. The days in the field were split into five, with two days in-between to refit and get some sleep. Counting travel, orientation, and other events, this amounted to about a month per phase.
To clarify further, the goal of Ranger School was not to make us into rangers necessarily, anyone with enough grit could do that, and indeed, guys were ranging—i.e. patrolling deep into hostile territory, raiding and ambushing--- in “regular” units across Afghanistan and Iraq with little more than the skills they learned in basic. I had witnessed this, and I had witnessed those guys doing quite well. The goal of Ranger School, rather, was to teach us how to lead rangers.
After spending two years in Ranger Battalion, I was expected to pass, thus earning the gold and black Ranger Tab to wear above my Scroll. Passing was required if I was to advance rank from Private to Specialist, or later, sergeant. Moreover, since I was in Ranger Battalion, a special operations unit, passing was also required just for me to stay in. That is the stake in the Colonel’s question: I could recycle, or I could go home and get booted to regular unit.