Rangers Lead The Way

All the talk recently about the first two women to graduate from the US Army Ranger School made me reminisce about my time in Ranger school, 37 years ago. Where to begin. Well, it was hard. Historically the graduation rate is around 50 percent, and most quit within the first few days, which surprised me. To apply for Ranger school you have to be recommended by your cadre or your commander, plus you have to surpass the prerequisites for physical fitness and military skills. Basically, you have to convince everyone that you're the kind of demented, hard-headed kook who could make it through the nine weeks of anguish. Before you left for the school, you are briefed by recent graduates about what to expect. I remember listening to their litany of misery and asking, "Didn't you do anything fun?" The two Rangers looked at me like I'd grown an extra head. I did spend the month before I was to report for the school toughing myself up. Besides my usual routine of gym work and running, I'd take long hikes through the desert in the middle of the day with a cinder block in my backpack. I wasn't kidding about being a demented, hard-headed kook. The first days of school were what I expected. O-dark-thirty wake ups, lots of running, crawling through the mud of the infamous Worm Pit, obstacle courses, sergeants yelling, being tired all the goddamn time. When a student decided to quit, the RIs (Ranger Instructors) would pounce on the hapless soul and torment him relentlessly for the rest of the day. I didn't understand how someone could show up to the school and not realize what they were getting into.


The Ranger chow line. Even honed Ninja-killers have to eat.

Despite all the hype of "elite" training, most of what we practiced were tried-and-true infantry tactics. Except that we did them for days and nights at a stretch. As motivated as we were, because of the strain it proved tempting to slack off when we could. One embarrassing episode happened to me after we had forded a deep stream. At first opportunity we were supposed to field strip our weapons and wipe them dry. I got lazy and only toweled off the outside of my M-16 and the bolt. Later that day, an RI at random asked to see my rifle. Upon field-stripping it he discovered water dripping from the firing pin. He shamed me mercilessly in front of my Ranger buddies but thankfully didn't write me up.
 
The press loves photos of Ranger students rock climbing and rappelling during the Mountain Phase because it makes for good copy. I had some mountaineering experience so I didn't think that particular training was so strenuous. What did kick my ass were the mountain patrols. Those Georgia hills might not be as tall as the Rocky Mountains but they're more than impressive enough and go on and on and on. Plus they're covered with mountain laurel that would snag our rucksacks and radio antennas, whip the back of our heads, and stab us in the face. To test our daredevil mettle, my platoon parachuted twice into tiny drop zones surrounded by menacing pines, once at night. Between phases we'd get a break lasting eight to twelve hours. After hustling rides into nearby Columbus, Georgia, we would drop off our dirty uniforms at a laundry, visit a steakhouse and shovel food down our throats, pick up our clothes, and rush to the barracks for some lusted-for rack time. Mother Nature cut us slack during the notorious Swamp Phase as Florida that summer suffered a prolonged drought. The swamps and creeks had dried to trickles, forcing the alligators to vamoose for wetter terrain and leaving us plenty of dry ground to tramp over. But the Yellow River had grown so shallow that we had to drag our rubber rafts as often as we rode in them. And yet, every afternoon like clockwork, a thunderstorm would pound the area. To avoid lighting strikes--which have killed Rangers--we'd pile our gear in a heap, lay at a distance in groups of one, and get soaked as we waited for the storm to pass. The RIs advised us to not wear underwear so as to prevent crotch rot; we were going commando during commando training--how meta is that! When on patrol we'd get one C-ration per day (a normal daily ration is three) and would consume everything in that little box. We'd chew the instant coffee to stay awake (didn't work) and ate the creamer because we convinced ourselves it tasted like cotton candy. The big trial was getting a passing grade on the patrols, basically a small-unit operation--a raid, an ambush, a reconnaissance--which is what Ranger school is fundamentally about. If you got lost, you failed the patrol. If you misplaced equipment, you failed. If your team missed the rally points, you failed. If you didn't orchestrate a proper mission, you failed. Fail half of your patrols in any given phase and you'd be recycled or dropped. Keeping track of all these details was challenging enough in ideal conditions. Compound that with sleep deprivation and nutrition deficits and we turned into hallucinating physical wrecks. Sometimes the trance would fall over you in mid-sentence. You dreamed about food, I mean you fantasized about it like sex. Even though we had showed up for school lean and mean, we each lost 20-30 pounds. Finally, after nine weeks, my buddies and I were standing in formation to get Ranger tabs pinned to our shoulders.

So what's the big deal with Ranger school considering few of us would ever engage in small-unit operations? I guess it showed that we were willing to go the extra mile. As for women, barring them from attending Ranger school was a reminder that they are still regarded as second-class soldiers, as less than fully able to perform in any capacity, that they are judged on appearance and stereotypes instead of merit. Consider women athletes, particularly gymnasts, and they certainly have the strength and drive to make the cut. In the military we already have women fighter pilots, astronauts, submariners, divers (now that is tough training!), and combat nurses. The irony of not letting women attend special operations training is that women are deployed anyway with SEALs, Special Forces, Rangers, Marines, and Air Force special operations. Several have been killed on those missions. They have to do the job but not get all the training. So to the Army's newest Rangers, Cpt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt Shaye Haver, I say congratulations and it's been long overdue.

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