I am fundamentally weak, in both physical strength and emotional resolve, so it's quite odd that I ended up as an Infantry officer in the U.S. Army. Just goes to show what a series of ill-considered decisions by an individual, coupled with low-quality screening on the part of large public bodies, can accomplish. It didn't take long for me to realise that I was more likely to follow in the footsteps of Gomer Pyle (okay, he was a Marine) than those of Patton and Bradley.
I showed up at my first unit - one of the few light infantry units in Germany, where tanks dominate the terrain - when my company was on a field exercise. The lieutenant whose platoon I was taking over (as he moved to another role in the company) let me borrow his equipment so I could get straight out to lead the next mock operation. I literally didn't even drop off my bags back at the garrison.
My platoon had three squads of about ten men each, plus a communications specialist, a medic and an NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) specialist. They had been 'in the field' for a number of days before I arrived and were already pretty tired. They were, though, understandably excited to see their new platoon leader. I had the tough-man's short haircut and the badges to show that I was parachute and Ranger qualified. Surely this let them know I was a leader worthy of their respect???
We were to conduct what is called a 'movement to contact' in the wee hours between midnight and sunrise. A force embarks on this type of mission when they have a rough idea but no specific intelligence of where the enemy is. Essentially, it involves moving in a formation that lends itself to rapid deployment from traveling to fighting posture, so that when you encounter the enemy you can quickly transition to the attack.
My platoon sergeant, the oldest and most experienced member of the unit, was injured, so one of the squad leaders was acting in his place. Our plan was based on a standard template of such operations. I would travel behind the lead squad, with him just ahead of the trail one. The radio man was with me, the medic and most of the heavier weapons (machine guns) with him. When we met the enemy, his contingent would quickly pull up beside mine to gain and maintain a superior base of fire on the enemy forces. Then I would peel off with an assault force to swing around the flank while the platoon sergeant and half of the platoon continued to lay down covering fire.
I carefully mapped out our route and distributed the relevant compass azimuths and distances of each leg of the mission to the squads. After a thorough briefing, careful equipment preparation and detailed rehearsals of the scenario described above, we set out on the mission.
The movement was going well, but in the relatively featureless terrain I had a hard time (which I never admitted, of course) verifying our position on the ground relative to the map used in the planning and in guiding our movements. By the time that we had covered more than the planned distance to the enemy without any sight of them, and as the scheduled hour of the confrontation came and went, I had to stop the formation and convene a leaders' meeting to double-check our position relative to the map.
We (myself and these over-tired squad leaders and stand-in platoon sergeant) decided that we were actually very near where the enemy must be. I took an executive decision to quietly move the platoon sergeant and his contingent into a perfect position to lay down fire on the identified terrain. Then I set out with my assault team to sneak up on the enemy from the flank. When I gave the signal, we would spring a perfect surprise attack on the opposing force, none of whom had yet realised we were on their doorstep.
It was all coming together. In addition to demonstrating textbook planning and preparation and executing a good (if somewhat uncertain) tactical movement, I was exhibiting the sort of flexibility that came with real tactical genius. I was on a buzz; my men had shrugged off their sleepiness and looked sharp and poised. We stealthily swept around in an arc, knowing we were moments from dealing death to the baddies.
A shot rang out just ahead. One of the enemy must have spotted us. I ordered my assault team to return fire and launched a green flare - the signal to the platoon sergeant and his fire support team to start shooting as well - into the air. All hell broke lose. The rattle and cough of automatic weapons echoed in the pre-dawn darkness. The smell of cordite filled the air.
I moved my assault team forward in bounding rushes. First one half, then the other. Everyone moving in short bursts - three steps then hit the ground, three steps then hit the ground. We closed in for the final assault. Time to signal to the platoon sergeant to lift his fire, as we were about to sweep across the enemy position and didn't want to get shot by our own men - the ultimate tragedy.
Before I had time to launch the appropriate flare for that signal, I caught sight of several faces of the enemy, only to realise that they were not the enemy at all! My sweeping arc had had a rather grander swing to it than I thought. I had circled round completely. Both my assault team and the platoon sergeant's support team had inflicted heavy casualties, but unfortunately we had inflicted them on one another! In a spectacular display of tactical ineptitude, I had completely destroyed my own unit.
The actual opposing force was sitting a half mile away, it's men getting bored, waiting eagerly for sunrise and breakfast and wondering what all the fighting was off to the southeast.
My company commander, who always had a soft spot for me and luckily subscribed to the school of learning through mistakes, assured me that my unit and I had done many things well. My men were also strangely forgiving of the fact that I'd led them to slaughter themselves. Over not too great a time I was able to (re?) gain their respect and enjoy a great year, including many more field exercises.
My commander was right - we learn from our mistakes. Despite having bucket loads of fun with a quality bunch of guys, I left the infantry when I got the chance and left the military once I had completed my obligatory service. I'll leave the fighting to those better suited to it.
In the summer of 1987, I reported back to the U.S. Air Force Academy, where I'd spent a semester on exchange from West Point the previous year. This time, it was for a three week training programme in Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape - a course designed for current and future pilots, in case they get shot down behind enemy lines.
If I remember correctly, the first couple of weeks were very soft, unlike Army courses, where there tended to be hazing for hazing's sake, this one was very civilised until the time came to impose a hostile scenario to consolidate the learning. The survival phase was mainly classroom work, other than a 'survival meal' in which we (in small groups) had to kill and eat a rabbit and a chicken. I'd had to do that in previous courses I'd done anyway. Things got interesting when we launched into the evasion phase. Three man teams were designated to navigate from a place where they were notionally shot down, via partisan camps and avoiding enemy patrols, to a point of safe passage to friendly territory.
Another Army guy was in my small team. Our Air Force counterpart badly sprained his ankle relatively early on the first day, when we had three days walking and many wooded miles to cover. I have to say, he was incredibly stoic and brave, but still he had to lean on one or both of us. Of course, we had only minimal equipment and next to no food. We purified water from mountain streams or lakes with iodine tablets so as not to fall prey to dehydration.
We managed to avoid the enemy patrols, who concentrated disproportionately on obvious points like open space and road crossings, where lazy teams would wander to minimise the distance they had to travel. The smart money was on putting in the extra distance in order to avoid those traps, but that meant that the pressure was always on to ensure we didn't miss the time windows for presenting ourselves at the partisan camps, where we could get stew or other sustenance.
The resistance phase was 24 hours in a simulated POW camp. We were blindfolded and placed in solitary confinement - including little cramped boxes one could barely fit into by sitting and hunching over in a ball. This didn't bother me particularly, as I quite like spending time on my own and don't mind close spaces. I do remember, though, as I do from most of my military training courses, just being terribly impatient with the fact that my freedom was so restricted.
I was a bad student in that I never immersed myself in the scenario to get the most from it. I always satisficed AS A STUDENT rather than stepping fully into the role AS A PRISONER or whatever other role I was cast in. This is not to say that I never played the game. During interrogation, I gave no useful information and even managed to stick to a consistent story of misinformation. But how hard was that? They couldn't exactly chop my fingers off, kick me in the nuts or threaten to kill my family. They could only put me into some temporarily uncomfortable 'stress' positions that I knew caused no lasting damage.
As with most of my military training, I learned at least as much about myself as I did about the specific content of the course.
'A cadet will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do.'
Thus spake the Honor Code at West Point. Anyone deemed to be in violation of it had to appear before an 'Honor Board' in which the alleged facts of the case and any defense were presented to a 'jury' of peers, who would decide whether the charged cadet was 'found' (guilty) or 'not found.' A cadet found on an honor violation was punished severely, most often by expulsion from the academy.
The rationale for the weight placed on the honor code lay in the absolute trust that one officer must have in another in the profession of arms. As an officer of the state's armed forces, one's character and actions had to be beyond reproach. We all took it very seriously.
The first three elements of the code were relatively simple:
Don't lie - period. Not about your age when trying to buy alcohol, not about where you were when a surprise inspection the night before had detected you were not in your own room.
Don't cheat - period. Not on your homework. Not in an exam. Not when doing your push-ups for the physical fitness test.
Don't steal - period. This one, unlike the two above, hardly ever tripped anyone up.
The fourth element of the code - called the non-toleration clause - was more personally demanding, as it required that you report any known cadet infringements of the code. It didn't matter whether the culprit was someone you didn't know or your best friend, a rival or someone you owed a favour to. If you were found to have known of a violation and to have failed to report it, then you were in violation yourself.
My sense was always that cadets accepted the first three elements without question, but that some harbored doubt about the non-toleration clause. The trouble lay in the clause's perceived undermining of the value of camaraderie - another essential glue among military professionals. You had to know that your buddy would be there for you, no matter what. You were a team, in it together. Yet the non-toleration clause could be seen as flying in the face of that tightness.
In the end, I subordinated camaraderie as a stand-alone value to the principle of non-toleration. This was, of course, in keeping with what the academy wanted us to do, and I bought the official reasoning: camaraderie, team spirit, is not commendable when it serves an ignoble end (e.g. lying, cheating, stealing). Were we to elevate camaraderie above our ethical principles, we might find ourselves supporting cover-ups of looting, massacres, rapes or genocide during war, in the interest of 'protecting buddies'. I certainly didn't think that would be right. I do think that most at the academy bought into the non-toleration clause as I did, but it wouldn't shock me to learn that a (quiet) minority prioritised camaraderie instead.
I graduated from West Point in 1988. In 2002, I received a message from another academy grad, asking me to get in touch. I must have copied the phone number incorrectly, because I was unable to reach him. He left a further message and expressed a certain urgency to speak with me. Although we knew one another pretty well as cadets, we had never been especially close friends. Without other clear ideas for why he might be phoning, I suspected he might be looking for a job with my current employer and hoping for some help.
When we finally caught up with one another by phone, we engaged in the usual talk-once-a-decade chit chat about where our lives had got to, etc. He then adopted a very sober tone and said that something had been digging at his conscience for years and that he needed to make a confession to me.
He went on to remind me (I had no recollection) that he had been charged with an honor violation during my final year at the Academy and that he had called me as a character witness. I 'testified' as to my views of his character at the time, and in the end - on the basis of all the assembled evidence - he was not found. His confession to me in this phone call, you will have guessed, was that he had committed the offence, the details of which I can't remember.
It had obviously taken some real courage for him to come out with that, and I told him that I appreciated his call and admired him for undertaking to set the record straight with me. He did the same with every person who was involved in the case, and indeed with the Academy itself. For me, that is sufficient to expunge the stains from that period of weakness at West Point, but I'm not sure what the Academy's official view is.
Can honor, once lost, be recovered? I would like to think so.
Sitting down to a meal was not exactly a relaxing experience as a first year student at West Point. Plebes, as the academy referred to its freshmen, could not talk to one another and had to request permission to speak with anyone else. With this gag order in effect, they needed to perform a number of duties for the table.
Each table sat 10 people. These places were assigned, with the same colleagues sitting together for 3-4 weeks before new table assignments were made. There were four year groups at West Point, and each was represented roughly equally at each rectangular table. So, the top 2-3 seats were for the Firsties (seniors), the next ones for the Cows (juniors), then the Yearlings (sophomores) and finally, at the foot of the table, the Plebes.
The mess hall had waiting staff to bring food and drink to the table, where it was always served 'family style' in serving dishes to be doled out to each person's plate by the table occupants. The plebes' duties were separate from and complementary to the waiters' tasks.
Whenever new table assignments came out, each table's Plebes would have to confer in one of their rooms to divvy up information gathering tasks. They would then each go off to their assigned upper-classmen's rooms to request and record information about each person's beverage and dessert preferences for meals:
- The beverage preference could be as simple as, ' I always want water with ice.' But it could take on considerably greater complexity, as in, 'I'll always have the drink for the meal if it is a fruit drink, and in those cases I will have it with 2 whole ice-cubes - not bits. If the drink is iced tea, I'll have water, with no ice, unless it's at dinner, in which case I'll have the iced tea with 3 whole ice cubes. Never give me a chipped glass, or you'll be sorry you were ever born.'
-Similarly, the dessert preference could range from, 'I'll always have it,' to 'I'll always have cake, unless it has coconut in it. I'll never have pie unless it's apple. If the dessert is a tart, ask me at the table. If you forget, I'll kill you.' You get the picture.
So, among the things a waiter drops off at the table are a pitcher of drink, a bucket of ice and an uncut dessert. The plebes at the table had to serve all of the drinks and cut the dessert before turning to their own meals. Doesn't sound too tough, but there were a couple of complicating factors.
First, the plebes had to have all of the preferences memorised. No notes were allowed at the table. Given all of the other information plebes had to have committed to memory - the three menus for the day, a paraphrasing of every article from the front page and lead sports page of the the day's New York Times, the number of days until various important events in the year's schedule (the Navy football game, Christmas break, Spring break, graduation, etc.) and a small catalog of West Point and Army trivia - the brain became a bit cluttered. And let's not forget that the poor fella might have a calculus or electrical engineering mid-term test immediately after lunch!
Second, the dessert needed to be cut into the correct number of exactly equal pieces and needed to be presented to the 'table commandant' for inspection. Most desserts were circular. The centre of the cuts needed to be at the geometric centre of the dessert, or there was trouble. The cuts needed to be clean, so the plebe doing the cutting would literally wipe off the knife and dip it in water before each new cut. And as I said, the pieces needed to be exactly equal. If all of this was done correctly, but the dessert had the wrong number of pieces (based on incorrect memory of the dessert preferences for the upperclassmen) there was still hell to pay.
Now, a slight cheat was allowed for cutting equal sized pieces. Each plebe was allowed (read required) to bring a template to the meal. This template could not touch the dessert, but could be balanced on crumbs of bread that the Plebe set on the dessert. The template usually had a hole in the centre, to help place it correctly on the dessert. It also had (according to the rigour and comprehensiveness of the plebe's approach) colour-coded notches for a six-piece cut vs. a seven-, eight-, nine- or ten-piece cut. Beads of sweat would form on the forehead as the operation was performed and the plebe awaited the table commandant's judgement after inspecting it.
Let's say it all went fine. Whewww! Now the plebes can eat. They have some catching up to do, as everyone else has been eating happily while these duties were being performed. But they can't catch up very quickly. A plebe can only take so big a mouthful. If asked a question by an upperclassman during the meal, he must be able to respond after no more than three chews and one swallow. We did become adept at handling bigger and bigger loads within the required parameters, and it makes me wonder whether my throat actually expanded at university.
The bite-size limit was superimposed with an effective bite frequency limit as well. The plebe had to cut a bite European style, put the knife down and switch the fork to the right hand, put the bite in his mouth with the fork and place the fork back onto his plate before he was allowed to start chewing. He could not pick up his knife and fork again until he had swallowed the previous bite.
Given all of this, you can guess why 'boodle boxes,' the parcels of food mailed from home for consumption in one's room at night while studying, were so crucial to our lives. Having gone in as a skinny lad, I somehow managed to put on 15 pounds during the first year, even operating in this regime. You can believe I was very happy when my plebe year ended and I could hand over the table duties and other baggage of plebe life to the next class of unfortunates.
The eight summer weeks before my first academic year at West Point were pretty tough. They were designed to be. This cadet basic training, called Beast Barracks, existed (as far as I can tell) to do two things. First it steeped incoming freshmen, called Plebes, in the history, culture and mentality of the West Point and, to a lesser extent, of the Army. Second, it weeded out those whose applications to join were based on an incorrect perception of what West Point was like or whose acceptance was based on an overestimation of their ability to meet the Academy's demands - particularly its psychological (as opposed to intellectual) ones. This second objective called for Beast to be an exaggeration or even caricature of the balance of the West Point experience.
Much was made of the need to be physically fit, and I quite enjoyed the group runs in formation. This was mainly because we all had to sing out 'cadence calls' and run in step with them. This appealed to my love of music and rhythm, helped regulate my breathing and generally took my mind off the fact that most of my body hurt quite badly! Push-ups and sit-ups were also staples of the daily regime, as were assault courses, bayonet drills and team sports.
I was a very skinny lad, and it was easy for people to underestimate my ability to 'hang' with the physical demands. I remember my squad leader - an upperclassman who was our equivalent to a drill sergeant - preparing us for a volleyball match against another squad: 'Smith, you play up front and look for opportunities to spike. Jones, play back center to dig out the tough serves. Johnson......' You get the picture. When he got to me, he just said, 'Fraley, uh, don't hurt yourself.' Luckily, my skin was thicker then than it is now, so I took no great offense. I did, however, redouble my efforts (waking up with muscle cramp most nights from my exertions) to ensure I held my own in the physical fitness tests.
We also had to bring ourselves to much higher standards of personal appearance than the standard college freshman. Our shirts always needed to be tucked in so tightly that they fit snugly to our bodies, with no loose fabric. This was called a 'dress-off', and being caught with a poor one meant getting into trouble. Our shoes and boots needed to be stereotypically shiny as well. Beyond that, the instructions for exactly what to wear for a given activity were complex and subtle. Should I wear my utility belt with suspenders or without? Do I carry a canteen on the belt? One or two? Normal brown t-shirt under camouflage jacket, or a white 'PT' one? Soft cap or helmet?
We were drilled on the importance of properly securing and maintaining our weapons - in this case old M-14 rifles with the firing pins removed. Leave it out of reach, get into big trouble. Get caught with a dusty one, get into big trouble. Lose it (and believe it or not, some did), get into BIG trouble.
You may have picked up by now that there were lots of ways to get into trouble. The fundamental characteristic of the entire 8 weeks was to learn that you could never get everything right. There was always something you could be caught short on. We were all yelled at constantly, made to feel we were on the verge of expulsion, lower than dog dirt. We were only permitted 4 responses when asked a question: 1) Yes Sir (or Ma'am), 2) No Sir, 3) No excuse, Sir, and 4) Sir, I do not understand. Not much wiggle room for getting out of trouble. The summer taught us how to handle overload. It taught us life was not fair. It made us question what the hell we were thinking when we signed up for this!
Yet the richness of West Point's traditions, the physical impressiveness of the place, and the quality of the people we saw around us made us stay. Many wrote home expressing a wish to drop out. I personally proposed an alternative career in the clergy! Seeing the statues of memorials to alumni - Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Jack Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower among them - made one feel a part of something big, something worth striving for. The imposing granite buildings, seemingly carved into the hillside over the Hudson River, echoed the reputation that the Academy's alumni had for dependability in the most difficult of times. Even if we said the summer sucked day-to-day, we saw it as a right of passage into something worthy of our efforts.
At the end of Beast Barracks we celebrated during a long weekend for which many of our parents made the trip. We could see them during the day, show them around, brag to them of all we'd done. It was great to see my family, but when they left, I cried my eyes out. I knew that I had a long and tough few months as a Plebe (still sub-human) in the autumn academic term before seeing them again for Thanksgiving.
I didn't bask for long in the glow of high-school graduation. Within a few weeks, I reported (voluntarily!) to the US Military Academy at West Point, where I would spend the next four years getting a degree and earning a commission in the Army. And this while several of my friends enjoyed a summer before heading off to a life that I could only assume was like the fraternity existence in 'Animal House'.
The first year (called 'Plebe Year') at West Point is always quite a tough one, and 1984/85 was no exception. We couldn't talk, except in the classroom or our own room, unless we were instructed to do so by an upperclassman. We had to ask permission to ask a question - inefficient, I know. We had to walk at a ridiculously rapid rate, with our eyes straight ahead and our elbows locked. When in the barracks (military equivalent to 'dorms'), we had to walk right up against the inner wall of the hallway to be out of the way of the upperclassmen.
The academic load was quite heavy, with 50% greater credits per term than at normal universities. In addition, we had to memorise volumes of data that had nothing to do with our studies. Examples included: the breakfast, lunch and dinner menus for the day, the number of days until Army played Navy in football, the number of days until graduation for that year's senior class, the number of lights in one of the halls, the number of gallons in the reservoir, a special definition of leather, the proper response to the question, "How's the cow?" There were endless others, with the intent probably to make the task impossible and then see how we handled it. We also had to be conversant in every article from the front page and main sports page of the NY Times - our only contact with the outside world.
We picked up and delivered the upperclassmen's mail, newpapers and laundry. We counted down the final 10 minutes for them before every formation. We presented ourselves early for every formation to have our appearance and knowledge subjected to rigorous scrutiny. We took mandatory lessons, with graded bouts, in boxing.
But I'm jumping ahead of myself. Before moving into that relaxed existence in the academic year, we had to endure 'Beast Barracks' - basic training - for 2-1/2 months in our first summer. This was, I imagine, much like the basic training of new privates in the Army, but always with a special twist owing to the particular traditions of the Academy.
My parents drove me to West Point on that first day and attended a briefing with me in the football stadium. At the end of the briefing, parents were packed off to worry and fret about how their little babies were doing, and their little babies were thrown into the crucible. Amid constant shouting and confusion, I was shown to my room, where I had about six nanoseconds to change from my scumbag civilian clothes into my uniform. In a daze, I saw a small black bottle on my desk, sat down, turned it over to examine it, and unscrewed the cap.
Out poured the ink intended for my stamp pad, with which I was meant to mark all my clothes. In this case, I marked them rather differently than I was meant to, as the ink splattered over my white shirt and grey trousers. No time to change - screaming in hallway suggested I needed to move rapidly back out into the big world of training and hazing.
You won't be surprised to hear that I became something of a focus for the upperclassmen for the next few hours, especially for those most keen to hone their abuse and humiliation techniques for the upcoming weeks. The bookies that day wouldn't have given me good odds for making it through the evening's parade for the parents, let alone through Plebe year or the four-year course. I'll tell you now that I did, and I'll look forward to sharing a few more stories in posts to come.
None of us were uptight about the jump back into Ft. Benning. If we got hurt, we would still graduate on time from the course. The instructors joked that even if we died on the jump, we could wear the Ranger tab on our burial uniform. We had been so single-minded, so focused on getting through the course, that we did actually take this as a relief.
Although one guy fractured his leg and several others suffered sprains, I made it through my fifth and final jump in Ranger School (my tenth and final overall) unscathed. We were all treated as humans by the cadre in the final days of cleaning equipment and out-processing, having joined their fraternity in all but the most formal sense. That would come soon enough.
My elbow started bothering me in the last couple days, as I scrubbed and scrubbed at the equipment I had borrowed and used throughout the course. The inspections at the supply warehouse, where we had to return the gear before leaving the course, were notoriously picky, and I didn't want some administrative hang-up like that to hold up my departure.
At the graduation, I had more than a tear in my eye as received my tab. It didn't take long to shift into 'exit mode.' To avoid any hassles in returning my equipment, I agreed up front to buy anything that looked like it wouldn't pass inspection. So I had a half-full Army ruck sack to take with me as I drove off with my girlfriend, who had driven down from Virginia. We were heading back there for a romantic 2 weeks before each of us got back to work.
Having got 5 hour's sleep for each of the past 4 nights, I assured her that I was in good shape to drive the first leg of our journey. We hadn't made it 2 miles outside the gates of Ft. Benning when I awoke to find our car (with me supposedly at the helm) bumping across a grass field off the side of the highway I was meant to be on. I guess I had overestimated just how well rested I was. I ceded control to my girlfriend and promptly dropped into a deep sleep - this time in the passenger seat.
I awoke some hours later with my elbow throbbing and red. Cellulitis (a nasty skin infection common among the run-down bodies at Ranger School) had been building up over the last couple of days, and the bursal sac was infected as well. We went to some emergency room in north Georgia, where I got a prescription for some anti-biotics to set things right. It actually took nearly a month before that arm was back to normal.
We spent the next two weeks in a lovely condo on the shore of a gorgeous lake in western Virginia. The romance wasn't all I might have thought, though. All I could do was sleep and upon waking ask for the food about which I had just been dreaming. I had lost a bit more than 20 pounds in the past 9 weeks, and my body felt the need for replenishment acutely - certainly more than it felt any sex drive!
I slept better during the day than the night, as we had been forced into a rhythm of nocturnal activity in the course. I (strangely) sat outside under the stars, cleaning and adjusting my recently purchased equipment as my girlfriend slept inside. She forgave me. All in all, it took more than a month to get back into something like a normal routine and a normal mindset.
Ranger School was a terrible thing to go through but a great thing to have done. It taught me, taught us all, how far we could push ourselves. It provided a benchmark for physical hardship and discomfort that makes even my life in London seem relatively easy...
It gave me some interesting stories.
Ranger School I Ranger School II Ranger School III Ranger School IV Ranger School V
Having eaten all I could of the 'care packages' sent by friends and family at the end of the Florida phase, and having donned parachute and other gear in flight to Utah, I leaped from the jet into the hot, dry air over the hard-packed desert. The landing was as if jumping onto concrete, but I suffered only a couple bruises before moving out into the first of our simulated patrols behind enemy lines.
There could hardly be a larger difference in environment between that wide-open terrain and the thickly forested swamps in Florida just hours before. There were hills, some of them jagged, and we had to walk in their shadows to avoid quick detection from the opposing forces. This base had been a test centre for chemical weapons years ago, and we couldn't help but wonder what unsavoury elements hung in the dust that we kicked up with each step.
I was put into a leadership position right away, but this time only second in charge. Still it counted as an official rating, and I passed it, pretty much guaranteeing my graduation, provided I didn't get hurt in the intervening period.
We did a couple of live-fire exercises there. It does focus the mind, moving in a bounding assault line with men on both left and right firing live bullets at the targets ahead. Because we couldn't afford silly errors with lead flying around, we were given a full five hours' sleep the night before.
Because the ground was so hard, we were allowed to wear special elbow and knee pads, to save our bony joints more torture than they had already got. This didn't help our poor feet, though. Made soft by two weeks in the Florida swamps, they blistered and bled on the long foot movements from objective (target) to objective.
About half-way through the phase, I got sick again. This time, I think I brought it on myself. We had been given three packaged meals (MREs) for a three-day patrol. I was so hungry that I lost all discipline and, in the course of a few hours, managed to eat all three, one secreted bite at a time. This was too much for my stomach, and I began to throw up. Taken by ambulance to a clinic at the remote base camp, I rested and drank water for 24 hours to get back on my feet again. Although the official story reads 'food poisoning' I can't help but wonder if it was not just food overdose.
I rejoined my patrol and within a couple more days, we had completed the last raid. The Ranger Instructor (RI) congratulated us and pointed to a bright light blinking ahead of us, 'Now we just have to road march back in to that camp.' We were ecstatic. Last mission under our belt, we had just this short walk, end in site, before heading back to Ft. Benning, Georgia for graduation.
Well, that short walk ended up being eight miles! In the desert, never take a clear view for a short distance. Our adrenaline high wore out after the first couple of miles, and it was like a procession of the dead as we finally headed into the camp, secured our gear, and grabbed some quick rest.
Just one more jump (back into the jump zone at Ft. Benning where each of us had won our parachute qualification sometime earlier in his career at Airborne School) and some administrative clearing before pinning on the coveted 'Black and Gold' - the Ranger Tab.
Ranger School I Ranger School II Ranger School III Ranger School IV Ranger School V
Having made it through the Benning phase and the mountain phase of Ranger school, I strapped on a parachute plus more equipment than I could carry for more than 5 steps at a time and boarded a plane. Not much later, I was leaping from a perfectly sound aeroplane into the sky above Florida. With good luck and perhaps some help from a benevolent god somewhere, I survived the landing without injury and loped off into the treeline to start the third phase - the swamps.
I would spend much of the next two weeks partially submerged in water or mud. First we got an introduction to local wildlife and how to react if we came across an alligator or a water moccasin. Sounds scary, but our sense of fear was already significantly dulled. In the mountains a week before, a group of us moved in single-file, bleary-eyed in the night. When the first in the file nearly stepped on a timber-rattler (yes poisonous), he simply whispered 'rattler' to the guy behind him and led the group on a 5-metre detour around the noisy snake before settling back onto the compass azimuth that would take us to our destination.
I managed to escape a problem common among the group - terrible blisters on the feet. Having spent 4 weeks toughening our feet on long road marches and cross-county patrols, we found that all of the callouses softened and rubbed away through constant immersion in and movement through water. Blisters could be followed by infection, which could in turn require an enforced recovery period and (horror) re-taking that phase of the school.
Motivation suffered as none of us ever managed to get completely dry. We would try to waterproof our rucksacks before doing a long movement through stream and swamp, but inevitably our efforts fell short. We would arrive at our destination, weary and wet, to find that the dry socks we had hoped to change into were no less wet than those on our feet. Trousers and long-sleeved jackets, wet through, feel distinctly uncomfortable when one lies on the ground, necessarily still and silent, after great physical exertion in reaching one's temporary patrol base.
We got much less sleep than in the mountains, and this led to some of the more interesting things I've ever seen:
- A guy trying to put imaginary coins into an imaginary Coke machine while standing chest-deep in the swamp - bending down and putting his head under the water to see if the desired can had been dispensed for his enjoyment.
- A guy falling (and I mean 'falling') asleep while standing up in line for one of our few meals. He simply collapsed onto the ground and woke up not knowing what had happened.
- A guy proposing to me, thinking that I was his girlfriend from Chicago. I didn't hold him to it, and our relationship remained strictly platonic.
We also got much less food. We each carried several days-worth of Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) on our missions. Basically, one MRE equaled one day's food. Often, there was no programmed time for eating, so we would have to sneak portions - the MREs were broken into separate packages for main course, dessert, crackers, etc. - on the move. This was against the rules and brought a 'major minus' if we got caught. It was always surreal to be moving through a stinking swamp and suddenly get a whiff of chicken a-la-king as a colleague sneakily tore open the precious packet.
Food deprivation also spawned a thriving secondary market for trading MRE components. Peanut butter might get swapped for cheese or strawberry jelly. Orange nut cake might buy a brownie or powder for hot cocoa. This powder, if mixed with one's dehydrated dairy creamer, sugar and water, made a lovely chocolate pudding! Some of the meals were avoided like the plague, and the poor bastard who happened to draw one of those was frozen out of most options for 'trading up'.
Thrust into a leadership position during the first of our two (multi-day) simulated missions behind enemy lines, I managed to earn a 'Go', bringing my tally to 2 Go's and 1 No Go. Near the end of that mission, I was bitten on the wrist by a spider. It hurt for a bit, but I soon forgot about it. A few hours later, when we made it back to 'home base', I couldn't keep down my breakfast, and my arm began to swell up and turn red.
This was certainly uncomfortable, but it had it's positive side as well. The nausea passed within a day or two. My wrist seized up, but antibiotics (I had developed a skin infection common in Ranger School - cellulitis) eventually brought things under control. In the meantime, my group went off onto the second big mission. I got food (once I could keep it down) and rest in a hospital bed for a day and a bit. Best of all, since I had already passed a leadership patrol in that phase, I would NOT have to recycle.
That 'lucky' break bought me some recovery time that helped me get through the final phase. But I had one more huge treat to look forward to first. After my peers came back from the mission, we officially moved on from swamp phase. Having made it three-quarters of the way through the overall course, we were given a bit of slack. The cadre had let us know weeks before that if family and friends sent snacks to us during the Florida phase, they would save the food and give it to us during the bus ride to the airbase, from which we would take off for the Utah desert.
I had two large boxes of goodies waiting for me on the bus, as did many others. We shared our treasure with those who had none. The sad thing is that our stomachs, adjusted now to very little food, could not begin to hold all of the sweets and other cravings we had fantasised about for a month and a half. The vast majority of the food was left unfinished when we left the bus to fly out. The instructors enjoyed the leftovers, as they knew they would from the moment they announced this 'special reward' to us.
This was a longer flight, and the first one in which we did in-flight rigging. It was tough finding space to get our chutes and other gear on, but it was nice not having to sit with all that weight for the full 5-plus hours. One more phase, and the Ranger tab was mine.
Ranger School I Ranger School II Ranger School III Ranger School IV Ranger School V
We parachuted into a large field on the Georgia - Tennessee border to kick off the mountain phase of Ranger School. I just remember being thankful after each jump that I didn't injure myself on landing. I never thought very much about dying from a chute failure, but I certainly didn't want an injury to prolong my time in the training course!
Because much of the training in this phase was quite hazardous - rock climbing, abseiling, and mountain rescue operations - we often had 3 proper meals a day and 5 hours of sleep at night. The 5 hours, though, always included a shift on 'fire guard' which rotated among everyone in our group and interrupted what might have been a good night's sleep.
The breakfasts in the mountain camp were the best I've ever had. How much of that was due to the quality of the food and how much to my ravenous hunger and constant food obsession, I don't know. Each morning, we had wonderful blueberry pancakes. As ever, we were mightily rushed to get our meal down, but by this time we were more used to it and had become quite proficient at inhaling (and keeping down) vast quantities very quickly.
Some of the episodes I remember best:
A small young soldier from one of the Ranger battalions had quite a hard time on the rock climbing. Aware of his slow progress and feeling exposed and defensive, he began to berate his 'belay man', the guy holding the rope that would save his life if he fell. He was shouting, 'Slack! You buddy f***er!' - effectively accusing the belay man of keeping the rope too tight and thereby hindering his climb.
The term he used was the most caustic one around, the one that implied that the person targeted was willing to screw over his colleagues in order to make things easier on himself - certainly not applicable in this case. One did have to be very careful not to earn this reputation, as all team members rated one another at the end of each phase, and the one scoring lowest failed and had to repeat the two weeks when the next class came through. It was yet another way to keep up the pressure on all the students by giving real 'teeth' to peer pressure. As a matter of fact, being failed due to this rating was called being 'peered'.
One of the methods we had to learn and use for rescuing an injured soldier on the mountain was called the 'buddy rappel'. Effectively, one student had to tie the other one tightly onto his back, like a human ruck sack, then abseil down the cliff with him. This created a special difficulty for me, as I was a scrawny 160 pounder, and my Ranger Buddy was a strapping 210 or more. Having tied him on and got less than a third of the way down the 60-foot cliff, I realised that my grip strength on the rope was not sufficient to hold our combined weight. I had to hold with all my might and 'run' backwards down the cliff face to reach the bottom before my grip failed completely. The friction burns I inflicted on myself that afternoon didn't heal for more than a week.
The most serious injury, though, was to an instructor. While we were off on some other training, he decided to show off for some of his buddies on a 20-foot climbing wall - without a safety man. Near the top, he slipped and fell. The impact broke a rib, which in turn punctured a lung. An emergency evacuation helicopter arrived quickly to whisk him off to the hospital, where he was stabilised and eventually recovered, but presumably never again to teach safe mountaineering.
Some student in an earlier (winter) class, possessed of a dark sense of humour, had engraved on a prominent stone in the mountain camp, 'You only get so cold, then you die.'
We were all on top of a bald, rocky peak when a summer thunderstorm erupted around us. Lightning struck every 20 seconds or so, with huge thunder claps simultaneously, since the strikes were so close. The heavens opened, pouring sheets of rain for about 15 minutes. Those 15 minutes happened to come about 2 minutes after we were served our field meals, so we all just stood in the pouring rain, with water filling our plates and flooding over the rims, quietly enjoying the last proper meal we would have for 3 days. There was no way we were going to let nature come between us and our calories!
We went on an extended, three day patrol. It was during these simulated missions behind enemy lines that we got hardly any sleep and very little food. The unit had to accomplish a series of missions, for each of which a student was appointed to be the leader. Failing the mission in this leadership role was bad news, as one had to maintain a better than 50% pass rate to keep going in the course. I had passed my first patrol in the first phase of the course, but I was not to be so lucky this time.
The mission opened with a helicopter ride deeper into the mountains. We parachuted from the 'birds' (the only time a jumped from a helicopter) into a tiny drop zone, which looked like a postage stamp from 1700 feet. Many people ended up stranded in trees, having missed the small field. Several others suffered broken or twisted ankles as they landed on stumps or other debris in the field. I came out unscathed and, as ever, thanked my lucky stars.
Two days later, in the middle of a pitch black night belted by an interminable rain, I was appointed leader for the final movement back into friendly territory. I had to plan the route, plan for contingencies, disseminate instructions and conduct rehearsals. I managed to will myself to complete all but the final task, but couldn't bring myself to try to find all of my unit in the pitch dark and make them try to do these rehearsals in the driving rain. Instead, I meekly curled up under my poncho and grabbed an hour's sleep. I awoke, got the rest of the unit up and ready and moved out on time. The entire mission went well, and we handled the surprise attack properly as we neared our friendly lines. Still, I received a 'No Go' for having failed to properly rehearse the previous night.
I was 1 for 2 and skating on the edge. I would have to pass my patrol in the next phase, in the swamps of Florida.
Ranger School I Ranger School II Ranger School III Ranger School IV Ranger School V
I'm curious. I like looking beneath and behind the obvious, also looking for what is between me and the obvious, obscuring or distorting my view.