I woke up on the edge of a swamp, with no idea where I was. My cap was on my chest and my weapon lay just outside my reach. Leaning over me, a very large man with green and black stripes painted across his face was snarling, 'Ranger, why do I have a barely controllable urge to kick you in the teeth?'
Ah, it's much better looking back and laughing at moments like that than living through them. I would soon come to my dulled senses and realise that I was in the Florida panhandle, struggling through the third of four phases of the US Army's Ranger School.
In 1988, Ranger School was 9 weeks of intense leadership training that relied on sleep and food deprivation (as well as a number of other superimposed stresses) to approximate, within acceptably safe limits, the demands of battle. 'Acceptably safe' is a relative term. One trainee nearly died of heat stroke a week before I arrived, and a number have died in the years since I attended. The training was a must for all but the most junior soldiers in the Army's elite Ranger Regiment - a unit with its ancestry in the WWII creation of units modeled on the British Commandos. Although one had to volunteer to go, it was generally understood that a young infantry officer like myself really needed to show up at his first unit sporting the coveted black and gold tab that designated Ranger qualification.
If I remember correctly, about 200 men (women were not eligible) started that course with me. I think about a third of us finished as a group, with another third eventually completing the course after 'failing' one phase but succeeding as part of the next group to come through. The remainder resigned or were removed from the course - most with face-saving injuries as explanation.
The first two-week phase took place in Ft. Benning, Georgia. Twenty-hour days and rigorous physical training kept up the pressure to weed out those unlikely to succeed, before Uncle Sam spent loads of money on the real training. I was paired with my 'Ranger buddy', with whom I would move through the entire course in bonding interdependency. We encouraged one another through the runs, road marches, obstacle courses and other training, pointing out the mental games that the cadre were using to get students to give up and resign.
We went on runs, none longer than five miles, I think, but pretty fast. The cadre would remind us every few steps that if we didn't shout out to the cadence calls we would be pulled out and given a 'major minus' - bad news. If we fell more than two steps behind the man in front of us in formation, the same fate awaited. Inevitably, we would approach and run past the point initially designated as the finish point. The cadre would say we needed to do the whole course another time. A number of students, spirits broken, would stop, admit failure and resign. Then the cadre would turn the formation around, barely 200 metres later, to take the survivors back to breakfast.
Meals were another story! We had, it seemed, about 5-minutes to 'eat as much as we liked.' Attempts to get the most from this usually proved counter-productive, with the very greedy eaters often getting sick immediately and losing all the vital nutritional value.
Within the first couple days, I distinguished myself with an act of formidable ineptitude. Within hours of going to the supply warehouse to pick up two huge duffel bags full of equipment, I managed to lose one. To be a bit fairer on myself, I should say that this was 'lost' while I was jumping on and off a bus about fifty times to amuse our instructors after taking the mandatory 'survival swimming' test at an outdoor pool. Anyway, among the items lost was my rucksack. So for nearly two weeks, while others carried their gear in a purpose-made, frame-reinforced back pack, I did the 12-mile road marches and night-time treks through dense wooded terrain with a big rubber bag slung over my shoulder, hobo-style. I was the source of endless pleasure for our tormentors, but I think that, in a way, they ended up admiring my spirit and refusal to let it break me. On balance, this 'misfortune' may have turned out to be a blessing.
But first, I gave the cadre yet another reason to get on my back. We all had to pass a land navigation exercise. Given a map, a compass and a set of six grid references spread over about a six square-mile area, we needed to find the spots, click our cards with the unique pattern punches located at each, and make our way back to the beginning. My problem was that I was, as ever, very hungry.
As it happened, my points all seemed to have huge swathes of blackberries on the routes between them. I lost my focus. I became entranced by the luscious fruit, intoxicated with my full belly. I drank plenty of water, but my stomach used it all trying to digest the mountain of berries I'd consumed. I became dehydrated, went all fuzzyheaded, lost my bearings, and had to end up sitting by one of the emergency roads for the instructors to pick me up once the alarm went up that not all students had made it back in time! This was not the way to impress the cadre. I was read the riot act and, with some other ‘deadbeats’ who'd failed the first test like me, re-did the whole exercise 3 days later. I didn't eat a single berry, and I made it back in time with all the right punches!
The phase ended with a simulated mission for which I was tagged to be the leader of a small group of 8 men. These patrols, as they were called, were the true tests we had to pass. Less than a 50% success rate meant having to repeat the entire 2-week phase, with all of its exhausting and unpleasant requirements. I won't bore you with the details except to say that things were going sufficiently well for me on this patrol that the instructor decided to have a laugh with me. He said that I was really close to passing and that all I had to do was take a big pinch of his Copenhagen tobacco and carry it between my lip and gum for the final hour or so. That was strong tobacco, and I had never used it (or anything like it before). My head starting spinning and I was told afterward that my instructions for the final movement back into base were completely incoherent. Still, the RI (Ranger Instructor) gave me a 'Go' - the thumbs up that I had passed.
Both my Ranger buddy and I, and I'd wager just about every other man there, had been brought to sobbing tears at least once. We'd all sworn we were going to quit, but never at the same time. When one guy was at a low point, the others would pull him through. For those of us who stuck together, one phase down and three to go!
I'll be sharing a few more posts about my experience of Ranger School. If you'd like to learn more about it from the perspective of other Rangers, I recommend Brace E. Barber's No Excuse Leadership: Lessons from the US Army's Elite Rangers.
Ranger School I Ranger School II Ranger School III Ranger School IV Ranger School V