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