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