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.
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