Ranger School, May-Sep, 1989
I started out with 48 other Infantry 2nd Lieutenants in a class of 600. Almost all of the other ~550 were folks that had already gone through some kind of “pre-Ranger” training so they were a leg up on us Infantry 2Lt’s. After a week there were only 7 of the 48 left. At the end, there were only two.
Seven guys that summer had to be resuscitated with a defibrillator. They had wanted to make it so badly that they had kept pushing no matter the danger signals from their body.
There were hard times. I cried like a school girl when Warren Eby walked up to a Ranger Instructor and said “I quit.” In the first week we put 150 of the class in the hospital for heat exhaustion. I failed a "leadership position" evaluation in the final phase and the horror of the potentially life-changing failure will remain etched in my psyche forever.
There were good times. The finest thing a person has ever done for me, was to give me half of his field ration cookie bar when I was at the end of my emergency reserves, laying pitifully in 12” of cold water, shivering, and with legs so cramped up they wouldn’t work.
Ranger School gives you an opportunity to figure out how to function and lead under difficult conditions. Most of the candidates are weeded out by the extremes of physical exhaustion while also subject to significant chow and sleep deprivation. The remainder drop out because of injury, sometimes acute like a bad sprain and sometimes chronic, like skin rotting off. Ranger school builds confidence. You learn that, with sufficient tenacity, you can continue to not just function, but to lead others in a difficult environment for far longer than you’d have thought. As a member of a group, you learn how to work with others that are on the edge of collapse, as a peer, as a subordinate, and hardest of all, as a leader. The vehicle for that learning is planning and executing small unit Infantry missions.
It takes much more energy to lead then to follow. When each person is physically exhausted and being punished by day after day of cold, wet, or heat, it is the leader’s example of endurance, tenacity, and optimism that the rest of the organization draws strength from. Providing that example sucks the life out of the leader. Being under unrelenting observation day and night means that there is never a moment’s respite from the obligation to provide the inexhaustible enthusiastic example that buoys the morale of the organization.
Everyone had their own strengths and weaknesses. What was especially difficult for one person was often less so for another.
Sleep deprivation. At its worst we went 5 days and nights of moving, planning and patrolling on a total of 20min rack time. That is to say, on the 5th night, we got 20min shut-eye. Lack of sleep didn’t impact me as hard as it did some others. I seemed to be able to continue to function at a base level pretty much infinitely on no sleep, as long as I could keep moving and no one expected me to think. If I stopped, staying awake required significant attention, but it could still be done.
I spent a great deal of time at Ranger trying to stay awake. I found that it was surprisingly difficult to know for certain whether or not I was awake. Just because I was sure that I was awake, didn't make it so. The potential consequences of falling asleep, when you were supposed to be watching your area of responsibility, were severe.
The most reliable means to detect whether or not I was awake was to simply watchdog what I was thinking about. If my thoughts swanned off the reservation into foolishness, I was probably asleep and dreaming, and I needed to jerk awake. The specifics of the adventure, violence, and pretty-girl laden daydreams of a mid-20's lad aren't worth going into. In a given 24hrs there would be occasions where one wasn't really "doing" anything, just going through the motions of maintaining vigilance on your sector. Those were the dangerous moments.
Whenever I stopped moving, I had to watch where my mind wandered very carefully. It was largely impossible to spot the transition from "awake" to "not awake" because it was perfectly seamless. Many a time I marveled at how one minute I could be on a knee supporting 120lbs of gear, and then my reality would seamlessly segue to some completely goofy daydream. Then my watchdog would snap alert and I'd hear myself, outside of the frankly fun storyline, think "hey, this might not be real." Then there'd be an internal shriek of "HOLY SHIT! YOU'RE ASLEEP! WAKE UP WAKE UP WAKE UP WAKE UP!!" The daydream would disappear and my eyes would snap open to watch "my sector."
I was always careful not to move when jerking awake less some telltale abrupt movement make my failure obvious to any Ranger Instructor that might have been observing me. Then I'd deliberately turn my head a bit and intently look at something different in order to provide a clear sign of my alertness to any sneaky observer that might have been watching me from a distance wondering if I was as asleep as I looked. Momma Gress didn't raise no dummies.
If my Ranger Buddy caught me asleep, I would have just gotten an elbow.
But if one of the other guys or, god forbid a Ranger Instructor caught me
asleep, it would have been my ass.
The lack of sleep significantly impacted short term memory. If someone told me something that I needed to remember, I had to painstakingly write it down to have any hope of recalling it later. When I took notes, I carefully formed each written character to ensure that I’d later be able to refer to those critical notes. Often later, to my horror, I’d find only indecipherable chicken scratches.
Sleep deprivation also impacted long term memory. Most of my recollections of Ranger School are from the first week. After that it gets fuzzy.
Chow deprivation. Starving was quite unpleasant. Every week or so we received a week’s worth of chow, 7 MRE field rations, to stuff in our rucks. We probably burned 3 times that. Because I started running in HS and then did a long tour in college, I'd been a runner, cyclist, and ultimately a triathlete, for 13yrs before I started Ranger School. I would not have thought that I had more than a couple pounds I could lose, but over the course of the 3 months, I lost 25lbs. The body likes to consume muscle mass if it’s owner is starving because muscles burn calories. Less muscle means a body that can survive with less food. Take 25lbs from a 6' tall runner and you end up with a scarecrow.
I went in able to do 120 pushups. Coming out I’d do 10 and collapse. My body was a wreck. I’d have done virtually anything--paid any price for food during Ranger School. I spent hours every day fantasizing about food. I resolved that after Ranger I would have, every waking hour for the rest of my life, a packet of Pop-Tarts in my pocket. I was constantly alert for a berry bush in my path as we moved thru the woods during the day. If I saw one, I'd give my Ranger Buddy a meaningful look, we'd carefully note the locations of Ranger Instructors with us on the patrol, then we'd try to hit the berry bush just as all cadre were screened from sight and we'd have a 5secs of pure madness as we snatched up berries and stuffed them in our mouths. Then there'd be a quick check of each others faces to remove any berry impact residue from our faces. If I'd have known anything about eating bugs and grubs, or critters that could be safely be eaten w/o cooking, they'd not have stood a chance. We didn't see much of that sort of thing though. Probably because previous Ranger classes had already been through this buffet.
The challenge, moment by moment, was to not let the hardships prevent you from giving 110% to your squad at all times. An illustrative example from the Desert Phase:
I'd never been so completely worn out. It wasn't the exhaustion of competition, even a triathlon. It was the exhaustion of the sum of privations as, not quite dead yet, I kept moving bearing the weight of all the gear. I'd been in endurance sports for a decade. I'd been in challenging military environments for almost as long. I had been cockily sure that I could withstand physical challenges better than most folks. But I was near collapse. Not just tired, but I'd burned thru what I'd though to be near infinite reserves of tenacity, and now I had nothing left but a threadbare mantra I'd repeat, "I'm not dead yet, keep moving".
I was so worn out that each time we "took a knee" in a hasty halt I worried that with 130lbs of ruck, weapon, and equipment, I'd not be able to get back to my feet. With the butt of my weapon planted in the ground it took a supreme shove to stagger up. Once there, I'd have to pause and catch my breath while my legs shook.
It was time to change responsibilities in the squad and the machine gun should go to the small guy "over there." I didn't know him very well, but he seemed to try hard. He was a small guy tho, and he’d been carrying the same load as me so he had to be in worse shape. "The heavy and cumbersome machine gun was going to be a helova lot harder on him, than me," I thought. I could see the despair in his eyes.
I went over to him and said “I want to be machine gunner today. Here, take my M16.” I gave him my 7lb M16 rifle and took the 30lb M60 machinegun and 15-20lbs of ammo.
He was too tired to say “thanks.” He just nodded his head.
Having done something nice somehow provided me with some untapped reserves of strength. "It's going to be a hard day," I thought to myself, "but thank god I don't have to carry the goddamned (machine gun) tripod."
Failing Ranger School.
There were lots of ways to fail Ranger. If you simply gave up, you were gone. If you lost 24hrs training due to a medical issue, you Recycled. That is to say, you did not move on to the next phase with your mates. Recycling meant that you were held in limbo for a couple weeks or a month until the next class came thru. Then you would join a new squad and platoon.
In each of the 4 phases you had to get a “Pass” in a Leadership position like platoon leader or squad leader. The positions were generally rotated 2x/day. One leadership team would plan the mission of the day and another leadership team would execute it. If you failed a leadership position, at the end of the phase you recycled. Or, if you were very lucky, you might be granted a second leadership position in that same phase and get a second chance to pass.
The prospect of recycling in the Florida Swamp Phase and therefore having to do the Swamp Phase twice, would make a strong man weep.
The rotating leadership positions helped make us very cooperative. Each leader was desperate to pass their leadership position eval. If you were in a leadership position, I would bust my ass to help you succeed because, in only a couple hours, the roles might be reversed. I might be in a leadership position, desperate to pass, and very grateful for every bit of determined support I received.
After each phase we held anonymous Peer Evaluations. The guy with the worst evaluation from his peers got Recycled. This also made us very cooperative. We didn’t just try hard to get along well, we were obsessively supportive of each other. Anything one person could do to help another, we did. And this in an environment where we were all so exhausted we were half dead. If you saw someone having a tougher time than you, be it carrying a load, or an intricacy of the planning process, falling asleep, or just emotionally in tatters, you helped, no matter what the cost to you.
Everyone knew who it was that made extra efforts to help others, and who didn’t. Even if a person was tremendously able, if you didn't try your ass off to help your buddies, you didn't last. This simple measure to weed out unwanted personality types has far-reaching consequences. It creates a Ranger culture where helping your buddy is a near-sacred institution.
At the beginning of each phase we always got new guys, Recycles from the class that came through that phase 2-4wks prior. Each squad of 10-16 would get 1-2 new guys. The new guys were under significant pressure to perform and contribute. Some of them were leadership failures, some had been Peered, a few were Medical Recycles. They came to our family as outsiders. They needed to be so fabulous, such strong contributors, that the squad would evaluate them higher than one of their family. If the Recycle came to us because they'd been Peered out of their previous squad, then they were especially in a crisis. If they got Peered a second time they'd be send home. The relative newby was, in effect, working desperately to ensure that their new family valued the contribution of the newby so much that they would choose to discard one of their own in favor of the newby. It was a high bar.
The different phases of Ranger School.
Ranger School consisted of City Week and then 4 phases in the field. Darby Phase, the Mountain Phase in N. GA, the Swamp Phase at Elgin AF Base, Florida, and the Desert Phase, then in high desert of Utah. My recollection is that it added up to 9wks. I, however, completed the 15 week plan, having, sadly, Recycled in the desert.
As all 600 of us stood in formation on the first morning and received our introductory briefing, we were told that, although a lot of us wouldn't make it through City Week, we'd later remember it fondly as “the easy part of Ranger School". Of course we rolled our eyes like teenagers.
City Week was mostly a lot of exercise. The combination of exercise and the heat/humidity of the GA summer did in about a third of the ~600 class. Consider that for a moment. These were really fit and determined guys that had been training for Ranger School for 6 months to years. City Week was only, well, a week. The average person would imagine that they could put up with just about any physical regimen for a week. But that week of exercise in the heat and humidity was rough enough that we lost almost 200 really fit hard-chargers.
Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. I'd always been ok at math and
physics, but the only thing I'd ever really been good at was endurance sports.
Ok, endurance sports and making girlfriends angry. So I didn't have much trouble
during City Week. I did
get in big trouble over something dumb and got yelled at a bit, but I managed
dig myself out of that pit and avoid the threatened Recycle.
The general scheme for all of the Ranger School 2 week phases in the field was ~12hrs of mission planning, followed by ~12hrs of mission execution. The only breaks we got were associated with getting us moved from one phase to another in buses, or in the case of the move to Utah, C141 cargo planes. We were, of course, jammed in to these conveyances like sardines, but we were off our feet and caught up on some sleep.
Darby Phase was 2 weeks of squad patrols at Ft. Benning, GA. We got a couple Recycles into the squad, guys that had failed Darby Phase in the previous class to come through, but we also lost folks due to injury or guys simply choosing to call it quits. The squad was really large when we started Darby, maybe 20 guys. Although we got an honest several hours of sleep during City Week, that got reduced to an average of a 30min catnap each day during Darby Phase. During City Week we'd gotten 2 big meals/day....essentially as much food as you could put away in 5min or so. But Darby Phase was the beginning of the chow deprivation that would characterize the rest of Ranger School. With the exception of an especially meager chicken dinner, we received one MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat. Colloquially understood as three lies in one) field ration/day. To add to the joy of Darby Phase, it rained every day.
Our night moves were made just as fast as possible. We were still strong at that point so we’d move at a near jog, carrying around 130lbs of ruck, weapon, etc. thru heavy vegetation and inky darkness. We got beat up a lot by the requirement to move so darn fast when we couldn’t see a thing under the forest canopy. You absolutely could not see your hand in front of your face. I think I banged my shins and knees into every root and log at Ft. Benning. I was constantly worried that I’d stumble over something in the darkness and break a leg or blow out an ankle. I kept my hat visor pulled down to shield my eyes as best I could. I took a lot of sticks in the face and sticks jabbing into the hat and yanking it right off my head, but I managed to avoid losing an eye.
All you could see of the guy in front of you was two small glow-in-the-dark patches, cat-eyes we called them, on the back of his hat. Each of us watched the two dancing cat-eyes on the hat in front of us intently. The motion of those glow-in-the-dark cat-eyes were clues as to the invisible hazards that each of us were about to stride into. Sometimes those cat-eyes disappeared down and away. Followed by the sound of your buddy tumbling down the ravine he’d just found.
The mental image of one of us very heavily laden guys stepping off, in the inky darkness, right into open air and then tumbling ass-over-teakettle into a ravine, was absolutely hysterical. But the hilarity warred with our worry re. the guy getting hurt. As a result, each time someone went crashing away from group, or the word came back "Jones fell into another ravine" we were rendered helpless for a moment by the need to keep out teeth tightly clenched so that we'd not burst into laughter. It would have been perceived as inappropriate to howl with laughter re. someone having just broke their leg. Then, of course, there was that niggling convention re. patrols moving in complete silence.
Once we'd hear the pissed off whisper from forward and down below somewhere
along the lines of
"f**k. I'm ok. F**king help me back f**king up there." We'd stand there in line,
in the heavy vegetation, none of us having moved an inch in the inky darkness,
and everyone would kind of "vibrate" as we each silently howled with laughter. We'd lean against each other's rucksacks, we'd
struggle to breathe, and tears would stream out of our eyes. If someone had
actually burst out audibly laughing, though, he'd have been immediately buttstroked (whacked with a rifle-butt) in order to protect the current
leadership holders from being "light and noise discipline" failures. If he
survived the buttstroking with only bruises, the Peer Eval would give him a
chance to stay more sober with his next squad.
Because we were so tired, in such a hurry and it was so darn dark, we had to have everything tied to us or it would turn up lost in the morning. Rifles, canteens, our hats, gloves, pocket knives, notebooks, everything. So each time a stick in the darkness snagged my hat off of my head, I just had to grab it's dummy cord to retrieve the hat.Without it being tied to us with a “dummy cord”, we’d have lost our asses.
I think our squad of ~20 lost 4 in Darby Phase so that would have brought the squad down to 16. Even though our squad got 1-2 recycles at the beginning of each phase, we always lost guys a lot faster than we gained them. One guy got hurt falling into a ravine, another quit, and 2 guys got “Peered Out”, a painful activity that is described in more detail elsewhere. I didn’t really perceive Darby Phase as all that hard though. Sure, we operated on about 30min sleep/day, and we didn’t get much chow, but this was the first couple weeks of hardship. We were still physically and mentally strong and therefore capable of enduring the 24hr cycle of planning and executing patrols without digging deep into our reserves of strength and tenacity.
The second phase was in the mountains of N. GA near the town of Dahlonega. Mountain phase was difficult. It defeated those that were not fit enough. With rucksacks weighing >100lbs, we were constantly moving seemingly straight up or straight down. We became so exhausted that our steps up the steep inclines were sometimes only 6” long. I don’t recall that we ever got dry in the mountains, so by the end of it we’d been wet for 4wks. Even though it was Summer, it got chilly in the higher elevations so whenever we stopped moving, my teeth started chattering. When you are motionless, wet, and cold, a night can seem to take a week to slowly creep by.
It was wet and overcast thru the entire mountain phase except for one afternoon when the sun came out and warmed our faces thru the canopy of trees up above. The sun cheered us up very much that day.
The squads, reduced in strength significantly by Darby Phase, were formed into platoons for the Mountain Phase. All future missions were executed with a platoon leader, platoon sergeant, and 3x squads each with their own squad leader. Our identity, the bonds we created between us that kept us going, were no longer limited to our single squad. Our immediate family (squad) of ~25 that we started with, was reduced by City Week and Darby Phase down to 16, and was now part of an extended family (platoon) of ~45.
During Mountain Phase we also did some rappelling and some knot tying. The
rappelling is worth it's own story so comes later. I practiced quite a bit for
the knot tying test and, of course, failed it. Hearing the explanation for my
failure was like trying to follow what a Yankee is saying at an inflectionless
1000 words/minute because they've been telling people the same spiel for the
last year. The Ranger Instructor said something completely incomprehensible like
"fail for asymmetrical locking bar" and that was that. There didn't seem to be
much in the way of consequences, nor any way to "unfail" the test. I decided
that I'd try to not let the disappointment of being a Ranger School Knot Fail
turn the rest of my life bleak and joyless. <rolls eyes>
Our squad gained a Recycle at the start of Mountain Phase, but 3 called it quits because carrying all that weight up those mountains did them in. The lack of food, sleep, and recovery time, made us weaker and weaker with each passing day. On a number of occasions, I carried some gear for other guys, especially smaller guys. The years of running and cycling were nice preparation for humping a ruck up the mountains of N. GA. I wasn't dancing up those hills either, but I seemed to find a steady-state that was sustainable. Our squad lost a 4th guy who was Peered Out at the end of the phase, so discounting the Recycle we picked up at the beginning of Mountain, losing 4 guys from a 16 man squad was a 25% loss rate.
That's how hard Mountain was. The squad had been though a lot before we got to the Mountains. City Week removed the weak. Darby Phase removed those that were insufficiently motivated to persevere despite the chow and sleep deprivation. But we still lost one quarter of our entire squad in the mountains.
After Mountain Phase it was a long bus ride from N. GA to the FL Panhandle. We were packed into
buses like sardines. We took off our boots and socks so that they and our feet
might dry out. Then we slumped in sleep for the day-long bus ride.
When we got to Eglin AF Base, the home of the Florida swamp phase, we found that our abused feet had swollen up. We had a helova time getting our boots on. Everyone was sure that they’d mixed up their boot with the guy next to them, so there was chaos as the 30 some-odd guys in our bus all tried to swap boots with each other. It took us a while to figure out that, incredibly, our feet had swollen a couple full shoe-sizes. We had to jam our abused feet into boots that were now far too small.
After pulling ourselves to our feet, we found that we could only barely walk. Our legs, exhausted from 5wks of toil, then having spent ~10hrs bent and motionless in the bus, wouldn’t support us.
Our attempt to get into a formation outside of the bus was a hapless comedy of fit adult males trying to move 20yds w/o the embarrassment of crawling. Many of us still didn’t have our boots on, those that did, didn’t have them laced up. Our gear, tossed out the rear firedoor, was piled in a chaotic unmilitary mess that drew ire immediately.
We could not stand. We sat there on our scattered gear for a bit while the Ranger Instructors berated us. We rubbed our legs, moved our joints, and tried to get up. We were pitiful wretches. Only the hollering of the instructors prevented us from bursting out with laughter at our own helplessness.
Whereas the Mountain Phase defeated those that weren't fit enough, Florida Phase defeated those that were insufficiently motivated. It was the hardest phase. We'd been worked to exhaustion every day for 5wks. For most of that, we'd received darn little chow and sleep. We, the survivors of the Mountain Phase, were desperate for a couple days to let our legs recover from struggling our 130lbs of gear up those hills day and night. Our weakened state made us easy prey for bugs that our manly immune systems would normally have made short work of, so most everyone was fighting some kind of sickness. It became increasingly difficult to "Charlie Mike" (the acronym CM for Continue Mission). The swamps and rain ensured we remained wet for weeks 5 & 6. Our shins were terribly bruised by mile after mile of banging into submerged tree roots. We counted coup that our nylon Cordura rucksacks were wearing thin and their metal frames were breaking. We were outlasting our rucksacks.
FL brought us a lot of Recycles. My impression was that folks were so worn out
by the time they got to the Swamp Phase that there were a lot of Medical
Recycles. We'd been wet for so many days that skin rotting off was a common
malady. Our Squad got 2-3 Recycles, but we probably lost 3 by the end of the
phase....all of them just called it quits. Every guy we lost in FL was a guy that had made it through very difficult times
in the weeks previous. But we were in bad shape and FL was tough. Only the most
tenacious made it thru the Swamp Phase.
The final phase, in the high desert of Utah, was actually kind of fun. We got gloriously dry, and we participated in live-fire exercises more realistic than any I’d ever been involved in. As a safety precaution for the live-fires, we were granted a couple hours honest sleep/night. Our squad lost only one Ranger Candidate during that final phase in the desert, but to my endless aggravation, it was me. I was a Desert Phase Recycle.
Attrition. Our Ranger Class started with ~600. Over the course of the 5 training environments, we received probably 150 Recycles from the previous Ranger Class, so call it ~750 folks, the vast majority of whom were highly motivated and well prepared. We ultimately graduated ~150 for an attrition rate of ~80%. Of us 48 Infantry 2Lt’s, 2 of us made it.
The saga of Warren Eby.
Eby and I were tight. Between Officer Candidate School (OCS) and Infantry Officer Basic, we'd spent the last 9 months together. It took a while to get to know Eby. I didn’t get to know the sober and quiet guy well until he started participating in some high-jinks with me and the hilarious Officer Candidate Bernie Green out in the field in the last month of OCS. Officer Candidate School was 1/2 "prior enlisted" types. Green had been a Warrent Officer helo pilot and Eby had been an Infantry Sergeant.
Towards the end of OCS, Green and I were a bit out of control at night during field exercises. We’d try to figure out how to cause as much trouble as we could for the “Opposing Forces” (OPFOR) squad that would inevitably try to attack the OCS Company’s defensive position. In the pursuit of this fun, we would happily discard all common sense.
For example, we would try to figure out where, out in the woods in front of us, the OPFOR knuckleheads were likely to collect before moving out towards our defensive position and then launching their attack on us. A dirt road that came within a mile of our front lines a couple ridgelines away, would be an obvious location for them to be dropped off by truck. So once it got dark, we’d sneak away from the company defensive perimeter and try to go find the OPFOR.
Or, if we got attacked, and this usually happened at night, we’d bolt out of our fighting positions and head a hundred meters into the dark woods. Then we’d turn and race into the flank of the OPFOR as they traded shots with our classmates. From a tactical standpoint, it was mostly insane. But we’d lost our minds and treated it all like paintball, racing thru the enemy and shooting everyone that raised a hand. With the anonymity provided by the darkness, we were kinda hard on folks. There was a lot of body slams as we tore thru their flank. Then we’d race back to our fighting positions, howling with laughter. The real challenge, once the attack was over and the sorry OCS Cadre Officers shrieked for a formation to figure out wtf just happened, was to try not to giggle. In the dark, no one can see you grin.
I’d love to take credit for those adventures, but it was really all Green’s doing. I was just tagging along. I’m kinda risk averse by nature, but Green would pull any stunt for a laugh and to the devil with consequences. He was one of the most hilarious guys I’ve ever known.
Twice, after an attack, we managed to follow the OPFOR back to their laager site, wait until they sacked out, then assault them with artillery simulators, blank machine gun fire, and trample them in their sleeping bags. Our best effort ever was when we followed the OPFOR back to their site and found, to our surprise, that they were getting into trucks. It was totally dark. All you could make out were the silhouettes of people. No one could see anyone’s faces. So we got into the trucks with them. But as soon as the trucks started moving, we leaped up and machine gunned everyone with M16’s on full auto. Then we jumped out of the back of the slowly moving trucks.
In retrospect, we’re lucky we didn’t seriously hurt anyone. We were young, dumb, indestructible, and somehow stupidly sure we’d never get in any serious trouble. Merging with the OPFOR, spending several minutes trying to act as one of their group in the darkness, participating in mono-syllable conversations, as they called roll grunting out a name before I got into the back of the big truck that was to take them all home, all the time elbowing Green and stifling giggles, was an unforgettable night of hilarity.
After spending the first half of OCS being quiet and earnest, Eby finally came out of his shell and started hanging out with Green and I when we were in the field. He then participated in our madcap anti-OPFOR operations with great gusto. He was a really stoic guy so not given to casual expressions of emotion. We’d charge thru the OPFOR attack from their flank, taking them completely by surprise, Eby would fire hundreds of round of blanks from his M60 machine gun and I'd be lighting artillery simulators that Green had once again swiped from the cadre. I’m pretty sure I that when we snuck back to our own fighting positions, that I saw Eby crack a smile. Something had to be really good to get a smile out of Eby.
After OCS Eby and I went to Infantry Officer Basic together. We were in the same platoon of a couple dozen. The cadre officer in charge of us, a sorry example of an Infantry CPT, put Eby and I in charge of the platoon. He and I were coming from OCS and acted the part of young officers, whereas the other kids were all from college ROTC or West Point. The ROTC kids were all pretty lost. Most of them had their hearts in the right place, but they had not yet made the mental leap from college student to “Hard and Fearless Professional Leader of Infantrymen.”
The West Point guys were kind of out of control. They behaved like they’d just been released from prison. All they cared about was partying. Ok, for guys in their mid-20’s, that’s reasonable enough, but I had strong feelings re. us being there to become Infantry Officers and that required that we live the part, at least during our duty hours. This wasn't a job. We were, as I saw it, answering a noble calling, to become Infantry Leaders. This was a profoundly serious life-mission we were embarking on. We needed to, as I saw it, behave as sober leaders of men. The West Point guys were there to party.
The cadre officer decided that his two OCS kids might be the key to getting his platoon of students to behave, so he made me the Platoon Leader and Eby the Platoon Sergeant. This was not good because it put me in charge of an insane asylum, but I figured I could endure the headaches for the 2 week stint that the leadership positions were supposed to last.
Thank god Green was hundreds of miles away. He'd have made the platoon
impossible. Green had come to OCS as a Warrant Officer helo pilot. He left OCS a
2Lt helo pilot. While Eby and I struggled with the children in our Infantry
Officer Basic platoon, Green was being taught by the Army to fly the same
helicopter that he'd already been flying for 8yrs. He's lucky the Army didn't
ignore his helo background and put him in charge of cooks.
Leading your peers is always difficult and I wasn’t very good at it. But the damned CPT liked the fact that I kept everyone on a short leash. I was determined to do my best to encourage everyone to behave like an mature, resolute, and utterly professional young officer. Which, of course, drove my peers crazy.
To my horror, the damned CPT kept Eby and I in charge of the damned platoon for almost the entire 5months of the course. A number of things made this a particularly difficult time. Infantry Officer Basic was really a terrible course. It was run by cadre that didn’t give a shit, the quality of classroom training was farcical and the field training not much better. If the training had been good, it would have been a helova lot easier to lead the platoon because we’d have been doing something that we could take seriously. But the training was clearly a joke, we were being taught by instructors that didn’t give a shit, the curriculum was an embarrassment, and we were controlled by cadre officers that were the dregs of the Army. At least, I hoped that they were the dregs of the Army. Because if the cadre officers were actually reasonable examples of my new peer group, then my transfer over from the Marine Corps was going to turn out to have been a very bad idea.
I put a lot of pressure on the guys to behave like adults, to be reliable, and do what they needed to for us all to succeed. Some of the ways I applied that pressure were pretty hamhanded. I was terribly serious about becoming an Infantry Officer, but I was trying to lead folks that did not share that serious outlook. I didn't adjust to that reality, instead I became more determined to break them to the saddle. I pretty much became a tyrant. That created a lot of unhappiness, but I didn’t have it in me to lighten up. I felt a tremendous responsibility to help them become the serious, tough, and competent Infantry Officers that I imagined was the goal of us all. If, as a result, they hated me, then that was the price that had to be paid, so my thinking went. But no one wants to be disliked so it was not a happy time.
Through all of this angst and turmoil, Warren Eby was my right-hand man. He was utterly reliable, dedicated, disciplined, and competent. In every way, the guy had my back at all times. I grew to appreciate him more with each passing day. By the time the course was over, Eby and I were practically married by our shared hardship.
Eby and I were to start in the same Ranger class of ~600 in the early Summer of 1989. In a Ranger class, at the beginning, there’s 3 companies of about 200 each. Each company is organized into 3 platoons of ~65 ea. Each platoon has 3 squads of ~22. Attrition drops these numbers rapidly.
Your Ranger Buddy is your constant companion. Everywhere you go, he is by your side. Chow, shower, toilet, no matter where you might be or what you’re doing, he must be by your side. If you can’t reach out and touch your Ranger Buddy, you’re wrong. The usual penalty for failing to stay near your Ranger Buddy was to be tied to him with a 3’ cord for a couple days, which is a real pita.
All I wanted in the world was for Warren Eby to be my Ranger Buddy. Eby was hard as woodpecker lips, strong as a gorilla, tenacious and reliable as a big oak. He was totally unflappable and thoroughly competent. He was the ideal Ranger Buddy. But out of 600 folks, the chance of us ending up Ranger Buddies was pretty much zero.
Within minutes of Ranger School starting, Eby and I were assigned to the same Company of ~200. That was cool, but nothing to get worked up about. Then Eby and I were assigned to the same Platoon of ~65 within the Company. Now that was really cool. I was starting to hope. We’d just beat 1:9 odds.
Then, holy shit, we were assigned to the same Squad!! We were told “you guys in the squad, pick a Ranger Buddy." I stoically walked over to Eby, while inside I was jumping up and down, waving my arms and shrieking with delight. With Eby tho, it wouldn’t do for me to shriek excitedly like a school girl. So with a carefully neutral facial expression, I showed my delight with a he-man sort of eye-contact-with-subtle-nod that kinda said “Of course.”
We got a lot of exercise during City Week. It was early June in GA and it was hot and humid. We’d do an Army PT Test, then we’d do calisthenics for a couple hours, then run. Then there’d be obstacle courses, ruck marches, land navigation practice, more PT and running around, hand to hand combat instruction a couple times, etc. We were on the go from well before dawn until about midnight each night. We’d then get back to the barracks, shower, square away our gear for the next day, get a couple hours rack time, and it was back at it well before dawn.
Eby was a fit guy. Lean and probably 6’ 2”, with the broad shoulders. He looked like someone from your college rowing team. But he came from Washington State which was no preparation for 18hrs/day of PT in the humid GA heat. After a couple days of the City Week PT experience, Eby was starting to slow down. After a grueling day of seemingly non-stop PT, running, and obstacle courses, he turned to me and said “Gress. I’m done.”
Me: “What do you mean, you’re done.”
“I can’t take this heat. I’ve not eaten in 2 days, and now I can’t keep fluids down. I keep throwing them back up.”
Me: “Dude, oh no. What can I do?”
“If I keep going like this, I die. I’ve got to stop and get some fluids in me.”
He’d not mentioned any of this to me in the previous days. Eby wasn't much of a talker. I’d never known him to display the slightest sign of weakness. No matter how shitty the conditions had been in the past year, he’d never complained. When I was covered in frost on a 15deg morning and freezing my ass off in my useless Army jacket, it was me complaining about the cold, not him. He’d listen, but there'd be no shared empathy. He'd just shrug. He might agree with you that it was cold, but you could tell that it just didn't affect him. It was not clear that he’d even noticed it was freezing cold. We'd once spent several hours in late Winter standing in a fighting position with icy water up to our dicks. It was absolutely miserable. We were worn out from having spent half the day digging the damned chest-deep hole in the mud. Standing in the cold water, I was freezing. The only parts of me that weren't covered in mud were submerged. What made it especially bad though was that it was all so pointless. We weren't learning a damned thing, we were just going through the motions which turned it all into an exercise in being miserable. I bitched. Eby just shrugged.
Warren Eby was built of stern stuff. He cared no more for privations, hardships, inclement weather, and farcical training evolutions, that a granite cliff. In the face of physical or mental stress, I never saw Warren Eby show the slightest sign of human weakness. He had a reservoir of toughness to draw upon that made me look like a mewling kitten. He was an incredible example of personal strength for me. I aspired to do stoicism the way only Warren Eby could pull it off.
Eby turned away from me and walked to the nearest Ranger Instructor. There was a brief exchange, the Instructor pointed to the ambulance, and Eby walked away.
I stood there pole-axed with my mouth open and eyes wide with shock. Eby had been one of the greatest, most utterly reliable friends I’d ever had. I’d known him less than a year, but I’d have done anything in this world for him. The guy had shown tremendous loyalty in the face of adversity supporting me in my hamhanded attempts trying to lead the damned platoon in Infantry Office Basic. His incredibly stoic approach to life’s tribulations gave me an example to live up to day after day. I’ve never been so happy in my life as when it became clear that Eby would be my Ranger Buddy. I loved the guy.
I imagined Eby inside the ambulance. His shoulders slumped as he struggled to accept his failure. Slumping shoulders would be Eby’s display of soul searing agony. I stood there in in the baking heat, in camouflage utilities soaked with sweat and stiff with salt. Tears streamed down my face.
I never saw Warren Eby again. Not ever. In the years that followed, he resisted attempts to stay in touch. I think that to him, I would always be a reminder of failure.
PT Test failure.
As soon as I left the Marines and joined the Army, I started having problems with the lowest bidder Army shorts wearing holes in my inner thighs. They’d get so torn up in a run that they’d start bleeding. There were times when I had to wrap my upper legs in duct tape to protect them. My work-around had been to wear gray lycra shorts with the legs pulled up high so as to be largely invisible under the crappy gray Army shorts. In Ranger School, however, the lycra shorts work-around got me in big trouble.
We were doing the final Army PT Test. This was City Week the first 7-10days of Ranger. We’d been doing the damned PT Test every morning, but this was the one that actually meant something. We had to pass. Lol, had to “pass.” <rolls eyes>
PT had long been a hobby. I had an uninterrupted line of max’d out PT tests going back 7years. The Marines were always serious about the PT Test competition and since boot camp in 1982 I'd had lots of self-esteem wrapped up in winning every time w/o exception. I was already a runner when I joined the Marines, so I just had to get obsessive about situps and chinups. When I joined the Army, it was just a matter of becoming obsessive re. pushups. It was a huge point of pride to always always win the PT test in whatever unit I was in. All I had to do this day was “pass” the minimum standard. Chortle.
I wasn’t sure that Ranger School was going to bother to determine a PT Test “Winner”, but I figured that I might as well make an effort to crush everyone in the pushups and situps, and then smoke everyone in the 2mile run, and see if I got anything for it.
It didn’t work out quite so well.
I barely passed pushups. They kept disqualifying my perfectly acceptable, textbook even, pushups. At the time I was a connoisseur of the pushup. I could quote the overly-complicated Army standard verbatim, I was perfectly competent at making pushups Hollywood perfect, and I also knew every possible way to execute imperfect pushups that would conserve strength and boost the total #, yet most evaluators found to be acceptable. My pushups that morning were perfect. But the Ranger Instructor counting my pushups kept failing to increment the count. He just kept saying the same # over and over again. I understood that they were just trying to add stress, but it was hard to not take it personally. I didn’t have the moxie to come to a halt and ask “just WTF do you want such that you’ll start counting my goddamned pushups?” I just ground my teeth in frustration, kept knocking out pushups, and hoped for the best. I’m sure that I did >110 pushups before my “count” got over 40.
I barely “passed” pushups. <groan>
It was during the situps that they spotted my gray lycra shorts under my gray Army shorts. The instructors got kinda excited. There was a lot of yelling, screaming, wild gesticulating, and spittle flying while they worked out what had to be faux outrage. They failed my situps for “being out of uniform," no matter that no normal organization would have cared about my stealthy lycra shorts. I had the gray lycra shorts pulled up pretty high under the gray Army PT shorts so they were no more visible than underwear. But since we were all knocking out situps with gusto, if today was your day to inspect crotches, you might spot my lycra shorts.
Now, suddenly, I was in trouble. It took me a little while to understand just how much trouble. At first I thought it was just one more screaming tirade to be stoically endured, with occasional earnest exclamations as seemed appropriate. After USMC boot camp and Army OCS, I'd become pretty much impervious to being yelled at. I’d been screamed at, while at the position of attention or front-leaning-rest (the pushup position), so many times in those environments that I had to take care to not appear bored.
The first time you're in a training environment where, for months, the
training cadre conducts their criticism in close quarters at the tops of their
lungs, you can't help but take
it seriously. But in the 2nd training environment where this occurs you start
wondering if maybe all the screaming at you is just BS. The cadre officers at
Officer Candidate School were really good at screaming at us so there were a
couple times when I actually thought to myself..."could he be right? Is it
possible that I really am a MISERABLE F**KING PIECE OF SHIT like he's saying?"
You just have to be strong enough to tell yourself "no. He's not right. I'm not a
miserable f**king piece of shit. I'm at least as good as average. He's just
trying to put pressure on me to see if I'll crack. Well, I ain't cracking."
After that, for the whole rest of your life, you're impervious to being screamed at.
Unfortunately, it seemed that there were to be more consequences to my gray
lycra shorts then just screaming. The Ranger Instructors told me that I’d just
gotten a bunch of demerits, whatever those were, and that meant I was going to
be a City Week recycle. That is to say, I was going to fail City Week and hope
they allowed me to wait around in limbo until I could try again when another
Ranger Class started later. "This was bad", I thought to myself. "Could it
really be possible that I was going to fail Ranger School because an instructor
looked at my crotch?"
After they finished yelling at me, it was time for the Army PT Test 2mile run. I figured that unless there was some other intercollegiate runner in the group, I’d be able to win easily and get myself off of the shitlist. The Marines were really serious about running so there were some PT Test runs that came right down to the wire. But, based on my 9months so far in the Army, these guys didn't seem all that serious about running.
I won the run easily, but it didn’t get me off of the shitlist. Since most
everyone else had been doing months of pre-Ranger training, they knew what I
didn't. That one should
attempt to conserve their strength during the Ranger School PT Test, not attempt
to shine. I really hauled ass on that 2mile run because I wanted to make up for
these demerits and avoid recycling. There had to have been a 2min gap between me
and then next guy. And I don't think that anyone even noticed. That was kind of
demoralizing. My demerits apparently stood
because the situps fail made me a PT Test failure no matter what I did on the
run. Not good.
This whole Recycle thing worried me more with each passing day. I had no idea what I was going to do about the demerits. Hell, I didn’t understand how they worked. Was recycling City Week a maybe or a certainty because of these demerits? Was there a way to work demerits off? I had no idea.
The 10mile roadmarch.
I’ve seen this particular event in the press several times over the years. Reporters seem to struggle to write about Ranger School. The privations and exhaustion are probably too foreign to them to relate to. So they latch on to the one or two elements that they think they understand and then, in an attempt to make that event emblematic of the quite rigorous whole, they attribute all sorts of significance to the little stroll. They write of the 10mi road march with 40lb rucks and expect that terse description to paint an image that accurately depicts an exhausting training evolution. That's silly. Under normal conditions a fit person could take a 40lb ruck, stroll 10mi, and it would be no worse then Christmas shopping at a big mall.
The reporters have no frame of reference, no life experiences, that would allow them to grasp the challenges of what they've been sent to write about. Therefore they can't paint a picture for the casual reader of exhausted emaciated zombies struggling in the swamps of Florida, not having slept in 3wks the amount of shuteye the reporter gets each night. But they think they understand a 10mi. roadmarch with 40lb rucks, so that's what they write about.
Ironically, it's not a stroll through a shopping mall, it's actually somewhat challenging. What the reporters miss is that the pace is brutal. The roadmarch is conducted at the pace of a jog, but you’re not allowed to jog. You’ll fail the roadmarch if you get warned several times re. jogging. You have to walk, but the pace of the group is too fast for the walking pace that any normal person can sustain. In order to walk fast enough to “not quite keep up” you have to move your legs in a race-walk that is very hard to maintain. Then, because the impossibly fast walk isn’t quite fast enough, when no one seems to be looking, you jog a a couple strides. This was much harder for the shorter guys because their “fast walk” was even less effective with short legs. I really don’t know how the short guys did it.
A cluster of Ranger Instructors, with their own rucksacks on of course, walked 50m behind the 3 companies of Ranger Candidates in loose formations. The Ranger Instructors, of course, made it look easy. Behind the Ranger Instructors were several trucks.
As someone fell back in the formation, sometimes a buddy would try to help them maintain the pace. Since it was only a 40lb ruck it was child's-play to grab the guy's ruck and toss it on your back. But the straggler area, behind the moving companies, soon became a conflict zone as the Ranger Instructors in the back started yelling at "helpers" to quit rendering buddy-aid and let the stragglers fend for themselves as best they could. Which for Rangers, is heresy.
As a Ranger Candidate fell back towards the Ranger Instructors the latter got
increasingly vocal with their warnings re. the Candidate being on the verge of
failing the roadmarch. The Ranger Instructors were not taunting the Candidates,
but they weren't being supportive either. The Candidates were being warned.
There was a lot of desperation in those 50yrds between the rear of the trail
company and those Ranger Instructors. Some Candidates responded to the Ranger
warnings encouragement by finding new
strength and hanging on.
Those that fell back alongside a Ranger Instructors were told "Get in the truck Ranger" in a tone that brooked no foolishness.
Ranger School wasn't a place for sugar-coated salve to the ego. Those that ended up in the truck were told declaratively "You are a 10mi Roadmarch Fail," with a verbal emphasis on the word "fail." The unhappy group in the back of the trucks continued City Week with us, but when it was time to move on to the next phase, they would be left behind. Much like any, ah, PT Test Failures. They could chose to quit or they could choose to Recycle and try again in 2-4 weeks.
At the end of the 10 mile roadmarch, the trucks were pretty full.
It would have been a lot easier to just run the10miles, 40lb ruck and all, than
it was race-walking it.
The saga of Day Land Navigation.
The Land Nav Tests consisted of being given some points on a map, then you had to go find those points out in the heavily forested rolling hills. You're given a "10 digit grid" which is like being given a Latitude and Longitude that defined a 1 meter square piece of real estate, except it's easier to plot on a map than Lat/Longs. Each point consists of a small dilapidated sign, often half hidden in the brush, and from it dangled a unique paper “punch.” Upon finding the half hidden sign, you'd use the punch to put a hole in the appropriate place of your Land Nav Worksheet to prove that you’d found the point. Each point was a mile or two from each other and you might have 8pts so there’d be a lot of hustling though the woods and over the hills.
The afternoon of the Day Land Nav Test was S. GA hot and humid.
The Ranger Instructors announced that the first guy that got all of his points and got back to the laager site would get some attaboys, or something like that. Critically, those attaboys would apparently erase demerits. That made my ears perk right up. As each day had passed during City Week, I'd become increasingly worried about my ridiculous situation where a pair of lycra shorts were going to cause me to Recycle. Since I didn't know how the damned demerits worked, I had no idea how to fix the problem. But, if what I just heard was correct, apparently if I won both Day and Night Land Nav, I could erase all my demerits. Holy shit! I had to fix those demerits, so I had to win Day Land Nav. I resolved to hustle like hell.
I didn’t need to be the best navigator, mind you. I just needed to be the fastest runner under hot and humid conditions. In terms of the actual navigation….finding my way to my points out in the woods, I just had to not screw up....not screw up at the fastest rate possible, so I would be the first of ~600 folks to get back to the laager site.
After running in HS, I’d been running intercollegiate or had been on the college triathlon team thru an 8yr college tour. As a navigator I was "ok," but as a runner I was pretty good. This wasn't an NCAA track meet where everyone was a serious competitor, this was just a bunch of us Army knuckleheads. Sure, there were probably a couple military types somewhere that had been recently running for major universities, but I figured that they probably weren’t out there in the woods with me that day. If I failed to win this, I would recycle, so I really needed to win. "I could do this", I thought with increasing resolve. I just had to hustle. And not screw up my navigation points.
There were lots of ways to screw up. We weren't shooting compass azimuths across parking lots and grassy meadows. This was rough country. If you went off azimuth because of an obstacle or inattention, goofed your pace count, got confused re. your Tack Point (if any), then you might not find the sign, or worse, you might find a wrong sign nearby. If no sign, you'd have to execute a grid-search by carefully walking squares around your location in increasing radius. Chances are the sign wasn't too far away. However, if you didn't find the sign you had some choices to make. First you'd check to see if you'd been a complete idiot and plotted your point incorrectly. If that was right, then you could either expand your grid search larger, and risk bumping into the wrong sign a couple hundred yards away, or you could find a nearby terrain feature as a reference, or worst of all, race back to the previous point and start all over again.
All of the above would consume time so it wasn't just a matter of hustling. I
had to hustle, but it all had to go down without any confusion. Everything had
to go right the first time.
I received my worksheet that had a map section and a list of my points to plot. I plotted them on the map with a fine 0.5mm pencil, double-checked my plotting, and made a judgment call re. the logical sequence of points to hit. Then I used a protractor to get my first compass vector, carefully put my map into a ziplock bag to protect it, picked up my rifle, and headed out at a run. It was damned hot, but I had 2 canteens on me, and each Nav Point was supposed to have water jugs.
The half-hidden sign, a mile or two away through the woods, was certainly not going to be at a recognizable terrain feature. That would be too easy. The trick to navigating accurately to a distant point as fast as possible is to identify some recognizable terrain feature near where you've plotted your point.….. A hilltop, a saddle, a fork in a creek, anything nearby on the map that you think that you can find in the woods pretty easily. This is called a “Tack Point.”
By heading for a Tack Point, instead of the actual signpost, I could jog through the woods at whatever pace I could maintain over rough country, knowing that if I didn’t stay precisely on vector, had to go around impassable terrain, or didn’t get the distance traveled quite right, I’d probably still be able to find the hilltop, saddle, creek fork, or whatever, on the run.
Once I found my tack point that was near my sign, I’d shoot an azimuth towards the hopefully nearby signpost. Once at the location where I thought the signpost should be, I’d start a rectangular search pattern until I found the darn thing. Sometimes you had to bump into the signpost to find it.
I jogged through the woods, over felled trees and around areas of impenetrable brambles, following my compass azimuth and keeping track of distance traveled with a “running pace count”. I found my first point a mile or two away. Because of the heat and humidity, I was already soaked with sweat. Anxious to hustle, I quickly drank down a canteen and refilled it from the water jug at the navigation point. Then I wiped hands on my uniform trousers and pulled the LandNav Worksheet out of its bag. Carefull not to sweat on the paper, I used the punch device tied to the signpost to punch the worksheet. Then I ID'd the next point, a mile or so distant, and a workable Tach Point nearby. I used the protractor to get a compass azimuth to the Tack Point, estimated distance, put the map away, grabbed my rifle and jogged off through the woods with compass in hand.
I got to the Tack Point, and repeated the above process to find the 2rd and 3rd navigation points. At each point I drank down and refilled a canteen, and figured out how to get to the next point.
I’d been running in the Southern California heat for 8yrs. As long as I kept drinking water, I figured I could run in the heat all day.
At the 4th point there wasn’t enough water left to refill my canteen. At the 5th point there was no water, but there were a couple guys sitting down resting, drenched in sweat. At the 6th point there were more guys sitting down, all drenched in sweat.
There were probably the better part of a hundred navigation points total set up out there in the woods, but we were each given only 8 to find. Upon our return to the laager site, the unique paper punch at each Nav Point enabled the Ranger Instructors to check our completed Nav Worksheets against some sort of "key" to confirm that we'd been to the right signposts.
How we got to each point was up to us. Since there were ~600 of us, each of my points was shared by probably a dozen other guys. What route each of us took to get to our points, and therefore the sequence with which we got to the points, was up to us. So although this was the 6th point in the sequence that I chose as the most efficient way to get to all 8 of my points, it could have been the 1st point or the 8th point for other guys. I had no way of knowing.
At my 7th point there were guys crapped out in the shade and some were asking newcomers if they had water. At my 8th point, there were lots of guys laying around. There was no talking, they just kind of laid there with their mouths open. They didn’t look too good.
We weren’t allowed to be on the dirt roads in the area unless we were done and were heading back to the laager site. There were supposed to be instructors walking the dirt roads to catch us if we broke this rule, so I’d not dared to use the dirt roads while looking for my points. But now that I was done, I was free to use the dirt roads. I ran to the nearest road that would help get me to the laager site. I’d be able to run a helova lot faster, I figured, on dirt roads then trying to jog my way back through miles of woods.
Once I got to the road, I turned and, wearing absolutely soaked camouflage utilities, combat boots squishy with my own sweat, soaked battle harness, and carrying a rifle, I started hauling ass for the laager site a couple miles away. 3qts of empty canteens did make the battle harness lighter, and there'd be more water at the laager site.
No more jogging. I had found all my points, or at least I thought
that I had. I hoped to god
I’d not screwed anything up because I really needed those attaboys. Now able to
haul ass because I was on a dirt road, I ran for the distant laager site at the
fastest lope I could sustain for the distance. If there were other guys that had
also gotten all their points, it would come down to the final race for the
laager site. I'd be goddamned if I was going to Recycle and go through all this
again just because I didn't run for the laager site fast enough and by a couple
minutes came in 2nd.
There were a surprising number of guys crapped out in the shaded ditches at the sides of the dirt road. At first I thought that maybe they too were all done, and they were just taking a break. But I asked a couple, and they gasped that they'd headed to the road once they realized that they were in trouble for lack of water. The military expression is “the dying cockroach.” I ran on.
Eventually I got to the laager site. I was so completely soaked with sweat that it looked like I’d just come out of a pool. I looked worse than I really was though, because in the hours previous I had drank down and refilled my canteens several times. What I probably needed more than anything was some electrolytes to balance all that water I'd put away. The instructors were a little alarmed at my apparent fluid loss and pointed me towards some water jugs. This was before water bottles were all the rage. I carefully took my map out of its ziplock bag that had protected it against my sweat, and handed it to an instructor that seemed to want it. He confirmed that my punch marks were ok and exclaimed “Congratulations Ranger, you’re the first one back.”
I said “Thanks. Ahh, the reason I’m first is that everyone else is doing the dying cockroach on the sides of the road, and at the Nav Points. Everyone is out of water.” There was silence. Then things got busy. Instructors ran for vehicles. Radios called for ambulances, vehicles roared off, and within a couple minutes I was practically alone.
I drank down my canteens, refilled and drank them down again. I sat down and leaned against a tree. It was quite peaceful. No one was making me do anything. I was pretty tired, but it had been a good day. I’d earned back half of my demerits. I closed my eyes and appreciated the absence of being told what to do, the absence of bedlam, and the absence of noise. Total peace and quiet.
I took a nap.
Obstacle and Confidence Courses.
I wasn’t much good at the obstacle and confidence courses. I was fit and at 6' tall, slightly taller than average so that helped, but I’ve never been especially coordinated and I don’t like heights very much. I wouldn’t want to admit being scared of heights, I like to think of me and heights more along the lines of having legitimate concerns.
There were a number of training evolutions during City Week where we climbed over things way up off the ground. I was a bit slower than average at all of this. I was trying to be damned careful that I didn’t fall and break a leg. Or worse. Sometimes we were so damned exhausted that we had very little grip strength in our hands left. Everything we had to hang on to, suspended way up in the air, was slippery. There were a number of times when I was hanging way off the ground suspended only by my fingers gripping some pole polished smooth and oiled by thousands of other hands over the years. One had to really have their wits about them and look for places to grab that had a knot or other surface imperfection that would allow your fingers some purchase. There were many times when I was scared shitless because my damn fingers were slipping and the fall was going to break my damn legs. The various obstacle and confidence courses seemed to put me in one life-threatening "holy shit I'm about to fall to my death" emergency after another. I found this to be stressful.
Being a little taller is a big deal in obstacle and confidence courses because there's an awful lot of reaching up and climbing over things. The Stairway To Heaven, and this is just one example of the many demonic perils, (pictured at left at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, which I remember fondly from 1982), is designed like a huge ladder made of logs polished smooth and slippery by generations of Ranger Candidates trying hard not to die.
When one starts the obstacle, the 8-12" diameter horizontal logs, are maybe 3' apart. But as you climb up higher, the logs get farther apart. By the time you get near the top the damned things are maybe 5' apart. You've got your legs wrapped around one big horizontal slippery log and you have to find a way to get your hands started on the next log way above you, without plummeting to your death. Somehow you have to go from "legs wrapped around log clutching it with a terrified death-grip" to "feet on top of the log with no really good way to maintain balance" then slowly straighten up so until you can touch the log 5' higher and catch your balance. The problem is that you're a thousand feet up in the air so if at any point you lose your balance, or lose your grip on the polished logs, you're dead. Not just, you're hurt. You're so damned high up in the air that if you fall off, you're dead. Those wood chips down there might help the guy that falls only 20', but from a thousand feet up, the wood chips are just there to mock you. I found the degree of "legitimate concern" to be darn near paralyzing. But it had to be done or I would be a failure. So I gritted my teeth, made myself focus on the task with laser-beam intensity as I slowly and methodically made my way up, over the top log, and then down. I took great care to never look down.
Sure, I'd done this obstacle a number of times over the years, but being acquainted with it didn't make it suck any less.
On the Stairway To Heaven, which was certainly no particular standout among the many obstacles in the variety of obstacle courses and confidence courses, someone who was, say 5'8" would have a hard time of it. Having slowly raised himself up to a standing position on a slippery log 1000' up in the air, he would have to jump, for god's sakes jump right up into the sky and either get his arms around that last log at 1005', or, well, plummet to his death. There would be no second chance for him to make a grab. It was "get it the first time or die". Those shorter guys had balls of steel.
I had mentioned that of the 48 Infantry Lieutenants that started Ranger
School with me, only 1 other guy earned his Ranger Tab. That other guy was one
of those short guys with balls of steel. He couldn't have been over 5' 6", but
he was one hard dude.
Night Land Nav.
Night Land Nav is pretty damned difficult. What makes it so hard is, stating the obvious, you can’t goddamned see. We were allowed to use flashlights with a red lens. Crappy Army flashlights don’t put out much illumination on their best day, but with a red lens, it’s more of a “glow” then something you can use to find your way in heavy vegetation.
Everything you take for granted navigating during the day becomes a helova lot harder at night. You can’t use Tack Points because most terrain features short of a cliff or a river just aren’t that obvious when you can’t, for chrissakes, see. A broad hilltop or a saddle is indistinguishable from its surroundings if your ability to sense terrain changes is limited to a vague horizonless sense of “am I going uphill or downhill?” Miss your terrain feature by 100m and you’d be way off when you try to “tack” to the location of the “nearby” signpost. You’d spend an hour stumbling around a 100m search square with your glowing red lens trying to find the signpost in the dark bushes. Then you’d lose confidence that you’d correctly found the terrain feature Tack Point and you’d likely decide that your only recourse was to find your way back to the previous Nav Point and try all over again. At that point you’re well on your way to ending up a pile of sun-bleached and gnawed bones for archeologists to pick thru.
At night, it’s hard to dogleg around the impassible whatever. If you get to a serious gully or are faced with vegetation so thick that you can’t get thru, you have to find a way around that leaves you on azimuth and with an intact pace count. But if you can’t see anything, it’s really hard to make a ½ circle around something, and on the other side, accurately renew, on your original azimuth, your movement to the signpost. Heck, just try to make a 300m half circle blindfolded. Hustle though the dark wood counting your steps, trip on something and go sprawling down a hidden ravine from a recent mud slide. Now try to remember what the pace count was.
At night it’s hard to move to move through the vegetation efficiently. You could be fighting your way thru very difficult vegetation, having no idea that there is a relatively clear path 20m away.
At night you can’t shoot long azimuths with your compass. There’s no sighting in on a big distant tree 200yds away and then running to it. The glowing red lens is good for only a couple feet.
At night it’s hard to find the signposts. They aren’t reflective. If you’re not close enough to touch the damned thing, you’re not going to see it.
I didn’t have much experience with Night Land Nav, but I needed those attaboys. The heat wasn’t going to slow folks down much in the middle of the night. I couldn’t run thru the woods if all the illumination I had was the sorry glow from my POS Army flashlight and its red lens. So the very things that gave me an edge in Day Land Nav didn’t seem like they would be much of a factor at night. I really needed to win Night Land Nav, but I wasn’t the best navigator, I was the best runner. But there was no obvious way that being a runner was going to help me overcome the difficulties of Night Land Nav faster than the other ~600 guys.
The plan. It was June. The days were pretty darn long. Night Land Nav consisted of only 6pts not the 8 that we had during the day, and the points weren’t quite as far apart as Day Land Nav. We also had a fair amount of time to find them, I don’t know, maybe 6hrs.
At the laager site I watched the available light recede with growing anxiety. We finally got our Land Nav worksheets with points and maps as the sky darkened. I carefully plotted my points, rechecked them, created a logical sequence of the 6pts, used my protractor to get my first azimuth, estimated distance, and headed out. Just as fast as I could go. Not a sustainable jog, I was hauling ass. It was total broken field running with rifle and compass.
I figured that I had about 30min worth of failing illumination before it was pitch dark under the canopy of trees. My plan was to race to the 5 closest points while I still had enough illumination that I could run thru the woods at full speed. Not the sustainable pace I'd used for the ~12 miles of Day Land Nav. This had to be full speed. I was racing the loss of the last minutes of twilight. That way, once I couldn’t see a darn thing, I would have only a single point or two left that would be a genuine struggle in the inky darkness under the forest canopy.
It’s hard to remember the details. I charged thru the woods on my azimuth and kept a pace count. The darker it got, the more urgency I felt to run as fast as I could. Because the points weren’t as far apart as Day Land Nav, the need to fool with Tack Points was reduced. I simply ran on my azimuth for the distance that I estimated was needed to get to the signpost.
I found the first point in <10min of running and used the hanging paper punch on my map sheet. I turned on my red light, pulled out my protractor and ID’d the next azimuth and distance. It wasn’t very far away. Then I turned my light back off because it's meager glow wasn't yet useful, and headed out at a run. It took only 5min to find the second Nav Point in the fading light. The third was a little farther away, but I did the absolute best I could with keeping up a fast past thru the woods in what little light still remained. In 10min I was standing at my 3rd Nav Point ,and with the red lines flashlight, working out the azimuth and distance for the 4th point.
The 4th point was a struggle. I got to the area quickly enough, but I had to do a grid search with my red light in the now inky darkness to find the darn sign post. I’d run out of daylight but I’d knocked out 4 of the 6pts. I had only 2 points to find in total dark. For the first time, I drank down a canteen and refilled it from the water jug at the signpost.
With my protractor, I got the azimuth to the next point, estimated distance, and headed out, this time with my red lens flashlight in one hand and compass in the other. No longer running, I now slung my rifle diagonally across my back. It was rough going. The vegetation was intermittently pretty thick and since I couldn’t take a compass sighting on something distant, I had to check my glowing compass frequently. Each time I looked at the glowing compass, I would impair my night vision. I worried that if I tried to work my way around heavy vegetation, that I’d fall off of the compass azimuth, or hose up my pace count and I'd be in trouble. So, as best I could, I bulled my way straight though the brush.
I took a beating. Being so careful to stay on azimuth meant looking down at the compass a lot. This meant moving when I wasn't looking forward, and it meant frequently losing my night-vision. As a result, every damned stick, branch and prickly-bush was taking a swipe at my face. I tried to use my cap visor to protect my eyes as best I could. My face got whacked good a couple times, and some falls chewed up my hands a bit. I had my rifle slung diagonally across my back, muzzle down. Each time I fell, the hard plastic butt of the weapon would crack me in the head. Nice.
As I got to the area where I estimated the 5th signpost to be, I could see the red glow of other Ranger Candidates. It turned out that these guys were at the sign post plotting their next move. It was probably their 2nd or 3rd Nav Point, not their 5th, because they were likely far more deliberate in getting to their first points and had therefore been fighting inky darkness after their 1st point.
Realizing how helpful it was to have a red glow at each Nav Point, I told the group "tell everyone that when they get to a signpost, stand around with their lights shining outboard as you figure out your next azimuth. Your lights guided me in. Keep doing that and we can guide lots of folks to their Nav Points.”
Everyone seemed to think that this is was a great idea. Ranger School is a highly cooperative affair, not a competition. We were all in this together and happy to help each other out.
My 5th point found, I used my protractor to ID my last azimuth, estimated the distance and headed out. Now that I realized that there were almost sure to be Ranger Candidates standing around the point with their lights on, I figured that I just had to get close to the point, I didn’t have to get my azimuth and pace count exactly right. I didn’t have to constantly refer to the glowing compass for fear of going astray because of the lack of visual reference points in the woods. I didn’t have to worry about ending up 100m off my destination and struggling with a desperate grid search to find a half-hidden signpost in the now inky darkness. I just needed to get to the general vicinity as fast as I could.
Fewer checks of the compass meant better night vision. I was able to move pretty fast.
Sure enough, as I neared the site where my pace count indicated the signpost should be, I could suddenly see a red glow off to one side. I hustled over to the group and used the hole punch on my nav worksheet. Then I again made the suggestion re. letting plenty of red light spill out when they were at a Nav Point, and asked them to pass the word.
With a quick check of my compass to orient myself, I headed out roughly in the direction of the road as fast as the vegetation and the red glow would allow. I didn’t have to be all that accurate, there was no way I was going to miss that road. Once I got to the road, I turned and ran like hell for the laager site a couple miles away.
When I got to the laager site, the Ranger Instructors were hanging around near a fire joking and laughing. I got the impression they didn’t expect anyone back for a while yet. They weren’t yet set up to check out the punch holes in the Nav Worksheets, and didn’t have the water jugs pulled out of the trucks. Me showing up mostly just caused confusion.
Some Ranger Instructor (RI), in kindly but puzzled tone: “Who are you?”
Me: “Ranger Gress, SGT.”
RI: “Aren’t you supposed to be out there on the Land Nav course? You having trouble?”
Me: “I found my points SGT. I think I’m done.”
<pause as the group of RI’s registers that some kid has come in prematurely yet says he’s done>
RI: “You’ve got all SIX points?”
Me: “Yes SGT.”
RI: “Well, ok, lets find the answer key then.”
A couple minutes later it was “What did you say your name was?”
Me: “Ranger Gress, SGT”
RI: “Are you the same Ranger that won Day Land Nav.”
Me: “Yes SGT.”
RI: “Well, you can navigate, I’ll give you that. Go wash your face, you’re bleeding on my Land Nav Course.”
I restrained my normally irresistible inclination to attempt a one-liner. It was not a culture that is amused by frivolous comments.
Once again I was the first one done with Land Nav. By getting most of my points while there was enough ambient light to run thru the woods, I’d completed the course with hours yet left available. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. As long as I didn’t screw up again, I was good to get thru City Week. The Recycle sword was no longer poised over my throat. Thank god.
In the weeks that followed I spent 100’s of hours on patrols with guys that had come to Ranger School from the Ranger Battalions. In addition to being the most motivated, the most competent, and the mentally hardest group among us, some of them were truly incredible navigators. Several times one of them would recognize some subtle terrain feature nearby and mention that we’d been in this area before. For example, I would be “taking a knee” in a hasty halt next to one of them, and one of them would point to some nearby insignificant draw running up the side of the ridge and whispere something like “See that draw? This is the same place we moved thru 5 days ago, we’re just coming from a different direction.”
My brain’s gears would whir and I'd think back to the previous missions and the painstaking terrain models that I’d created for each mission brief. I'd try to place that inconsequential draw along the route of a previous mission. I had carefully marked those routes on those terrain models I’d sculpted with exquisite care to show even the most subtle of terrain features. And I couldn’t do what he just did. I was worn out from the constant physical exertion, I hadn’t slept more than an hour/night in weeks, and I was starving. I did not have a good enough memory for terrain and our movement routes to remember that damned subtle terrain feature. But those guys could. They were really studs. I was just a runner.
Now that almost 30yrs have elapsed, I can't help but wonder if maybe I
totally got played. Theoretically, I had received a bunch of demerits for being
"out of uniform" because I was wearing some gray lycra shorts pulled up under my
gray Army PT shorts. Perhaps the whole demerits thing was complete fiction.
Perhaps winning both Day and Night Land Nav did absolutely nothing for me. Well,
I mean other then generate adventure tales. Never at any point did someone
actually tell me "Ranger Gress, those demerits that would have sunk your ass
have been erased by your Land Nav attaboys."
The saga of the Close Combat Pit.
We’d been to the Close Combat Pits, a couple ~30m diameter circles of woodchips, a couple times already. Theoretically we were learning close combat techniques, but since it takes hundreds of hours to really gain genuine martial arts skills, this was mostly just another way to wear us down.
It was around 11PM. We were exhausted. The ~550 of us had made it through 6 days of City Week, but we were pretty much at the end of our strength. The 18hr days of calisthenics, daily PT Tests, obstacle courses, road marches, Land Nav and the heat stress, had plumb worn us out.
Later, we’d remember fondly City Week’s honest 3hrs of sleep/night and 2 solid meals per day.
We had all been paired off. Close combat drill in the pit was unloved. There was no escaping the wood chips that would immediately get under our clothing the first time one went rolling across the ground. The woodchips would stick to our soaking wet uniforms as if we’d been tarred and feathered. Our clothes would take days to completely free themselves of woodchips. Until then, they itched. Getting the woodchips off of our skin turned even an ice-cold shower into heaven-sent relief from the inescapable itching that threatened one's sanity. We really hated those woodchips. Of course, you couldn't say that in public. That would be an admission of weakness. Behind the stoic facade I worked hard to maintain, I had a special quiet place of loathing for woodchips.
There in the pit we were all so exhausted that we couldn’t really execute the judo throws that we were being directed to practice. We were weak as kittens. We got yelled at a lot for our lack of aggressiveness, but we could hardly stand.
The Ranger Instructors started threatening various unhappy outcomes if we didn’t start showing some moxie. Imagine that you’re so tired that you can barely stand. In order to stay upright you and your sparring partner often lean against each other. Your balance is shaky. It takes help from your buddy just to get back up on your feet. Then someone yells "IF YOU GIRLS DON'T START SHOWING ME JUDO THROWS LIKE YOU'VE GOT A PAIR, WE'RE GOING TO BE HERE UNTIL DAWN. THAT'S OK. I'VE GOT ALL NIGHT."
You think to
yourself, "throw him? I can't hardly stand. This isn't do-able.”
Somehow we all figured out that with a bit of cooperative buddy-aid, we could create the appearance of executing the judo throws well enough to mollify our tormentors. It was a matter of the “throwee” kind of collapsing over the “thrower’s” shoulder and doing a perfectly timed largely invisible “hop” to go up and over the thrower's shoulder to end up rolling across the woodchips. The throwee didn’t actually do much throwing, it was all in the hop. But in the dim illumination of a few street lights I suppose that it appeared that the thrower was executing a judo throw. In reality, the thrower barely exerted himself.
For the next hour the ~550 of us, the class having already lost ~50 folks, refined this technique and the Ranger Instructors ceased berating us. We moved as slow as we could. We figured out the apparent threshold of beratement, and we did no more than necessary. All we were really interested in was showering off all the despised woodchips and sitting down for a while to rest.
Then 7 ambulances drove up in the darkness and parked. The 550 of us looked at them warily. Medics were not our friends. Spend 24hrs away from training due to some medical issue, real or imagined, and it’s an automatic recycle.
One unguarded complaint to a Medic
during Ranger School, and it could be a recycle for you. In the field phases
that followed, we didn't let a medic see a problem unless we thought we were in
danger of losing a limb. All the medic had to say was something sympathetic like
"well, why don't we get you off your feet for a couple hours" and you could
easily end up a Recycle. Imagine the horror of recycling the FL swamp phase
because you asked a medic for some moleskin to patch a little owie. The "get
you off your feet for a couple hours" idea could require hours for a vehicle to
come fetch you, hours to take you to a bivouac site, hours there spent looking
for the doc and being fussed over. Then there wouldn't be a vehicle immediately
available to take you on the several hour journey back to rejoin your squad, and suddenly 24hrs would have elapsed.
The vehicle headlights added to the couple street lights in the inky darkness. Visibility was mixed because each source of light killed our night vision. We could see what was in the headlights and just below the streetlights, but that was about all.
Someone from an ambulance was in a debate with one of the Ranger Instructors. We couldn’t make out the words but the tone and body language wasn’t happy. Then the medic with the boss body language pulled out a bullhorn and said…
“Ok, this shit is going to stop right now. My name is LTC <whatever> of the <whatever> Medical Activity. We had 50 cases of heat stroke and heat exhaustion two days ago.” <that would have been Day Land Nav>
<He turned towards the Ranger Instructors that were grouped together and glaring at him> “That kind of bullshit is going to stop before someone dies. This place is out of control.”
<He turned back towards us> “We’re here to help. If any of you have the following symptoms, I want you to come over here right now. We’ll give you an IV to replace some of those fluids you’ve been losing. So if any of you feel:
Not sweating enough
Hot and dry skin
Clammy and wet skin
Come over here right now. Give us 30min to get some fluids in you, and then you can go back to training.”
He lowered the bullhorn and looked at us expectantly. A disorganized group of a couple dozen medical types had formed up behind him.
The 550 of us all vaguely looked at each other in confusion. Of course we all had these symptoms, the only thing that was keeping us upright was the dried salt in our uniforms. I didn’t know what was going on, but this looked….problematic.
“I think this is a bad idea," I said softly to my judo partner.
“Ya, I ain’t doin’ it,” he responded quietly.
Most of us stayed rooted right there in the woodchips. But about 200 folks recognized this as a glorious opportunity to "f**king-just-sit-down-for-god’s-sakes", and walked over to the ambulances. Getting a poke in the arm sounded like a small price to pay for being able to sit and rest for a couple minutes.
The Ranger Instructors tried to get things going again, but our heart wasn’t in it. We consumed another hour with a few more pathetic throwee assisted judo throws to placate the instructors, but then we were done for the night and they marched us back to the barracks.
The next morning, uncharacteristically, a mass formation was called of all 3 companies, all ~550 of us that had made it thru the past week. This was the last day of City Week. With few exceptions, who would probably find out today, we’d passed the damned thing. Please oh please let the Land Nav honcho have talked to the excitable PT test guy and gotten my name off of the Recycle list. Hopefully the day would mostly just be a matter of shipping out to the other side of Ft. Benning for 2 weeks of squad patrols in Darby Phase.
Some officer stood up in front of the ~550 of us. He said…..”Everyone that got an IV last night, fall out over here <gesturing to his left>.
I mentally implored the 200 “Don’t do it, don’t do it. For the love of god, don’t move.”
~150 folks, maybe 50 short of the real total, moved to the other formation. 50 guys, caught off guard, made a snap decision that in last night's chaos probably no one got their name. Or maybe they'd had the sense last night to state their name as "John Smith".
The officer then said “Those of you that got IVs last night have to go to the hospital for observation. The medical staff decided that you were all suffering from heat exhaustion. You will miss more than 24hrs of training, so you will all recycle to the next Ranger Class.”
There was stunned silence. “Oh for the grace of god go I,” I thought to myself considering how close I came to going for last night’s sit down and rest party. “Holy shit that was close.”
And that is how my Ranger Class put 150 in the hospital for heat stroke/heat exhaustion. We were briefly infamous over that.
Every mission started with the “Planning Process”, the primary element being the Operations Order (OPORD) that contained every detail about the mission, divided among 5 paragraphs….
Administration and Logistics
Command and Control
Inevitably there would be some Annexes too, a critical one being the Fire Support Annex that addressed the planning of artillery and mortar fire, and also helo gunship and fast-mover assets, if any, with air-to-ground weaponry.
If it was an Air-Mobile helo insertion or an Airborne parachute insertion, we had guys with experience planning those.
I, sadly, wasn't much good at this "planning process" thing that culminated in the writing of an small unit Infantry Operations Order (OPORD). I had thought that I was pretty good at it, mind you, having just come out of Infantry Officer Basic the very school that is supposed to teach you how to plan and lead small Infantry units, but I was wrong. Therefore, I had little to contribute to the group effort of writing the Operations Order. After City Week, Ranger School is half mission planning and half mission execution, therefore not being much good at planning missions was a problem. Although being unskilled at an individual task is an issue, being unable to contribute to a group task is worse. In Ranger School, there’s little room for guys that don’t have much to contribute.
Ranger School set a pretty high bar for the level of detail needed in the small unit Infantry OPORD, a far higher standard than what had been expected of us in Infantry Officer Basic. There was a bitter irony there. The very guys that one would expect to be shit-hot at planning small unit Infantry actions, were actually the weak sisters. Almost all of the other Ranger Candidates had all gone through preparatory training for Ranger, and that training put a lot of emphasis on the small unit Infantry OPORD. But Infantry Officer Basic eschewed any kind of "special" Ranger Prep kind of planning, tactics, and Infantry skills training because it perceived itself as the very definition of Ranger School preparation, when in fact they provided the worst preparation.
Every officer branch, like Infantry, Armor, Artillery, etc. has their own school to train 2LTs. In those schools a smattering of Ranger trained officers would conduct special training for those young officers that declared a desire to go to Ranger School. In my "very definition of Ranger School preparation" Infantry School, however, none of our cadre officers were Ranger trained. None of them. Zero. Way to put your best foot forward US Army Infantry.
Now, looking back over of 23yrs of military service, I participated in a wide variety of formal military training. Some of it was terrific, but most of it was terrible. The Marines make an effort to staff their entry level school houses, like Bootcamp, OCS, and the first tier of occupational skills programs where folks start to learn their specialty, with their very best folks. The schoolhouse is often hard duty. In the Marines, if a person's service record says that they spent time as schoolhouse cadre, that means that someone thought that they were a shit-hot Marine. Because only the best get chosen to spend time with malleable youngsters at the service entry points..
In the Army though, it's a very different dynamic. Because the schoolhouse can be hard bureaucratic micromanaged duty, hard charging Army types often try to avoid it. Every strong subordinate, over time, collects a network of sugar daddies, each of whom remember fondly that really terrific subordinate that they relied upon very much. When the day comes that hard-charging subordinate gets orders to become schoolhouse cadre, he/she starts calling their sugar daddies for help getting out of the assignment. One of those folks will inevitably say "Heck with that, I want you to come work for me again. I'll make it happen." As a result, the best Army types manage to avoid the schoolhouse. So if a tour as schoolhouse cadre appears on your service record, that is interpreted as, fairly or not, you didn't impress anyone enough to get you out of that assignment.
Over time the quality of training in the Army schoolhouses get worse and
worse. The few hard chargers that wind up as cadre get their enthusiasm sucked
out by the merciless and rigid mediocrity. Most Army training wouldn't
intellectually challenge a turnip. So we didn't learn a lot in Infantry Officer
As a result of our miserable preparation, the 48 Infantry 2nd Lieutenants that started Ranger School with me were the guys least prepared of the ~600 in our class. Some of those ~600 were young enlisted soldiers only a couple years out of bootcamp, but it was us officers fresh out of Infantry Officer Basic that couldn’t plan our way out of a paper bag, had poor patrolling skills, and were physically and mentally weak. Sigh.
Planning a mission and preparing for the mission brief required ~12hrs of total focus. The Platoon or Squad Leader would come up with a basic scheme in a couple minutes, and then delegate significant portions of the work to others.
The Platoon Leader for platoon missions, or Squad Leader for the squad level missions during Darby Phase, all the other guys involved in creating the Operations Order, and all the other folks that were hidden in security positions protecting the site, all had to execute their roles while thoroughly exhausted. The Platoon Leader had to be everywhere because he was responsible for everything. All it would take is for a distant Listening Post to fall asleep, while most folks were focused on the OPORD, and much of the chain of command could fail. Failure, like a sword poised over the throat of each leader-of-the-day, usually meant Recycling the phase.
By the second daily mission of Darby Phase, the squad had largely figured out who had particular strengths useful for the planning process. One guy was a wizard with the Fire Support Annex, another guy was a terrific with the long and complicated Execution section, another could rip out the Administration and Logistics, and Command and Control sections like he’d memorized 100’s of OPORDS in a previous life. Meanwhile the Squad Leader was brainstorming ideas with these folks, keeping them oriented on his scheme, and making their separate pieces of the plan synch with each other.
Pretty much everyone else was better at Infantry mission planning, then me, the Infantry 2LT. This was a problem. With nothing important to contribute, I wasn't a lot of use. Sure, during mission planning I could be one of the guys on perimeter security, but it’s those low value guys that get Peered.
Looking for something more useful to do than lay behind a bush and spend the longest hours of my life fighting sleep every second, I tried my hand at making the mission terrain model.
A terrain model is a depiction of the mission area in the dirt. For example, if there’s 9sq kms of terrain applicable to the mission, one could create an area of dirt, perhaps 6’ on a side, to represent the Area of Operations (AO). With some string anchored by poking sticks into the dirt, you can quickly make 9 squares, each 2’ on a side, totaling 18ft^2 of ground. In complex terrain you would then spend hours shaping all the terrain in the 18ft^2 with loving detail. The high points could easily be a foot high so you could create plenty of vertical detail. In order to do a good job, you have to spend a lot of time closely studying the topographic map of the area.
A topographical map uses elevation lines to show how the shape of the terrain varies. With some experience, you can extract an incredible amount of detailed information re. the precise shape of the terrain by studying the changing swirls of the topo lines millimeter by millimeter.
A large scale terrain model should show great detail re. the shape of the terrain. It should show every subtle draw, finger, the small changes of slope, and the exact shape of the hills and ridges. The tiniest variation in the map’s topo lines should be visible in the changing shape of the terrain model. It’s like making a big sculpture.
As the plan got fleshed out, I marked the routes and critical locations on
the terrain model. Generally I created a second, separate terrain model of
the objective itself, but in much larger scale, so the Squad or Platoon Leader could use it to brief
"Actions on Objective."
Becoming the squad’s and later the platoon’s terrain model guy, was a big deal for a number of reasons.
1) It made me an important contributor to the planning process and mission brief. Participants that are darn useful don’t get Peered.
2) It got me out of perimeter security during the Planning Process. Laying behind a bush for hours fighting to stay awake every second is a lifetime of pure torture.
3) All the practice studying topo maps in such excruciating detail was making me pretty darn competent at reading topo maps. I’d won Day and Night Land Nav because I was a runner. Now, however, I was becoming much more able to rapidly grasp terrain intricacies on a topo map.
4) The guy doing the terrain model ends up with a very solid understanding of how the mission will work. This could save your ass because after ~10hrs of work creating the OPORD, it inevitably took an hour or two for the Platoon Leader to brief the mission. We were all so tired though, that any details that didn’t get into our notebooks, weren’t retained. Then, as soon as the mission brief was over, the leadership positions would all change. One leadership team planned the mission, but it was a new leadership team that would execute the mission.
So at the end of the mission brief that you spent with your head nodding down on to your chest as sleep took over, you could suddenly become the Platoon Leader responsible for executing the mission, or a Squad Leader with key roles to play. To your very great surprise and dismay, you could easily be in the failure-prone position of having to be responsible for the execution of critical tasks that, according to your notes, seemed to consist of a few chicken scratches. Failure, of course, meant recycle.
No matter who got stuck in the new leadership positions, I was the guy that, after spending hours crafting the terrain
model, had burned into his brain every detail of the mission that had a
connection to the terrain. From the perspective of the new chain of command,
that made me darn handy.
The second mission brief that used my terrain model won the Squad Leader a “detailed and effective terrain model” comment on his must-pass leadership position eval. From then on, every leader chose me to be his terrain model guy. I finally had something to contribute to the group, and that meant a lot when the Peer Eval system was designed to Recycle the least useful of us at the end of each Phase.
Our first Phase out in the woods was at Ft. Benning. This was called Darby Phase after Major William O. Darby, arguably the father of the modern US Army Rangers. Darby was our introduction to being constantly wet and exhausted while starving and sleep deprived.
One rainy afternoon the ~18 man squad was directed to go to a truck and get “dinner”, but instead of each being handed an MRE field ration for the day, the squad was instead handed a single scrawny ill-tempered chicken. We all kind of looked at each other in confusion.
We weren’t, of course, dumb enough to let go of the chicken.
We were then told that the chicken was dinner. For all 18 of us. We had 30min to make it happen.
As I recall, the squad leader of the day said something along the lines of “do we have any farmboys here?” I, of course, was not a farm boy. I grew up in little OR/WA logging towns. I had once milked a cow, but I kept that to myself.
The squad leader said “Ok, I figure we gotta do 3 things. We gotta kill the chicken, we gotta clean it so we can cook it, and we gotta make a fire."
I figured that making a fire, standing there in the woods in the rain was impossible. I didn’t know anything about cleaning a was-live-a-moment-ago chicken so it could be cooked up. And I certainly didn’t want to be the one to kill the poor thing.
A couple guys said they could make a fire. They said that they had seen some kind of wood that burnt even when it was wet. They called it “oil wood” or some other complete bullshit. I figured that they just didn’t want to be the ones to kill the damned chicken.
The rest of us just stood there and looked mournfully at the poor chicken, as it looked around the area with rapid darts of it's head. We were really really hungry. For 2wks we’d burned twice the calories we’d consumed and it was starting to show. We were becoming gaunt. We stood in a loose huddle, cold and wet, and felt sorry for ourselves for long minutes. The chicken was passed around several times with statements like “here. You do it.”
We were running out of time. To my very great surprise, a little camp fire started up next to the group. In the rain. I was very impressed with that. To this day I don’t know how those guys did it. They soon had a couple canteens cups of cold water becoming tepid in the sputtering flames.
Finally, hunger took me over. I ground my teeth in distaste, exclaimed “here, give me the goddamned thing. I’ll do it" and I reached for the poor scrawny chicken. I grabbed it by the neck, and with my face twisted up in a grimace, I whirled it around.
With my empty stomach knotted by what I'd just done, I said “Ok, it’s dead. Now what do we do?”
“We gotta take the feathers off and gut it” someone said.
“Ok, how do we do that?" I said.
We had 15min left. For several minutes we tried to get the feathers off, but our efforts were largely ineffectual. If you worked at it a while you could get all the big feathers off, but most of the feathers were tiny little down-like things and you'd be a lifetime with a set of tweezers getting those off. Then someone said the feathers would come off when we boiled the chicken. That sounded reasonable.
We probably did ok gutting the thing. We had lots of sharp knives. After a mad minute, the scrawny chicken was pretty much gutted. All ~30 fingers involved in the process remained accounted for.
For someone used to seeing chickens only at the grocery story, the bloody mass of feathers and flesh was pretty unappealing. I tore the feathery chicken carcass into rough half sections, grumbled "into the pot", and put each half into a canteen cup of barely warm water. All 18 of us, soaked in the endless rain, gathered around the little flame, no larger then the canteen cups resting on top of it, and thought fondly of MRE field rations.
Using some water out of one of my canteens, I washed my hands.
With about 3min left, it was eat now or go hungry. So I said “ok, we're down to 3mins. Each fire team gets a canteen cup. Bon appetite.”
18 guys had a dinner, the sole meal of the day of course, consisting of 2 tablespoons of warm red-tinted water, feathers, and a tiny shard of raw chicken flesh.
In the almost 3 decades since, every time I heard someone complain about MRE
field rations, I thought of that chicken dinner.
The Ranger School Peer Eval
At the end of each phase, each squad had to conduct anonymous Peer Evaluations. In these, you rated your squad-mates, starting with 1 for the best guy in the squad, and incrementing for each other squad member. If you had 15 guys in the squad, you’d give the guy you perceived to be least useful a 15.
Later that day the guy that got the worst score would be asked by a Ranger Instructor to step over and talk for a minute. And you’d never see the guy again. At Darby Phase, which was early on, 2 guys were taken.
This wasn’t a big deal initially. We had some Ranger Candidates in the squad in Darby Phase that clearly contributed less than the average, so there was someone to rate poorly without causing a lot of angst. But by the time we’d gotten thru Mountain Phase, those that remained were trying pretty damned hard. Sure, there were a few chafing points in the family but as we struggled together thru significant adversity, the idea of Peering a squad-mate that was trying hard, did not sit well.
By definition, someone had to come in last during Peer Evaluations. However, if the squad was highly motivated and organized, they could defeat the inevitable “someone gets recycled” consequence of the Peer Eval system by sitting everyone in a rough circle and each person agreeing to anonymously rate everyone in the order that they sat in the circle. That would give everyone in the squad the exact same score, and no one would get Peered Out. Since the Peer Eval is anonymous, everyone was putting themselves in the hands of the next guy. If someone didn't go with the plan and punked you, or just screwed it up because they forgot or were so tired they screwed up "the plan", you'd never know who it was that caused a really good guy to get Peered Out.
At the end of the Florida (Swamp) Phase, my squad was handed Peer Eval forms. A couple days prior, one or two of the guys in the squad that were informal leaders due to their competence and charisma, as opposed to say, me, had broached the idea of rigging the Peer Eval to protect everyone. We'd been together a long time by then. We all all agreed to try to beat the Peer Eval.
At the end of each phase there was always a bit of chaos as folks were moving in different directions trying to get gear ready to leave the field site. Right in the middle of those distractions the Ranger Instructors would hand each of us a Peer Eval form and sit us all down. There at the end of the Swamp Phase, we started to fill out the form, but then those informal leaders got our attention and looked each one of us in the eye. "The Plan" couldn't get mentioned because we were being watched. We understood though, that we were being told to slow down and focus on our commitment to defeat the Peer Eval.
We stretched and shifted positions a bit, trying to be nonchalant, to form a rough circle. Then we filled out our forms and handed them in.
About 30min later a couple Ranger Instructors grabbed us out of our tasks, had us stand in a formation, and yelled at us a bit. It was obvious what we'd done so we weren't fooling anyone. The Ranger Instructors threatened to recycle the whole bunch of us if we didn’t fill out the Peer Eval paperwork honestly. Then, glaring at us, they gave us new Peer Eval forms.
This time we had enough space to whisper. The informal leaders led a quick discussion re. what we were going to do. Everyone was legitimately terrified of being Recycled, but most of the group didn't believe that they'd Recycle the lot of us over this. Our small group had been through City Week, Darby, Mountain, and now the Florida Swamp Phase. We were the survivors. From here on out it was smooth sailing. We figured that by now we had shown that we were made of the right stuff and they wouldn't Recycle the lot of us over a little rebellious loyalty. We agreed to do rig the Peer Eval again. Frankly, I figured that one or two would not stick with the plan. The forms were anonymous after all, so we wouldn't know who showed their belly. Then the wrong guy would Peered.
When those forms got tallied up, we really got a ration of shit from the Ranger Instructors. My squad-mates had accepted risk and stood up for each other. It was odd to want so badly to smile at your buddies while you’re getting your ass chewed. It was a proud day. The Ranger Instructors acted plenty pissed, but being there for your buddy is such a fundamental Ranger idea, that I’m not sure that their heart was in the ass-chewing and threats. Ultimately they let it go.
We “jumped” into each phase, so there were at least 3 jumps. I was pretty darn new to this whole jump-out-of-planes thing. Immediately prior to Ranger School, I had attended Jump School, more formally known as the Army Airborne School.
Jump School is 12hrs of honest training squeezed into 3wks. Sure, it was a bit spooky to step out of an airplane 800’ up, but if you could just make yourself take the one step out of the door, everything else would probably work out ok. Because I was an officer, if only a lowly Infantry 2nd Lieutenant, I was inevitably the senior student in the plane. The rest were young soldiers and a few ROTC students, many of them girls. The senior student often has the "Door Position", meaning, as the plane approaches the Drop Zone (DZ), they get to stand at the open door for a couple minutes and admire the view. The door position is unpleasant. You really are standing in an open door. Your toes are one inch from empty space, the wind noise is deafening, and the windblast buffets you around. The view of the ground going by 800' below, as you grip the sides of the opening with white knuckles, is absolutely paralyzing. But no matter how overwhelmed I was with "legitimate concerns", I also knew that every one of those youngsters was looking at me, the Infantry Officer, as I stood in the door surveying the situation. I tried very hard to maintain a facade of calm, cool, and collected, when the reality was that I was "legitimately concerned" to a degree best characterized as "shitless".
One had to weigh the probabilities. If you gave into your terror, sorry, I mean legitimate concerns, and exclaimed "this is insane, I'm not jumping out of this damned plane" then a lifetime's humiliation was certain. But the probability of plummeting out of the plane to your death was statistically pretty low. I mean, for christ's sakes, I had college girls right next to me with parachutes on their backs, eyes wide with fear and riveted on me. Trying very hard to feign quiet confidence, I forced myself to look around outside the door and down, amid the roar and buffeting, to watch the trees and fields passing 800' below at 200(?)mph. So, "certain humiliation for life" vs. "probably won't plummet to my death". When the Jumpmaster slapped my back, I sprang out of the plane like I'd been doing it all my life, and thought "Jesus Christ let that goddamned chute open".
The jumps at Ranger School were significantly more stressful.
All the Ranger School jumps were at night. All of the jumps were into Drop Zones seemingly the size of postage stamps. All of the jumps were with full gear, which summed to more than my weight. All of the jumps were, it seemed to me the Airborne novice, complete chaos. All of the jumps hurt. All of the jumps resulted in injuries that sent Ranger Candidates home. All of the jumps caused me a very great deal of legitimate concern.
A typical jump. We would approach a drop zone in a C130 or C141. The big cargo plane would do some sort of nap of the Earth thing in the final approach so the 200lbs of weight suspended by the big buckles on my clavicles could get some g-loading and hurt more. By the time we finally got to the damned Drop Zone, I was in so much pain because of the buckles digging into my clavicles long minute after long minute that it grew harder to care if I lived or died, I just wanted out that damned door so I could get the weight off of those buckles.
Most of the weight was in our rucksacks which were suspended from buckles at our waist. You couldn’t really walk with all this weight hanging down in front of your legs, but if you splayed your legs out as far as they would go, you could make an undignified waddle for short distances.
In Jump School there was a carefully choreographed aircraft exit routine of one jumper/sec out the door. In real jumps tho, everyone needs to get out as close to each other as possible so the group doesn’t get spread out across the DZ (Drop Zone). That means that the jumpers need to get out the door in a compact mass.
Imagine you and your buddies each have 200lbs of gear strapped to your chest, belly, and a leg. Most of the gear is hanging down your front to below your knees. To move around with your 100lb rucksack is suspended between waist and knees, the best you can do is an inelegant splay-legged waddle. You are standing, tightly packed, in a queue facing a door in the rear of the plane. Everyone has gear on fore and aft and everyone is pressing on each other. It's kind of like being in a big gear and human sandwich. Cargo planes are loud, but once the rear door(s) open, the volume level goes up to a roar. There are a couple warning hand and arm signals of the impending jump, then the Jumpmaster hollers "GO GO GO GO GO".
In the movies, each person makes a short pause at the door and looks at the
camera for dramatic effect as each person individually makes their decision to
jump into danger. In reality the individual members of the long and tightly
compacted gear and human sandwich all waddle-rush to the door and explode out of it like
toothpaste exiting a stomped tube.
With each of us tightly pressed against each other in the queue, we flew out the door into the darkness in a spray of humanity. I went out the door laying on top of the guy in front of me, and someone and their gear was laying my back as we tumbled into the windstream.
Once I got out the door I was tossed ass-over-teakettle by the windstream. As I lost physical contact with the guys fore and aft, there was a hard yank as the chute filled and my horizontal velocity went from, I dunno, 160mph to 0 in a fraction of a second. I looked up to confirm my chute seemed ok, exclaimed “Jesus Christ!” in an expression of gratitude for being out of the damned plane, and also acknowledging the madness of the tumble and chute opening. I then looked down to see what I was falling into, and pawed for the pull cords at my waist that would allow my ruck and my rifle to come free of my harness and slide down their shared lanyard and land before me. I also needed to make a guess as to where I was going to land, decide if it seemed reasonably safe, or if not, try to "slip" my chute towards better ground. Also, if it looked like I was going to come down backwards, I needed to try to turn around so I wouldn't break my skull bashing my head into the ground. I always hit backwards.
Because the Drop Zones (DZ) were small, they dropped us pretty low in order to reduce the chance of folks going astray. Coming out low reduces the amount of time between going out the door and slamming into the ground. In the movies whole conversations occur as the brave team descends into danger. It's hard to estimate how long we were in the air quietly drifting down. Maybe 3secs. I think just long enough to look down into the darkness and exclaim "shit, I can't see anything".
If I could pull those release cords at my waist, a lot of weight would drop on a long tether. This would mean that I'd enjoy a nice last second deccel once they hit the ground and the weight under the chute dropped by 130lbs. If I could pull those damned cords in time, I wouldn’t hit the ground so damned hard.
But I couldn’t see a goddamned thing, and within 2secs of starting to fumble with the pull cords, the first on the list of tasks to complete before I got down, I slammed into the invisible ground with incredible force.
I banged into the ground hard enough to rebound like a rag doll. As soon as I came to a rest, and well before I had my wits about me, I reached for the chute release rings so I could disconnect the chute from my harness. The ignominy of being dragged around the DZ by your chute was to be avoided at all costs. Dings heal. Humiliation is forever.
Chute released, I laid there for a moment, in whatever awkward position I found myself, a big pile of gear, bruised and winded human, lots parachute cord and silk, me as likely laying draped over the top of my ruck with my face down in the dirt as any other orientation, and tried to bring the conscious brain back on line. I considered how completely insane this whole damned thing was. Then I pulled the release cords for my ruck and weapon. The same release cords that were the first of several tasks that I was supposed to accomplish while I was still in the air.
I then inventoried body parts by moving individual breakable items to see how they fared. Things seemed no worse than bent and bruised, so I struggled to my hands and knees and paused, there on all fours, to gather myself for a moment and take a couple breaths.
After 10secs of self-pity, a moment of weakness allowed only because I was hidden in darkness, it was time to jump up and return to play the part of eager Ranger Candidate. I got up, put my ruck on in the time-honored manner of casually flipping the 100lbs over my head, grabbed my rifle, gathered up my chute, and hustled thru the dark and unfamiliar terrain in the same direction the others seemed to be going. Hopefully they were headed to the chute collection point, because I didn’t have the first clue where the hell I was. I wasn't in a leadership role just now so my focus was short term....Dump some of this gear w/o falling into a hole stumbling around in the darkness.
I had survived another damned jump. Charlie Mike (Continue Mission).
Rappelling during Mountain Phase
Being "legitimately concerned" re. heights, I never much liked rappelling.
There was much talk, during Mountain Phase, of the "Night Rappel" that was was apparently some sort Ranger School rite of passage.
The part of rappelling that I always disliked is going over the edge. During military training everyone's always in a hurry. In rappelling, like many other potentially interesting pursuits, I was always quite aware that, once again, I was in one of those "you could be killed" situations where I really didn't know what I was doing. So, every time I put a rappelling rope thru the carabineers in my harness, I'd think to myself in a fatalistic little sing-song ditty along the lines of "you don't know what you're doing, you don't know what you're doing." It's not a confidence builder.
You can't show fear though. You're a leader. You have to make it all look like it's no big deal.
Then I would pull a little slack on the rope and step towards the edge, about to dangle over the ground far below. I always hated stepping over the edge. Without a pause that could be interpreted as fear, I'd take one last breath and think, "Jesus Christ, I hope I put the rope thru the damned harness right." Then with feigned nonchalance, I'd step over the edge.
Some of the rappelling during the Mountain Phase turned out to be pretty exciting, particularly the buddy-rappels where we'd go down with a large buddy draped over our shoulder trying like ever-loving-hell to get down to the goddamned ground before our grip strength failed and we both plummeted to our deaths. There was also a bit of free climbing, which I wasn't particularly good at. Making my way up a cliff consisting largely of wet mossy rocks looked to me like certain death. I was perfectly happy letting someone more able scale the thing first and then throw down a darn rope. "Tell you what" I would say, "You climb up the damned cliff, then throw the rope down to us. I'll then happily bring your rucksack up to you." A man has to know his limitations.
The afternoon of the "rite of passage" Night Rappell we were entertained by Ranger Instructors talking up the training event as a watershed of manhood. It sounded to me like it was going to be a helova ordeal. I imagined having to make my way down hundreds of meters of rope dangling, totally disoriented, in the inky darkness. This sounded like it could be a bummer.
In the early evening we made our way up a long steep trail in a single-file queue of Ranger Candidates taking small steps up the incline and bent forward under the weight of their gear. When I finally got to the top I was very surprised to see Rangers already going down the ropes even though there remained decent illumination thanks to the long Summer nights. While we had slowly snaked our way up the mountain, I'd figured that once we got to the top we'd be regaled with some more re. "watershed of manhood" until the fall of darkness was complete. But no, here we were already going over the cliff and, heck, I could see what I was doing. Score!
On command I hooked my rappelling harness on to one of the available ropes and then went over the edge of the cliff. Only to find that it wasn't so much a cliff as defined by a vertical drop, but more like a really steep hill of rock. With one hand on the rope running through my rappelling harness, not the two hands that genuine free fall would require, I made my way down the rock face, mostly by walking, and had no problem seeing where I was going in the pretty adequate illumination of the Summer evening. When I got to the bottom, I unhooked from the rope, turned to the guys gathered around, and drawled "well, the Night Rappell might have been over-sold" which resulted in a tittering that would gratify any amateur comedian.
Tim Parks, Ranger Buddy.
The finest thing a human ever did for me was in Ranger. We were in the swamp phase in Florida and we were paddling a rubber raft up a river through a pounding rainstorm. We paddled very hard. It wasn't that we were in a big hurry, it was that we were freezing our asses off. The ambient temp was warm enough but the rain pouring on us was pretty darn cold. Reduced to skin and bones at this point, we had no insulation. Also, when you're exhausted, all environmental stresses like cold, hot, or wet, seem to attack with more teeth than if you're rested. If I paddled at only a reasonable intensity, my teeth started chattering. If I stopped paddling for a moment, I became so wracked with shivers that I could hardly control my limbs. Only by paddling good and hard could I generate enough heat to keep the cold at bay.
The swamps of the Florida phase were the low point of Ranger School. By then the lack of sleep, and chow had become critical, and with a couple brief exceptions, we hadn’t been dry in 6 weeks. As a result, our skin was rotting off. Our feet were a constant source of problems but with an obsessive focus on dry socks we were hanging in there. The skin on our knees got abused by us frequently “taking a knee.” The skin on our shoulders, waist, and crotch was always taking a beating. So our skin rotted and sloughed off. Rotted off scarecrows with sunken pits for eyes.
You know how extended exposure to water makes your fingertips wrinkle up like
prunes? Our bodies were wrinkled up like prunes.
We often had several pair of socks hanging off our rucks in the hopes that we could get a pair to dry. When we first started tying socks on to our rucks, the sight of a squad of walking by seemingly carrying over-full laundry baskets on their backs couldn't help but make one grin. But there were no grins in FL. We, the survivors that had been strong and fortunate enough to make it through City Week, Darby Phase, and Mountain Phase, were each digging into our emergency reserves of physical strength and mental toughness. Each of us was in a personal crisis as we each tried to last just one more hour, hour after hour. I told myself again and again "I am not dead yet. I am not dead. I can keep moving."
For hours we paddled our way through the swamps. It wasn't possible to get "more wet," but every sheet of wind-blown rain sucked more heat from us. We were sitting on the sides of the rubber rafts, sitting on one leg folded underneath us, the other leg inside of the boat in a kneeling arrangement. This was very hard on our legs so we were constantly fidgeting around trying to get some momentary relief. The leg that was in the boat tended to cramp up. The leg that we were sitting on would fall asleep.
Theoretically we were in a river of sorts, but it didn’t look much like a
river. It was a meandering passage of less dense vegetation, in an otherwise
endless world of dark and gloomy trees perched above the water on complicated supporting root systems.
It was as if each tree rested on a giant octopus with it's 8 legs arching down
into the dark water. Although it was day, the heavy clouds made it dark and the
rain also reduced visibility.
After an eternity, the squad leader of the day pointed to “the shore,” which to me was an area of trees, octopus-like tree roots, and bushes, indistinguishable from the last several miles of forbidding swamp that we'd been paddling through. The squad leader somehow managed to summon the strength to whisper the word "shore" with a wry tone of sarcasm which was a nice touch. We could have been miles from where we were supposed to be for all I knew. I certainly couldn’t have estimated how far we’d navigated up the “river". And by landed on the shore, I mean the water was 2’ deep, not 6’.
If we were in the wrong place, I was really just too exhausted to care. In
general terms, I'd continue to go thru the motions and do what I could to help
the leadership-of-the-day succeed, but this wasn’t my mission. I was out of
gas. The extra initiative I'd shown and the sacrifices I'd made for others over
the past 6wks were done. I was barely hanging on. I'd f**king die before I
failed to do my part, but that didn't make it my problem if this mission turned out to be a cock-up.
As a result of the extended time in the very awkward sitting positions, we had a hard time getting out of the boats and getting our gear to "shore". We couldn’t seem to operate our legs. With our weapons in one hand and our rucks in the other, the best we could do was simply roll over the side and then try to get our feet underneath us. Our hands were full of ruck and weapon, and our legs largely useless. We crawled to shore on our elbows and knees, with our heads arched up to keep our mouths above water.
It was a difficult moment. This was my low point of Ranger School. I was pretty messed up.
By nature tenaciously optimistic, I was having trouble keeping despair at bay. I
was almost in tears at the frustration of needing to continue to Charlie Mike,
but no matter what I did I couldn't seem to get up. I got my legs under me, but
I couldn't get up. My legs just refused to
cooperate. They were done. I was starving to death, I’d not seen an hour’s
uninterrupted sleep in weeks, I was freezing cold, thoroughly exhausted, and I
was reduced to crawling like an infant through cold water in the driving rain dragging my
water-logged 120lb rucksack over the roots
because my legs, screaming with pain, wouldn’t work.
That’s when my “Ranger Buddy,” Tim Parks, unwrapped a field ration cookie bar, took a bite and said “here” giving me the other half. Because we were all desperate for food, that gesture cost him a great deal. But he cloaked it's cost in complete casualness. Handing me half of his MRE field ration cookie bar, when I was consuming my very last erg of emotional strength, was the finest thing anyone’s ever done for me. As long as I live I will never forget the rush of gratitude I felt at that moment. I laid there shivering, exhausted, half submerged in cold dark water, and with tiny nibbles, savored my delicious restorative.
Tim Parks saved me that afternoon. That darn MRE cookie bar got me going again.
Later that night we were trudging along through knee deep water and tree roots. Parks and I were leading the patrol. We weren’t in charge, I think he had been directed to be “compass man” and I’d been directed to be “pace count” which meant it was up to me to keep track of how many steps we took so we’d know how far we’ve moved.
Everyone had strengths and weaknesses. Each person in a leadership position for the day had to pick his key people very carefully. His success or failure could easily hinge on a good/bad choice.
On a patrol, I was pretty dependable at pace count, staying awake, and as a pack mule to carry extra gear.
Carrying 130lbs of rucksack, weapon, and water, Parks and I trudged for hours at the front of the platoon. It was pretty dark with little starlight filtering thru the canopy up above, but it was clear that we’d been moving up a gradual slope for much of this time.
I marveled at how the water stayed about knee deep, just deep enough to conceal roots that banged into shins or grabbed feet constantly. It didn’t make sense to me that I could walk up a gentle slope yet the water remained at the same level. Coming out of college as an engineer, I’d had a lot of physics. For the water to remain level on this slope would require a gravity vector that was off-center. That seemed pretty darn unlikely but it was hard to deny the evidence in front of my face. Clearly the water was lying flat on this gradual uphill slope that seemed to stretch forever. So even though I didn’t understand the details, something had to be going on with gravity. I vaguely recalled something I’d read years prior about certain places on the Earth’s surface where gravity worked in odd ways. I hadn’t paid much attention to the article at the time but it certainly seemed to explain what I was experiencing. "Dang", I thought "I guess the National Enquirer got it right after all".
Of course there was no uphill slope. It was just exhaustion and lack of sleep. I was starting to hallucinate. Not a crisis though, since everyone else still had their marbles.
That’s when Parks whispered to me that he’d spotted a light up ahead, conveniently on our compass bearing so that was going to be his reference point.
I didn’t see any light.
We kept wading through the knee deep water for hours. Several times each hour I'd bang a shin on something and have to clench my whole body like a vise to ride out the pain of getting the exact same damned bruise banged f**king again. Alternately, I'd trip on a submerged root and sprawl forward into the water my 130lbs of gear putting me down hard. I kept an eye out for sharp roots that stuck up out of the water because it was easy to imagine tripping and sprawling right on top of a wood spear and impaling myself.
Multiple times Parks repeated that we were heading
for “that light up there” and I would peer intently into the dark forest of tree
roots that came out of the water and supported trees. But I saw no light in the
distance. Finally I stopped Parks and we had a whispered conversation.
Me: “Dude, there…is….no….light up there. No light.”
Parks: “Sure there is. We’ve been moving towards it all night.”
Me: “I’m telling you man, there’s no light. We’re really f**king tired and we’re seeing things. There’s no light.”
Parks: “Look. Right there. A light.”
<The platoon leader and a squad leader slog up. Someone whispers>
“What’s the problem?”
Me: “Parks says he sees a light up there that we’ve been heading towards for hours. I don’t see this light. I think maybe there is no light and we're off course. Who’s “Alternate Compass?” <I asked this because there’s supposed to be another guy in the platoon that has been watching the azimuth that we’ve been traveling on. He could tell us if we’d drifted off course>
<We all looked at each other. No one could remember who the hell was designated as "alternate compass guy" hours ago when we did the mission brief. The rest of the squad, on autopilot, executed a hasty halt by moving up, facing outboard and taking a knee. The platoon leader whispered to the group:
Plt Ldr: “Who is Alternate Compass?” <No response>
Plt Ldr: “Who the f**k is Alternate Compass?” <Still no response>
Plt Ldr: “Well. f**k.”
It did all work out. Even though Parks led us on a chase for an imaginary light half the night, he did it in pretty much a straight line. The OPFOR that night obligingly lit a fire. The Ranger Instructors might have gotten a little anxious that we’d lost our way in the miles of almost impenetrable swamp. So once we spotted the glow of the fire, we were able to complete the mission.
The crushing failure. Recycling in the desert.
It was a brutal blow and a bitter, bitter, disappointment. It was so unfair that I will grind my teeth over it to the end of my days. I was a leadership failure in the Utah desert. As a result I did not graduate with Ranger Class 12-89, but instead languished in misery, albeit sleep and chow filled misery, for a month until the next Ranger Class (13-89) came to town.
In one of the last missions of Ranger School, I was designated the Weapons Squad Leader for a platoon mission. At this point we’d all been doing this for so long, we could practically do it in our sleep. The required leadership tasks that seemed, a couple months earlier, to be a list way too long to possibly remember and execute without assistance nor error, now seemed like second nature. Also, after all this time together, the survivors could all pretty much read each other's minds. So what had seemed, months prior, to be a complex choreography of different parts, was now just a list of formalities that we danced through for form's sake because the Ranger Instructors were filling out checklists and evaluations on the leaders of the moment.
By this late stage, evaluating the leadership positions was like using a
lengthy checklist to confirm that a cockpit crew had executed every task
involved in a flight, without noting that it was really the Autopilot that
executed many of the tasks. It was that easy. After 2 months of
this, we were professional Ranger Candidates.
The operation was a dawn live-fire raid. It was the usual drill. The platoon would move up to a defensible location near the objective and halt while a leader's recon went forward to put eyes on the objective. Upon the return of the leaders's recon, the platoon would move out towards their attack positions. The weapons squad would move to a "support by fire" location while the other squads moved to concealed positions just short of the objective. On the signal of the platoon leader, all elements would open fire upon the objective. At the next signal, the weapons squad would shift fire to the rear of the objective as the rifle squads attacked through the objective. As the rifle squads got about halfway through the objective, the weapons squad would shift fire again to just beyond the objective. The rifle squads would then withdraw back to their attack positions, grabbing anything they could that looked like it might be of intelligence value.
As the rifle squad withdrew away from the objective, the weapons squad would put fire on the objective to cover the withdrawal. Once the rifle squads were safe from direct fire, the weapons squad would withdraw to the prearranged rally point where everyone would link up.
As Weapons squad leader, I was in charge of 4x M60 machine gun teams. Our role was to provide the covering fire from some high ground 3-400yrds behind the other squads. During the planning phase, I chose a location a little to one side so we'd have an angle on the objective that would make our supporting fire a little more safe. We’d be firing into the objective only a few dozen yards in front of our buddies, shifting fire forward as they moved forward, and then shifting it back as the rifle squads withdrew. We’d be putting rounds pretty darn close to our friends so we'd have to be very careful.
We’d all been working together a long time. We'd done this sort of thing
around a half-dozen times with live ammo, and many dozen times with blanks or no
ammo. This mission was going to be more fun because of the live ammo, but in
terms of all the tactical details, the mission was like putting on an old
I had a problem though. M60 machine guns, at least back then, had weak firing pins that tended to break. As a result, M60 machine gunners generally carried an extra firing pin. When we had been given the four M60 machine guns a couple weeks prior, only 2 of them had working firing pins. Someone must have figured, “it’s only training, it’s not a big deal.”
A 3rd firing pin had broken the previous day and the Ranger Instructors did not seem inclined to get us more firing pins. That left us with only one of four machine guns that would really go “bang, bang, bang” at 600rdsd/min.
We did have extra barrels so we could change them if the rate of fire was high enough that the barrels got too hot, we just had no extra firing pins.
So I was in a pickle. I figured that in terms of planning I had to act as if we really did have 4 operable machine guns, but in terms of actually firing the things, I had to accept the reality that only one of them worked. For example, each machine gun team had to carry ammo and an extra barrel, as if their gun worked. Each machine gun team had to set up at the objective as if they were going to help provide supporting fires. But once we got to our position, I would move all the ammo and a couple extra barrels to the one machine gun that really worked. But, ah, maybe I could have coordinated that idea first with my evaluating Ranger Instructor.
So when the weapons squad moved up to the support-by-fire position, each machine gun team had ammo and their extra barrel. But once they started shooting, I moved everything, per plan, to the one M60 that could really shoot. They blew thru an assload of rounds, had great fun shooting right in front of their buddies, changed barrels as the squads assaulted thru the objective, shifting their fires to the far side of the objective, and changed barrels again to fire like crazy to cover the withdrawing squads. We were all wearing big grins. We were darn near at the end of Ranger School, we'd just had a blast shooting a thousand rounds in close support of advancing Rangers, and we'd done a great job. It was pretty darn fun.
When it was time for the Weapons Squad to withdraw, I redistributed the spare barrels, but I left the remaining ammunition with the one M60 that could fire.
Later, in my evaluation the Ranger Instructor criticized me for failing to redistribute the ammunition. I told him that it wasn’t a failure, it was the plan. I left the ammunition with the M60 that had the good firing pin.
To which he responded that I’d failed the critical squad leader task of redistribution of ammunition.
My “but, but, but, but, that was the plan. Only the one gun worked” didn’t seem to impress him.
This meant that I’d failed a leadership position. That was a
Recycle. My eyes went wide and I was motionless with horror. I never understood
why he didn’t understand that I’d intentionally left the ammo with that M60.
Maybe he thought I was just making an excuse to cover my failure, I don’t know.
He said he’d try to get me another leadership position tomorrow, which was to be our last day. That would be an opportunity for me to make up the failure. But that didn’t happen. When the final leadership positions were called the next morning, my name was not heard. My shoulders slumped. "So there it is," I thought, "I Recycle."
I don't remember the details of the last mission. Now that we were getting an honest couple of hours sleep/night and we'd been doing this for so long, everything was unremarkably easy. And then we were done.
All my friends that I’d gone thru hell with those past months were besides themselves with joy that they’d made it. They were sorry for me, sure. It was clear that I’d gotten a raw deal, but there was nothing they could do to help me, and they were so damned relieved and happy that they’d finally made it to the end of Ranger, that it was hard for them to re-orient on my horror.
The 4wks of being a recycle were a strange time. I was furious at being punked, but also resigned to the fact that there was no damned use in being angry about it. I needed to shrug it off and drive on. There was a tremendous sense of failure. I started thinking, for the first time, of contingency plans for a scenario where I did not earn the Ranger Tab.
I had chosen, after college, to put the engineering degree into cardboard box and join the Infantry. I was a small kid growing up. I'd had constant problems with bullies in HS and had repeatedly failed to muster enough moxie to put up my own fists and defend myself. Once I finally got my adult height, I'd become obsessed with physical pursuits. Running and cycling Intercollegiate, 3yrs on the school's triathlon team, 3yrs of Karate and 1 of Judo, all during 6yrs in the Marines, had all been a pendulum swing in reaction to being small and frightened when I was younger. As the end of the 8yr college tour approached, I became more and more resolved to "find out what I was made of."
I wanted to be an
Army Ranger and then a Green Beret. Then I wanted to try out for Delta.
But all that was going to fall like a house of cards if I failed to get the
Ranger Tab. So if I failed, I decided to call this Army thing temporary
insanity. I would take whatever crappy Army job I was assigned to after Ranger
School and then I would get out as soon as I could.
Mostly though, I ate, slept, and felt sorry for myself.
To my delight, I had a friend among the recycles. Well, he was none too pleased to be among the 8 or so of us, but for me it was darn nice to be able to hang out and commiserate with Bidwell, a buddy from both Infantry Officer Basic and also Officer Candidate School.
Bidwell was a really nice guy. Not a real gung ho charismatic guy, but he was smart, tenacious, reliable, had a ready laugh, and the fact that he’d made it all the way to the Desert phase would seem to indicate that he had unexpected toughness. We’d not been in the same platoon at any point in the last year, so we didn’t really know each other well. But we got pretty tight during our recycle month.
Bidwell had started in the Ranger Class before me and Eby. He failed a leadership position after his FL Swamp Phase, Recycled and did FL again <shudder>. That put him in my Ranger Class, even though I hadn't been aware of it because he'd been in a different platoon. Then Bidwell got Peered Out in the Desert so there we were, brothers in misery.
Bidwell, having recycled already in the worst possible place, had been through a lot. He was a
hard man to have Recycled twice, but he did not seem to get it him down. He
seemed resilient in the sense that he quickly came to terms with his situation
and was now going to make the best of it. Bidwell still had his sense of humor. I mostly moped.
We ate and slept a lot. There were a few make-work tasks for us, but no one had their heart into bothering us much. We did a few odd jobs for folks, but we were largely left alone.
For the first couple weeks, at each meal, I ate until I was absolutely stuffed…..I didn't leave the chow hall until I was s completely full that I felt that I might throw up any moment. Then I’d go back to my room, pull out my bowl of candy bars, and see if I couldn’t fit a bit more in my belly. I couldn’t stop myself. Day after day was like that. I’d eat until I thought I was going to die. Then I’d lean against something until the wave of nausea abated. Then I’d reach for another candy bar.
Joining our new platoon in the desert.
When, after 4wks over-eating, we linked up with our new platoon, it was initially pretty awkward. They were a bunch of strangers, skeletal strangers straight from that horror that broke so many of us, Florida’s Swamp Phase. Bidwell and I were seeing them before they had any chance to recover from the mental and physical nadir that is the swamps. They were also a family. They’d gone thru hell together, they’d supported each other thru the bleakest of times. They were a tight-knit family that would do anything for each other.
Bidwell, and I, on the other hand, were outsiders. Apparent failures. Pudgy cheeked fat failures, that had shared no privations at their side, had never helped a one of them when they were down, and had no track record of reliability under stress. We might be ok guys, but Bidwell and I were not family. And when it came time for Peer Evals, family protected family. Bidwell and I were in trouble.
So, if Bidwell and I were going to make it, we had to be so fabulous, generate so much gratitude with our efforts to help others, that members of this family would decide to Peer Out their surviving family members in order to protect these new fat guys.
"This was not going to be easy," I fretted.
In Utah’s high desert, the nights start turning cold in Sept. Unlike Swamp, Mountain, and Darby Phases, we were given clear guidance at Desert Phase to ensure that everyone got an honest couple hours of sleep each night. This was a safety precaution because of all the live fire exercises during the Desert Phase.
After hitting an objective we would rapidly move away to the pre-planned rally point. From there we’d move to a laager site many miles away. In the desert, we’d often choose a bowl shaped depression that hid us from direct observation, set up security and observation around the high ground, and while the leaders-of-the-day planned the next mission, we'd get some sleep in shifts curled up inside of the depression formed by sand berms on the hard desert floor. We didn’t have coats or blankets. We had only our uniform shirts, properly called “blouses” and the threadbare t-shirts underneath.
During the day the temperature would be a comfortable low humidity 80’s. Then the temperature in the high desert country would plummet 50-60deg at night to the freezing point or below. We had to cuddle up nice and cozy to make it thru the night. If you were in a fighting or observation position, you would cuddle up tight with your Ranger Buddy. If you were in a sleep shift, you’d get into the mob of everyone else. The tight herd of folks trying to stay warm while they slept was never static. People had to get up and do their time on the perimeter and vice versa. If you, while fast asleep, weren’t actively worming yourself towards the center, then everyone else's slow worming towards the center pushed you out towards the edge. You didn’t want to be on the outer edge because it was damned cold there.
Several mornings I woke up with my uniform covered in frost, and so cold that I couldn’t move. I had to force myself to start moving so I could generate some heat. I’d crawl around a little to get my arms and legs moving. Then I’d start doing pushups and situps to recover from the couple hours spent as a human corpsicle.
With your street clothes on, go take a 2hr nap on the floor of a meat locker and you’ll see what it’s like.
A couple times we got to get some rack-time in austere buildings that had been built out in the middle of the desert to house folks conducting training. They consisted of a roof, wood floor and open windows. Of course, we didn't have any kind of sleeping mat to soften or insulate us from the ground. We'd gotten so little sleep during Ranger that, frankly, the idea of being comfortable while sleeping never came up. I mean heck, if you haven't slept for days, and you suddenly have an opportunity to doze off for a bit would you complain about the softness of your pillow?
Suddenly, we were getting a couple honest hours of rack/night though. Sleep
had returned as part of our daily existence. Wood floors are hard. We found that sleeping curled up on
a hardwood floor made dirt seem very soft and comfortable.
My Recycle buddy Ranger Bidwell had already been Peered Out once before. I’d never been Peered. I don’t recall the exact dynamic of it, but somehow the situation was that if Bidwell got Peered again he was out of Ranger School. Not a Recycle, I mean out completely. But if I got Peered, I was ok to graduate as long as I passed the other requirements, like, ah redistribution of ammunition.
Bidwell was burned out. The resilience he'd exhibited during our Recycle period evaporated as soon as we were assigned to our new platoon. In this 2nd try at the Desert Phase, he wasn't kicking ass and taking names like a retread needed to do to survive. One thing a Ranger Candidate never did was complain. You either sucked it up and found a way to perservere, or you got injured, or you quietly reached your limit and quit. But you never complained.
Bidwell started complaining. I think he'd reached his end of what he was willing to tolerate. If the current plan was non-optimum, he'd go to the leader-of-the-day that so desperately needed our support, and tell the guy that what he was having us do was stupid. If the squad leader-of-the-day put Ranger Buddies Bidwell and Gress at a certain location on the perimeter that didn't have shit for fields of observation, Bidwell would turn and tell the guy that he was an idiot. Then Bidwell would move 6' away to a location where he could actually see enough to be useful, and crap out there instead. I'd turn to the appalled squad leader, whisper "sorry" and move to Bidwell's clearly better location. Bidwell knew what he was doing so his criticisms were always accurate. But he was missing the point. The leaders needed his help because they were desperate to pass their leadership evaluations.
I had some hard conversations with Bidwell over the 2wks. I tried to buck up his morale, and I tried to get him to understand that he was creating a crisis for himself. I was worried that he was going to get Peered again so I pressed on him hard to get his damned act together. I think though, that he was just too burned out to care.
We each had to pass a leadership position eval each phase. Bidwell was chosen to be platoon leader just after we executed some mission, so it was up to Bidwell to lead the planning process for the next mission, and give the mission brief. We moved to a laager site and tore into our tasks. I was, of course, Terrain Model Guy. Bidwell handed out some auxiliary tasks, and then closed himself away while he worked on the platoon OPORD. As the hours went by it became clear to me that instead of handing out pieces of the OPORD to others, he was doing the entire thing himself. I couldn't imagine how he could possible write the entire damned thing in only 10hrs. After creating my Terrain Model and my larger scale Action on the Objective model, I went to him and got guidance on how he wanted things labeled.
With a couple hours to go the platoon and Ranger Instructors settled down for the mission brief. Bidwell came out of the hooch he'd been occupying. No one had hardly seen him all day, the very opposite of the collective effort that was the normal process for creating the OPORD. Bidwell exiting the hooch and approaching us was like seeing a monk emerging from their self-imposed isolation. What followed was masterful. Without having to refer to any notes, Bidwell talked us though the mission, detail by detail, for 2 hours. It was the greatest mission brief I'd ever seen. An absolutely amazing performance.
In retrospect I think that Bidwell realized that as a relative outsider in
his new family, a outsider with a history of being unsupportive, the normal
collective effort to write the OPORD might not be the best approach. He didn't
know for certain who among this new family was particularly good in various
roles, he would have synchronization problems trying to get his pieces to mesh
well with supporting efforts from an unfamiliar cast, and his supporters might
not be all that inspired to help him. So he went solo and it was a helova
effort. Bidwell passed that leadership eval with flying colors.
Bidwell's terrific performance didn't do anything to endear him to the platoon though. It showed everyone that he could really be fabulous when he chose to be. The problem was that he didn't normally choose to be. Bidwell was going to get Peered. I could totally see it coming.
The day before Peer Evals I dreamed up a solution. I would get the squad to Peer
me out instead of Bidwell. Because of a dynamic I don't recall the details of, I
could survive getting Peered and go on to graduate with the class. So it simply
didn't matter if I got Peered. But if Bidwell got Peered, and that was the way
the wind was blowing, he was done.
Over the course of the day I talked to each squad member about Bidwell. I told them that he was a good dude, but this was his 2nd recycle and he was just exhausted. I asked them that if they decided the next day to Peer Out Bidwell, to rate me last instead.
The next day we completed our final mission and were later handed our Peer Eval sheets. Of course they were handed to us when we were busy with other distractions. It’s hard to remember things when your tired and distracted, but I got the attention of each person in the squad individually and gave them “the look” to remind them. It worked. I got Peered, but it didn’t matter. We were done. Ranger School was over. Jesus Christ what a Summer that was.
It's done. Thank god it's over.
We moved into a squad bay of bunkbeds, and got some real chow. We had a graduation ceremony there in Utah, a class picture was taken, and we boarded a cargo plane to return to Ft. Benning, GA. I was very pleased to finish a plane ride by actually landing with the damned thing for a change, vs. having to jump out of it and slam into the ground.
It took 6 months before I could get my eating under control. I couldn't seem to eat in moderation. I stuffed myself at every opportunity. Now, >25yrs later, I still cannot tolerate an empty pantry nor fridge. The few post-Ranger pics I have show pudgy cheeks, and I am far too vain for pudgy-cheeked pics to every see the light of day.
After Ranger I spent a couple weeks with an Army Officer buddy in Germany and then went to my first assignment to an Infantry Battalion in Korea. To my surprise, there was Bidwell again, laconically wearing his Ranger Tab in a neighboring Infantry unit just down the road. I good-naturedly called him an asshole for turning into a slug during that redo in Utah's high desert. Quiet and reliable Bidwell was a great guy.
In the decades that followed I always felt a tremendous obligation to live up to the Ranger Tab on my shoulder. Unless I was absolutely alone, I had to maintain the act that others expected to see at all times without the slightest respite. As I moved from one unit to the next I would occasionally work with guys that were much harder then I, and were more disciplined about doing The Right Thing, no matter the inconvenience. But usually I could maintain the facade that was expected of me. Having something on my shoulder to live up to, made me a better me.