Ranger School (1993-4)

When discussing the Mobile Infantry Training in Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein states that many people thought the training was made to difficult. He states that is wrong: it was intentionally made as hard as possible. This is the philosophy behind US Army Ranger School.

Ranger School will not make you a super soldier. You won’t learn technical skills that will directly translate to perform ultra-high importance missions and so on. The Patrols are carefully crafted situational training exercises that allow the Ranger Instructors to grade students on a small number of tasks. Simple familiarization training is given on knife fighting and hand to hand combat, rock climbing, and other tasks that have some tangential bearing on the realities of being a soldier. Ranger School does not teach you how to take care of soldiers. What Ranger school is designed to teach is how to continue to function once you have pushed your body past its natural limits.

Ranger School was designed around the warfare style of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. But every war is different, and technology keeps updating how we fight. As Cadets we were constantly reminded that the plan has to change according to the mission, the enemy, the time available, and the terrain. You can’t train for everything. But what you can do is train for things that will be there in all military situations: stress and sleep deprivation. Food deprivation is less likely, but has happened too many times in the past to be ignored.

I went to Ranger school in December of 1993. I had successfully passed the first phase at Fort Benning. I went through Desert Phase twice. After the second time around, I was kicked out. What happened? This was a school for which I had volunteered, which I knew was essential to the career I had chosen as an Infantry Officer. I picked Infantry when there were many other choices available, and I had a high enough class standing to get my choice of branches. Although I didn’t have the highest military grade at West Point, I did OK. I was in good enough physical shape that I had not problems with the first week: a screening out process that is designed to make you suffer, and weed out the week. I passed all of the basic skills tests. I had spent the previous four months in the Infantry Officer Basic Course at Fort Benning, so I knew the basics of the Infantry craft. For a long time I thought I had been beaten physically. By the end, I was falling asleep on my feet, felt like I had done long term damage to my knees, and was general beat up. What I have come to realize with many years of reflection was that the problem was mental, not physical.

Ranger School is graded on patrols. The patrols are pass/fail events. In the first phase, the patrols are planned as if they were Platoon Patrols, but executed at the squad level. This is to give more people a chance to participate in the planning process, and to get evaluated as the patrol leader. While many of the junior enlisted soldiers would get patrols as team leaders, as a new Lieutenant, I got a squad leader position to plan for a reconnaissance patrol.

I got a “No-go” on my patrol at Fort Benning. I had to plan a reconnaissance, and I did not give a detailed enough plan for actions on the objective. At Fort Benning, you did not need to have more than 50% to go on to the desert phase. Each time through the Desert, I got three patrols: one planning as a platoon leader, one squad leader in the patrol base patrol, and one other. Each time I passed one out of three. A 25% pass rate was not enough to go on to the next phase. Failing two many patrols twice through a single phase was sufficient grounds to drop me from the course.  Something happened after that first time through the desert. I got convinced that I was not going to make it through. I went into Ranger School scared of Ranger School. Dogged persistence got me through West Point, but Ranger School required (at least for me) something more: preparation.  I really feel that if I had drilled the Ranger School style OPORD I would have passed the planning patrols, and I got mostly planning patrols.

When I was a freshman at the Academy, I was discussing English class with my class mate Anne Marie Johnson and my parents. Anne Marie admonished me to “give them what they want.” Meaning to try and do things the way the instructors had designated. I’ve always had a problem with this. I really want to try and do things my own way, to think a difficult problem through. I am a bit a of a contrarian, a fact that lead to me going to West Point in the first place. What was true in Plebe English was even more true in Rangers School. Patrol planning at Ranger School is some of the most detailed planning I had even gone through. We were expected to brief every aspect of a patrol, including things like crossing linear danger areas and battle drills. Most of the guys out of IOBC had done these to death, so we thought it silly. Why put things in to your operations order that should be part of the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP)? The level of planning required for Actions on the Objective was even more detailed. You were expected to take roughly an hour to brief actions on the objective. The more detailed the plan, the better. This directly contradicts what we had been taught throughout West Point and IOBC. We had been told time and again to “provide guidance and trust your junior leaders” as well as “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”

One patrol sticks out most clearly.  In the desert, we had to perform a raid of a refueling site.  There was a hill that would be perfect for a support-by-fire (SBF) position.  Too perfect.  Instead of putting the SBF position there and coming up over the hill the way we were taught, I had us coming through the front door.  IT made sense to me:  if the position was that obvious, the enemy will know that too and will expect us to use it.  The front door would not require us climbing up and over the berm.   But it was a training mission, and designed to walk us through the paces, and I couldn’t accept that.  Yes, the concertina at the gate was light, but that was a resource constraint on the Ranger School, not what you would expect in the  “Real World.”

Another patrol, I was squad leader for patrol base operations.  We had no sleep the night before, and I put my squad into a rest plan out of the priorities of work.  I knew that without sleep, we would not be able to function that night and the patrol would be a disaster.  But it was up to me to rearrange the priorities of work.  The guy that had the patrol that evening had a much easier time thanks to me, but I go a no-go.

I think I understand now. The planning process was canned, yes, but it was also a process to be learned while under stress, to be recreated under stress. You may end up with a brand new unit, composed of people from numerous backgrounds. You may take over your platoon in the field, with no time to learn their SOP. They may not have an SOP for a particular situation. At least you have provided a starting point, and you have done it while you are in a relatively secure location, while no-one is shooting at you. You have thought through the situation and provided the best course of action you could. It gives you context to understand later situations, when the bullets are launched and the wire is breached. It is not a substitute for the ability to improvise, it is an aid to it. Even if it is canned. Part of the process, I am sure, was designed to take so long as to make sure you had to use your time wisely. Much of Ranger school was designed to make sure you stayed up all night.  I’ve often said that the primary skill necessary for success as an Army officer is the ability to function with little or no sleep.  The funny thing is that at WP, we had mandatory lights out at midnight, and they couldn’t come on until 5:20.  I always have believed in “well rested=well tested.” Now I  realize that this is for ideal circumstances. Ranger School was for the worst of circumstances.

When I joined the wrestling team in ninth grade, something amazing happened. I found a sport that I loved, that I had the potential to master. I worked with my strengths and minimized my weaknesses. I had never considered myself an athlete before. From that point on I considered myself a wrestler. A similar transition happened when I went to West Point. Most people that knew me thought it was a strange match. “How can YOU go to West Point?” But somehow I made it through. By the time graduation rolled around, my identity as a Cadet, as a member of the Army, and as a future officer fit me well. I had hit some rocky points, but many of my classmates dealt with worse.  This transition did not happen when I became an Infantry Officer. I think under other circumstances it could have. I don’t blame the Army, but I also don’t blame the 22 year old me for not seeing things that the 37 year old me can see with the benefit of hindsight. Not making it through Ranger School sealed the deal in some ways, as it proved to my young ego that I had made a wrong choice in going Infantry. I see now that was not necessarily the case.  I had some growing up to do.  I needed to commit to the Infantry to a level that I was not then mentally prepared to do.

3 thoughts on “Ranger School (1993-4)

  1. Being a ranger requires physical, mental and emotional strength. If you lack one of those, then there is a big chance of not passing the ranger school.

  2. Thanks for your very thoughtful and informative post. I think you are right. Ranger School IS more mental than anything else. And learning to give evaluators what they want is an important skill. I’m a law professor now and I often tell my students that law school teaches them to know their judge. Being able to discern the unwritten rules and follow them is an essential skill even if those rules aren’t always the smartest or best. With your maturity now, I have no doubt that you could go back and pass Ranger School now (if your body held up). And there’s only three phases now!

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