Army Ranger School

U.S. Army Ranger School

 Ranger School has almost mythical status within the Army. Soldiers who successfully complete the nine-week course are awarded a small black and gold tab with the word “Ranger” embossed on it.  It is worn on the Ranger’s left shoulder sleeve. To earn that little black and gold tab men endure nine weeks of rigorous and extreme physical and mental stress. After Ranger School everything else in life seems easy by comparison.

Ranger School is broken down into three separate three-week phases. Phase I is conducted at Camp Darby, an isolated outpost on the larger Fort Benning, Georgia military reservation. The Darby Phase is marked by strenuous physical training including fast runs with full combat gear, water survival training, hand-to-hand combat and bayonet training and extensive training in small-unit infantry tactics including patrolling, raids and ambushes.

The Ranger instructors employ a variety of tactics to push the Ranger students to the limits of their physical and mental endurance. The physical stress is both extreme and almost-continuous. In addition to the runs, road marches and daily calisthenics (all performed at a higher level than regular Army standards), the hand-to-hand combat takes a heavy toll. Woe be unto the Ranger student whom an instructor catches “going easy” on his opponent. He will quickly regret it. Broken bones and dislocated joints were not uncommon. Less serious injuries such as strains and sprains or perhaps a cracked rib were routine and not to be complained about. In the instructor’s eyes, to complain, even by, say, a physical limp resulting from a sprained ankle was the equivalent of asking for sympathy. As you might imagine, the Rangers are not interested in people who are looking for sympathy.

At Camp Darby, as in the other phases, two of the additional stress inducers are lack of sleep and lack of food. On a typical night the average student may get one and a half  or two hours of sleep. Any night where you can get as much as four hours of sleep is a rare luxury. Some nights you get no sleep. It is relatively easy for a healthy, fit young man in his 20s to maintain that pace for two or three days, but at the end of that time most people crash. Ranger students, however, are required to sustain that pace for weeks at a time. The exhaustion and stress induced by lack of sleep is enhanced both by the constant physical demands and hunger. While in the field on patrol the students typically are allowed one meal each day. The lack of sleep, lack of food and constant physical demands break down healthy young bodies to the point of exhaustion and increase mental stress exponentially. Yet, Ranger students are still expected to perform at the highest levels.

Upon completion of Phase I the surviving students are given a nine-hour break. Most take advantage of the chance simply to eat and sleep.  The Ranger students are then trucked to the Mountain Ranger Camp at Dahlonega, Georgia to begin Phase II. For those whose exposure to Georgia is Atlanta or Sea Island, Dahlonega is a different world.  It is in the mountains of North Georgia, just south of the Tennessee border at the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains. I slept in the truck during our ride to Dahlonega. When I awoke and saw the mountains my initial impression was that we somehow had been transported to Vermont. I did not know that such mountains existed in Georgia. The next three weeks in the mountains were dominated by mountaineering training and longer patrols through the mountainous terrain.

A word about the patrols – a unit conducting a patrol might be as small as a squad of approximately 10 – 12 men, or as large as a platoon of approximately 40 men. Each patrol was assigned one or more missions.  A typical mission might be the reconnaissance of a target followed by a raid on that target to accomplish a specific objective, such as hostage or prisoner rescue or a prisoner snatch. Students rotate between leadership positions during patrols, principally positions as patrol leader and assistant patrol leader. During the entire Ranger course each student is required to fill a leadership position on at least six patrols. Testing is pass/fail, go/no-go. To successfully earn his Ranger tab, a student must pass at least half of his graded patrols. The pressure to pass is another stress-inducer. No one wants to complete the miserable nine-weeks of Ranger school only to not receive a tab because he did not pass half his patrols.

At the conclusion of the Mountain Phase in Dahlonega, we prepared to deploy to the Florid Ranger Camp at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle. We arrived at Eglin AFB by parachute –a night tactical parachute drop onto a remote portion of Eglin.  we then commenced our first patrol. Our three weeks at the Florida Ranger camp were marked by patrolling in swamps, river crossings, and other hardships peculiar to the Florida geography and weather.

Ah, yes, the weather.  In the mountains of North Georgia the additional stress-inducers included rain, sleet and snow in late November. On top of our run-down physical condition, this physical discomfort added to our physical and mental stress. To this day, Rangers think of thirty-five degree weather with rain as a typical “Ranger day.” Even now, over forty years later, when I am outside on a miserable winter day with temperatures in the 30s and a hard, cold rain, I always think, “At least I’m not in Ranger school. I will get to eat tonight. I will get seven hours of sleep. Life is a picnic.” After the miserable mountain weather most of us were looking forward to sunny Florida. Boy, were we in for a surprise.

In Florida we actually had more cold weather-related injuries than we had in the mountains. I do not know how cold it was. It probably was in the 40s most of the time, although it seemed much colder. But, when your body is as debilitated and run-down as were ours, you feel the cold much more acutely. Oh, did I mention, we were wet almost all the time. More often than not, our patrol routes were through the swamps, our target required a river crossing, and there was little opportunity to dry out.

I recall that we did get one respite from the unseasonably cold weather in Florida that December. For about one day it warmed up and the temperature seemed to be in the mid-70s. It was a mixed blessing. It was too good to be true.  In Ranger School, as in life, there is no free lunch.  You pay for everything.  We paid for the warm weather.  During that brief warm spell, my patrol alone encountered one coral snake and three eastern diamond back rattlers. Three! They had come out to enjoy the sunshine. We were quickly praying for it to turn cold again as we trudged through the swamp grass, fearful of stepping on a large diamond back rattler.

With the passage of so many years, many of my memories of Ranger school have blurred together. Of course, some of them were blurred together after only twenty-four hours. The combination of the lack of sleep, lack of food and physical duress causes people to hallucinate, especially in the mountains. Every Ranger school graduate has seen another hallucinating Ranger student talking to a tree, thinking it was an instructor, or trying to squeeze into a space between two large boulders, thinking that he was entering a phone booth, or some similar form of hallucination.

In spite of the passage of years, however, some of my still-vivid memories of Ranger school include time spent with my Ranger buddy, Bob Seitz on one particularly miserable rainy night ambush. Prior to graduation from West Point I had asked Bob to be my Ranger buddy. Not only were we good friends, but Bob was ranked No. 1 in our class in physical education. Bob was a stallion and I wanted someone who was that fit to be my Ranger buddy. Other lasting memories include the 19 mile road march with full combat gear at the conclusion of the Camp Darby Phase. The march is a blur in my memory because I was in a fair amount of pain the entire time. Both my feet were so swollen from an extreme case of tendonitis that I could not lace up my boots. I marched 19 miles in that condition because I had no other option. I was not about to quit and there was no such thing then as being recycled into another class. As the French Foreign Legion says, “March or die.”  Ranger buddy Seitz and Ron Male helped keep me going though that pretty unpleasant walk.

At graduation on December 19, 1969, I was surprised and honored to be chosen as one of the honor graduates of our class. There were, as I recall, six honor graduates and one distinguished graduate. As best I could determine, the honor graduates were those Ranger students who had maxed out all of their physical training test scores and passed 100% of their graded patrols (remember, the grading was sufficiently rigorous that passing 50% was sufficient to graduate). The distinguished graduate was a Regular Army Major who already had two combat tours in Vietnam under his belt. I do not remember his name, but I do remember that he was a stud. He was probably about thirty years old which made him the “old man” of our class and, truth to tell, a bit old for the rigors of Ranger school. But, he excelled and was the distinguished graduate of our class.

Almost exactly thirty years after my graduation I had the even greater pleasure of attending another Ranger graduation and pinning the coveted black and gold Ranger tab on my son David’s left shoulder. David’s military career and exploits have now far surpassed anything I ever dreamt of doing. He has five combat deployments under his belt — one with the Tenth Mountain Division, two with the Third Ranger Battalion and two with the Fifth Special Forces Group as an ODA Commander.

9 thoughts on “Army Ranger School

  1. A few comments to John’s description; I was in the same squad with John. The Distinguished Honor Grad was age 35; he did struggle physically at one point. The temperature in Florida reached 10 degrees (F); we were told later that it was the coldest FL had been in 25 years – and we were told not to take our cold weather gear nor our field jackets because we were going to sunny FL. On the last night preceding the long march back, we were put on open flatbed trucks and given the impression we were being taking back to base camp – instead we were being taken farther away from base camp; that truck ride was the coldest I have ever felt. Sleep deprivation – I was at the rear of a patrol one night when we stopped for a map check; when it was time to move out, the guy in front of me was standing over to the side next to a tree. I went over to him and said we were moving out; he got angry with me – it turned out he thought the tree was a phone booth, and he told me I was very rude to interrupt him in the middle of a phone conversation with his mother. I also experienced sleep deprivation when I was the point man for a patrol; I can’t tell you what happened because I have no idea, but the patrol leader was very upset the next day because “I had abandoned him for the evening when he needed me.” John’s tendonitis in his feet started in the Darby phase, so he endured this experience for about 7 of the 9 weeks of Ranger School. I remember taking my boots off during an hour break to let my feet dry out and encouraging John to do the same – he wouldn’t do so because he was afraid he would not be able to get his boots back on and then he’d be sent for medical care and recycled – do it all over again. John didn’t walk – he shuffled his feet to move forward – for 7 weeks.
    Finally, the picture of our class at the top – we got laughing later because we were too skinny to be able to recognize each other.

    Uncle Roastie

  2. John – – After reading your and Unk Roastie’s commentaries on the rigors of Ranger School, I penned a few comments and sent mine and those of you two to my family. I have, over the years, told them a few of the most memorable incidents from those dark and cold daze…. Your two comments prompted me to put a few down and I am placing them here for you and otyhers to read.

    Perhaps you could develop a “There was I….” site for reminences about those glorious daze of our mis-spent youth! My email to the family follows. A Mere Zooian, Karl

    Family – – I have infrequently talked about Ranger School but two of my West Point classmates have written about their memories. I forward their comments to you to give you an insight into what I experienced.

    My Class # 8-70 started on 4 January 1970 and finished about 18 March 1970. We were known as a Winter Ranger Class.

    John Lucas writes about Class 6-70 which graduated in mid-December. He mentions the cold and the damp.

    We had snow and ice. I recall crossing a swamp in the Darby Phase in early January during the night Land Navigation test by walking on the ice. The swamp ice eventually gave way and we plunged into three feet of the coldest water you can imagine. But after one minute or so our continued exertions led our long johns to hold water heated by our fast moving blood and our legs half warmed up, kind of like wearing a scuba wet suit in cold water. Rangers do not quit and the course pushes you to your limits and beyond. Pain and discomfort are constant companions along with sleep deprivation.

    But then there was that time in the Mountain Phase when the Lane Grader said the weather would be warm for our three night patrol and we had to leave our field jackets in the barracks. The weather changed the second night and the rain became freezing rain and my backpack straps froze to my field uniform shirt. I did have my long johns shirt under that however, but I would surely have frozen if we stopped for any appreciable length of time. We stopped around three in the morning of the second night to let the patrol leader make a map check and I tried to remove my pack so I could get something out of it (probably a can of military rations that I had been hoarding all day until I was really desperate or needed the mental lift I got from having eaten something). The backpack wouldn’t budge because it was frozen to me. I had to get my Ranger Buddy to use his rifle to hit me with the butt of the rifle stock on the shoulders to break the ice around my shoulders and neck so I could remove the 60 pound backpack. After three or four hits the first strap came loose and the other only took two hits to pop it loose.

    Rumor was that as Winter Rangers the Army would let us sew our Ranger Tabs on with white thread. Like all rumors the troops hope are true, this one had no basis in fact….

    Anyway, I hope you enjoy reading about this most difficult training and can understand my pride at having been one of the 37% ( we lost 53% due to medical out, quitters, and accidents) in my class to graduate and receive the coveted Ranger Tab. And yes, you could graduate but not receive the Tab if you did not pass half of your patrols but otherwise successfully completed all the other training exams and standards. That happened to a few of our class. Note that I lost about 40 pounds in Ranger School dropping to about 105 # (John Lucas’ story describes why we all lost so much weight). Upon graduating, I was hospitalized for three weeks with a kidney/bladder infection due to an injury I received the last two weeks of Ranger School in a parachute insertion. I was passing blood and had a fever for the last eight or nine days of training, but I sure as heck was not going to go on ‘Sick Call’ and be re-cycled to have to repeat the Florida Phase’s three weeks of swamps again!! Karl

  3. All,

    Your comments brought back a flood of memories of Ranger School. Like Karl Ivey, I was a member of the Winter Ranger Course, 8-70. One of the memories seared into my memory occurred the first few days after we arrived at Fort Benning. Probably 6 or 7 January. I remember arriving at Ft Benning having a fever and a bad cough, but was not about ready quit. That was simply not done.

    In any event on that 6 or 7 January day, we were bussed to a swimming pool to take the Ranger swimming test (outside pool – no Ranger worth his salt would take a swimming test in an indoor, heated pool!!) . My memory of that day more than 42 years ago was that it was hugely cold. In fact, the pool had a veneer of ice on it (maybe I exaggerate, but I am not so sure). We had to undergo a number of tests, among others including recover our rifles at the bottom of the pool, walk off the diving board with a pack and rifle and swim to the side and do that again blind-folded (simulate nightime!). All in all, it probably took about an hour (or seemed like it). In truth, the temperature may have been above freezing, but it did not feel like it then. Once the test was over, we were rushed back to the bus where we changed into a set of clean, dry fatigues.

    I passed the swim test, went on to pass 50% of my patrols, and won the coveted black and gold tab. After all these years, I count earning the Ranger Tab as my proudest accomplishment. Oh yes, the fever and the cough . . . the next morning when reveille sounded (was it 0430 or o435?), the fever and cough were gone. The frigid water in the pool that cold January day no doubt killed every germ in my body. Lesson learned, Never quit…accomplish the mission.

    John Luchak, H-4, USMA 1969

  4. I was in the 1/9 at the time you were there. I transferred Garney Burleson’s body from Magor Lotts LOH to a medical at thanh linh village. I am a friend of Jim Dewell. I think your name is Lucas. Good article about the blues. Glad you made it home but why did all you guys become lawyers. Makes me wish I had finished law school. God bless you and your family. Special blessings to your ranger son.

    • I haven’t been on this Blog site in several years and just saw this. So, apologies for the late response. I think about Garney Burleson all the time. A bad day. I am in touch with several guys from B/1/9 Cav, including the scout pilot, Magnet Ass McKnight, Dwight Craddock and Jack Shields. They are planning a B/1/9 reunion next month. If you get this, please send me your email address and I will send more. Would like to hear what you are doing. now. Thanks, also, for the comments on my son. He is still at it. Seven deployments and not done yet.

  5. Hi John, my name is Mike Crook and I was a FA O1 with you in 6-70. I enjoyed your reflections on the class…..I have just applied to join the USARA and wonder if there is a source to find the class roster?…I plan to read about your trip….I am thinking it is to late for me to go after a quest that of that level….nothing seemed impossible back then…thanks writing about it…time has dulled the memory and the details are very fuzzy….warm regards, Mike

  6. Ranger 6 never quits ! After the 8mi forced March my feet were covered with blisters and by Dahlonega I was getting penicillin shots for gangrene. Somehow I made it.

  7. I just caught these great writings about Ranger School and the Winter Ranger. I was in 6-71, one year later after the class you write about and my experiences were so similar. My friend was evacuated in Florida with serious foot injuries that he never mentioned for fear of recycle. He went into serious medical shock walking in the swamps. I watched a fellow Ranger dislocate his shoulder on the ropes at Dahlonega and we all hid his injury. Fear of recycle. Your stories brought back memories of the hardest days and nights ever, which you only can imagine or even explain unless you did it. I think about the Ranger instructor at Darby, Sgt Burnell (?) who had a leg prothesis and was tough as nails. He drove the Dodge pick up after every run or march picking those who fell out and literally were not seen again. Our entire patrol hallucinated an event in the swamps. Our Ranger Instructor told us about it as we got ready to leave Eglin to return to Darby. In later years, when the Army re established the Ranger Regiment I was proud of all of us who kept that Ranger spirit alive in the 60’s and 70’s by earning the tab and leading the way. Ranger School changed my life for the better and I thank every one of those instructors for what they did for me and for our Army. I just met a fellow Ranger from a class in 1960. Same experiences. Wow.

    Bruce Beckman

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