Copyright John T. Reed
I graduated from U.S. Army Ranger School in Ranger Class 3 in 1968 (August-September). I was awarded the Ranger Tab on the airstrip at Eglin Air Force Base, FL. I add that because a number of my West Point classmates who initially flunked that class were later awarded the Ranger Tab by Pentagon fiat.
The reason was our particular Ranger cadre (instructors) did not like West Pointers. As I recall, only one lane grader (low-level position) among them were West Point grads.
They also seemed pissed that we were impervious to their usual fun of rattling the Ranger students with petty harassment. After four years of West Point, we knew that game backward and forward and were far better at both ends of it than the clowns who run Ranger School (as the occasional West Point graduate who gets assigned to be an instructor at Ranger School could tell them if he were not afraid it would hurt his career).
They made a number of negative comments about us when we were there. Here is what my Ranger buddy said when I asked him to check this article:
Remember Captain _______ who yelled at us when someone asked if he knew the score of the Army-Vanderbilt game? [Army is the name of the West Point athletic teams.] He truly hated West Point grads. “137 soldiers died in Vietnam this week and all you #@@&%$ West Pointers care about is football!” Actually, I wanted to point out that I did care about our sacrifice in Vietnam, but I still would be interested in the score as well. It didn’t seem like the right time to mention it though.
Remember the instructor who said I can’t figure you guys out? You’re not motivated, but you get the job done well anyway.
We were motivated just fine for doing our jobs. We just were not motivated to respond to their harassment games.
They apparently flunked an inordinate, extraordinarily high number of West Pointers in Ranger Class 3-69 (started in August, 1968) compared to prior Ranger classes. This would have adversely affected the careers of the officers in question. The Pentagon did not order that all West Pointers in my Ranger class get the tab, only that the normal percentage get it. I expect they let the Ranger cadre decide which ones if not the total number of West Pointers in our class to get the tab.
Me as an instructor?
I later learned that the Ranger cadre had recommended me to be brought back as an instructor at the Ranger school when I saw that paperwork in my personnel file. I never did go back as an instructor. Thank God!
When I was in officer branch training in the U.S., I volunteered for D Company, 75th Infantry (Rangers) in Vietnam, a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) unit. I was sent to Vietnam to fill that slot in November, 1969, but one of my West Point classmates with the same résumé as me arrived a day before me and got the slot instead. So I never served in a Ranger unit per se.
Some who did serve in Ranger units never attended Ranger School and some who graduated from Ranger School, like me, never served in a Ranger unit. Ranger School graduation is not a prerequisite for serving in a Ranger unit, but it is a prerequisite for serving in a leadership position in a Ranger unit. (I disagree with that policy. Local commanders should have freedom to put whomever they want in leadership positions.) Which reminds me that there is the right way, the wrong way, and the Army way of doing things. Training people for Job A then assigning them to totally-unrelated Job B is an age-old, extremely common, dumb, Army habit.
After he graduated from Harvard Law School, renowned consumer lawyer Ralph Nader was drafted into the peace-time Army. The Army made him a cook. Apparently, it never occurred to them to assign him to the JAG corps as a clerk or some such.
When I graduated from Ranger school in 1968, few members of the public had ever heard of the Army Rangers. One of my West Point classmates was asked by an adult friend of his parents what he was doing next after we graduated from West Point. When he told him he was going to Ranger School, the man said, “Oh, going into forestry, huh?”
I thought this was no longer the case. Then I read page 335 of the book In a Time of War. It’s about the West Point class of 2002. That page said that when one of those grads went to Harvard Business School, he mentioned ranger school to a woman there and she said,
Ranger? Like a park ranger?
The Navy invented a synthetic “elite” unit called the SEALS that got, and still gets, tons of favorable publicity. For a while, every action hero in Hollywood was described as a former Navy SEAL starting with Magnum, P.I. I guess the Army got jealous and cranked up the public relations for its “elite” units including the Rangers.
The Rangers also got some PR when President Ronald Reagan participated in the 40th anniversary of D-Day and featured the Rangers in a speech at Pointe du Hoc, the site of some of the Rangers’ action on D-Day.
Lately, I have seen all sorts of TV programs about Ranger School, Ranger history, and the “Best Ranger” competition on the History Channel, Discovery Channel, and the Military Channel.
Although I welcome our getting enough recognition to take us out of the “forestry” category, the eliteness of the so-called “elite” military units is generally being exaggerated. I will not sin by silence when I should protest. It is a bit dishonest to listen to someone overpraise you and not correct the inaccuracy in the praise. To their credit, the WW II Army Rangers who get interviewed on TV generally protest that they were just doing their jobs and deserve no extraordinary credit. I want to provide a more detailed version of that here.
The American public as a whole still understands what U.S. Army Rangers are better when you use the equivalent British word to describe them: commandos.
What are enemy lines?
When I went to Ranger School, we were told we were being trained to patrol behind enemy lines.
If you were born after 1950, you may be wondering, “What, pray tell, are enemy lines?”
Good question. Back in ancient times when commercial airliners all had propellers, armies used to fight each other from trenches and foxholes that were generally constructed along a line. The last enemy lines were in the Korean war—which is not coincidentally when they created the U.S. Army Ranger School. (The Taliban tried using such lines briefly when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2003. They were vaporized in a matter of hours and that was probably the end of enemy lines in the Twenty-First Century. In Desert Storm in 1991, Saddam Hussein also put his army in lines in the desert with the same result. He did not do it again during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.)
If there haven’t been any enemy lines since the Korean War in 1953, why are we still training soldiers to patrol behind them?
Inertia—We used to joke that West Point had two hundred years of tradition unmarked by progress. The Army is no better.
Ranger history—Rangers units have done some good stuff throughout our history so it’s nice to keep that unit alive for espirit de corps purposes.
Fight better—Although “elite” military units like the rangers and paratroopers rarely actually do what they are trained to do, they do tend to fight better in regular infantry roles than soldiers who have no extra training, so that makes them worth keeping around.
Keep up with the Joneses—The Navy has reaped an amazing publicity bonanza from the SEALS—especially when you consider it is more or less a post-Vietnam phenomenon. True, the SEALS had some predecessor units like the World War II Navy frogmen who did some great stuff, but the SEALS per se really have not been tested much in combat. I saw an impressive TV documentary about a handful of SEALS rescuing a U.S. prisoner in Vietnam. Three of them shot Somali pirates. But I know of no other SEAL combat success stories. The Rangers, in contrast, trace their history as Rangers back to the French and Indian War. That was before the Revolutionary War. America’s first Rangers were paid by the British colonial rulers. The SEALS also seem to be the Navy’s Rangers and paratroopers when they are not wearing SCUBA gear. Why the Navy needs its own Rangers and paratroopers I would not know. Some kind of stepchild, sibling-rivalry thing.
The American public is woefully ignorant of the amount of time, money, and energy the Army and Navy waste competing with each other in duplicative ways like sibling rivals for attention and budget. Actually, the Navy is the main culprit. They insist on having their own Army and Air Force. The Army has never wanted its own navy and the Air Force has never wanted its own army or navy.
I notice that the current Army Ranger recruiting Web site refers to Rangers as “stealth soldiers.” That sounds more up to date than patrolling behind enemy lines, but it’s the same thing. You don’t need to be stealthy unless you are in the vicinity of the enemy and outnumbered by them.
On page 99 of the book The Unforgiving Minute by Craig M. Mullaney (West Point Class of 2000), he says,
R[anger] I[nstruction]s focused on teaching us how to win a guerrilla war…If we could have gotten away with it, we would have rolled our eyes in boredom. Vietnam was our parents’ war. We thought guerrilla war had gone out of style with the Contras. Even our instructors admitted that the tactics were antiquated. They told us that the ambushes and raids were merely vehicles for testing leadership under stressful conditions.
Aha! This is one of the criticisms I keep making about the current U.S. military. They are a bunch of “World War II in Europe” reenactors. Mullaney’s instructors only modify that slightly when they admit to being Vietnam war reenactors.
I coached 15 football teams and wrote eight books on how to coach football—some of which are purchased by NFL and college coaches. I wrote an article comparing how to U.S. military trains with how football teams do. Ranger school teaching Vietnam era tactics “for testing leadership under stressful conditions” is the equivalent of a current NFL team spending two months running some 1960s offense and defense to get ready for the 2009 season.
Guerrilla wars are for uninhabited jungle or thick forest
Plus, I must say that the idea that guerrilla war went out of style with the Contras is quite wrong. Quite simply, guerrilla wars are alive and well. They are for jungles or thickly forested, relatively uninhabited terrain. The tactics being used in Iraq and Afghanistan are the desert equivalent of guerrilla war. There are still guerrilla wars going on in Latin America and Indonesia. They just won one against the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.
In view of the fact that we lost the Vietnam War, there will be plenty more of them. Whether the enemy uses guerrilla tactics are Iraq/Afghanistan tactics is merely a function of vegetation and population density. Ranger tactics are effective in guerrilla wars. They are not of much use in Iraq or Afghanistan type wars. Perhaps they need another phase at Ranger School. They actually had a desert phase for a while but ended it, probably because they had not figured out any tactics that work in the desert. They either need another ranger type school that teaches Iraq/Afghanistan tactics, or a phase of ranger school that does.
Since depriving students of food and sleep is the main focus of ranger school, I suspect the two-digit IQ types who run such Army schools will have no interest in teaching tactics where sleep and food deprivation are irrelevant. The rationale behind depriving students of food and sleep is that when you operate behind enemy lines, you can only carry limited food and you have to move only at night. Actually, you are supposed to sleep during daylight but they sort of forget about that. Urban police-type patrolling in places like Iraq and vehicle-mounted patrolling Afghanistan mountains and villages has no food or sleep deprivation component. That means for such tactics, Ranger instructors would have to actually instruct rather than mostly harass and torment. No fun for them. Consequently, no such school is going to happen.
Read the book Unforgiving Minute
I strongly recommend that you read the book Unforgiving Minute if you are considering going to Ranger School. It is a relatively current version of what goes on there (2000). His experience in very similar to mine but I know from being a writer that people want everything up to date even if the subject in question has not changed much over time. But I must note that the author, a Rhodes Scholar, was not smart enough to draw the obvious conclusion from his experience there: that anyone who goes there knowing what it’s about is nuts.
‘Elite’ is a relative term
One of the main things that bugs me about so-called “elite” military units is that they are leaving out the fact that “elite” is a relative term when used by the military.
There are few truly elite units in the military by objective civilian standards. I would list the following as truly elite military units by any standards:
- The faculty at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point—may be true of Annapolis and the Air Force Academy as well. I wouldn’t know. A guy I roomed with for two years when we were cadets was the commander of this unit in the early 2000s, that is, he was the Dean of the Academic Board at West Point.)
- The Navy’s Blue Angels (fighter jet acrobatic demonstration team)
- The Air Force’s Thunderbirds (fighter jet acrobatic demonstration team)
- Navy nuclear submariners
I have also been very impressed with the Green Berets, but I am not sure they are in the “elite” unit category. I think they are elite but the public image seems to be that they are more specialized than supermen. When I was in the Army they were more weird than “elite.” They had a high percentage of multi-lingual immigrants from foreign countries. When they needed a two-way radio, they bought it at a civilian store. (A current ranger/green beret says that’s not true. It was common knowledge when I was in the military which was long before the current guy.) The rest of the Army had to put in a requisition and wait five years. Because of their non-bureaucratic ways, I volunteered five times to join them. I was on orders to be transferred to 5th Special Forces Group (Green Berets) in Vietnam, but the orders were canceled for unknown reasons.
My definition of “elite” would be that when you have those units compete with similarly trained civilians, the military would win. There was some sort of reality TV show a few years back that pitted teams in “iron men”-type races in various exotic locales around the world. As I recall, the Army Rangers and Navy SEALS always entered teams, but never beat the civilians. I think the above truly elite military units that I listed would generally defeat their civilian counterparts in a fair competition.
So-called “elite” military units that I think are only “elite” in a relative sense compared to other military personnel would include:
I was also a paratrooper when I was in the Army.
Mullaney’s comments on the eliteness of the Rangers
Here is what Mullaney said about how elite he and his fellow ranger students were at Ranger School:
The longer we stayed in the bush, the dumber and clumsier we became, by compromising our reconnaissance missions, leaving weapons on prisoners, or losing one another as we crashed through the woods following fireflies rather than the luminescent cat’s-eyes on our buddies helmets. We weren’t going to convince anyone that we were an elite force.
My version of that was that we tramped through the bush like a herd of elephants especially on nights when there was no moonlight. A five-year old who grew up an Park Avenue in New York City could have easily tracked us by the swath we left in the bush. By the way, there were no helmets at Ranger School when we were there. We only wore soft boonie caps. We were told you could not wear helmets because they were too noisy when branches scraped against them. Also, I recall no fireflies nor any ranger following them.
Hand-to-hand combat training versus the real world
We were trained in hand-to-hand combat at West Point and in Ranger School. Three of my classmates unwittingly went to a laundromat in a bad neighborhood in nearby Columbus, GA when we were in Ranger School—after we had our hand-to-hand combat training there. There were attacked by three local guys. Two of them pulled knives and told two of my classmates to stand still and do nothing, which they did, while the third bad guy beat up the biggest of my three classmates. Our hand-to-hand combat training at both West Point and Ranger School included how to fight a guy who has a knife. The bad guy was bigger than the classmate he chose to fight, but this was still three guys against three West Point graduate rangers. The bad guy fighting with my classmate did not use a weapon. The West Pointer in the fight lost by about 20-0 on points and still has a badly mangled thumb 40 years later. He feels lucky to be alive.
I suspect that if they had attempted to use the hand-to-hand combat techniques they learned at West Point and Ranger School, they would have been killed or badly injured. The neighborhood guys probably were graduates and survivors of numerous real street fights—warriors if you’ll pardon the expression—not of stylized, choreographed bravado of the military hand-to-hand combat pit. One idea I half seriously wonder about is taking cadets or ranger students to a slaughter house where they would go mano-a-hoof against a real pig that was to be killed by the cadet/ranger using nothing but a knife. I doubt the Academy or Army or the meat packing plant could handle the resulting bad PR, but it would probably give the cadets/rangers an infinitely better understanding of the nature of a real fight to the death and the “glamour” of being a “warrior.”
I would not recommend getting into a fight with a ranger or West Point graduate, because he might remember enough, and execute it well enough, to kill or maim you. I think you can assume that West Pointers and rangers when in such situations, quickly mentally review their hand-to-hand training and will probably respond to your attack with a particular strategy not just the usual protective hands-in-front-of-the-face instinct. They may not be able to pull it off in the event, but on the other hand, they might. But we surely did not get enough reps or any realistic practice or tests to conclude that we were as competent at hand-to-hand combat as military hypesters would have you believe.
The Marines claim to be elite compared to the Army, Navy, and Air Force. I would be interested in an honest, objective study of the matter. I expect it would show the Marines to be the rough equivalent of the Army paratroopers or maybe a notch below the paratroopers because the paratroopers have the extra skill of jumping out of planes.
At present, it would appear that the only basis for that “Marines are better” claim is 100 years of very strenuous Marine public relations. Fort Monmouth had the military’s only photographer school when I was stationed there in the 1970s. That meant that active-duty enlisted photographers from all branches of the military—Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Army—had to go there to learn photography. Guess which of the services had the most photography students by far? And guess which service was by far the smallest in the U.S. military? The Marines in both cases. I wouldn’t be surprised if Marine means “narcissist” in some dead language.
Not the most selective organization
Since the military is generally considered to be an easy organization to join, indeed, often one that has trouble getting enough people, claiming “eliteness” relative to the other people in the military is not saying much in the grand scheme of things. “Above-average for the military” would be more accurate than “elite.”
Above average at what?
Furthermore, one should ask, “Above-average at what?” The Rangers, for example, are not smarter than other Army personnel. Indeed, I would not be surprised if, on average, they were dumber. Ranger training has no IQ test as part of the application process. There is a physical test, but the school training is almost entirely a masochism test. Masochism is generally considered to be dumb and rightly so.
The training is miserable, dangerous, and painful—deprivation of food and sleep and brutal physical endurance demands. Rangers are primarily masochists who wanted to go through such an ordeal and, in the event, actually completed it even though it was far worse than the horrible experience they expected.
To me, a Ranger is a masochist who knows a little about sneaking around in the woods at night and setting up ambushes. In Vietnam, LRRP Ranger units killed 50 enemy for every Ranger who died. How? By using the ambush techniques we were taught at Ranger School. The U.S. military in general killed only ten enemy for every American killed.
A Ranger knows even less about his other supposed skills, namely, mountain climbing and paddling rubber rafts.
Hollywood and military recruiters would have you believe that we Rangers are supermen. Nope. Neither 57 days of training then, nor 68 now, transforms a regular guy into a superman.
Flunked some for the sake of bragging rights for those who ‘passed’
“Elite” military units are big on bragging about the ratio of those who want to join that unit and those who actually are allowed to. In the song Ballad of the Green Berets there is a line: “One hundred men will test today, but only three win the green beret.”
It was my distinct impression at Ranger School that they flunked some guys because they did not master the subject matter, but that most who flunked were arbitrarily flunked just so the Rangers could brag about how hard it was to be a Ranger. I seem to recall that only one-third of my Ranger class was awarded the Ranger Tab on the airstrip at Eglin AFB. Probably two-thirds to three-quarters should have been. My Ranger buddy recalls that about two-thirds got the tab and one-third flunked. Another WP and Ranger classmate of mine says he thinks our ranger class had 237 guys, including many non-West Pointers, and that 92 ended up getting the tab. A Web site about a captain who died during Ranger training says about half flunk.
Ranger School is not rocket science. Flunking people arbitrarily to meet a bragging-rights quota was unfair to those who had earned the tab, but were denied it, and a waste of Army resources and manpower in that those who flunked for no good reason were generally not permitted to serve in Ranger units in spite of being qualified to do so. If they were career officers, flunking Ranger school probably also meant the end of their careers as far as ever making multiple stars was concerned.
There was no such arbitrary flunking out at West Point or Airborne (paratrooper) school, but there was at Ranger School. At my civilian graduate school, the Harvard MBA program, they do flunk out the bottom 10% every year. That is an arbitrary quota. But their reason is to motivate all the students and eliminate the notion that once you are admitted you can just loaf until graduation. Loafing was not a problem in Ranger School.
Apparently, this has gotten worse since I went through. See page 61 of the 2008 book In a Time of War, which follows a number of members of the West Point Class of 2002. Here are some of the things it says:
For days and weeks beforehand, [ranger school] candidates had watched one another practice push-ups and sit-ups, making sure their form was pristine; they’d heard a Ranger instructor might send them home for the smallest imperfection. The rumor was that Ranger was chronically oversubscribed, and that instructors kicked students out on the first day to cull the herd. In fact, Drew and Ryan learned that exactly that had happened to Drew’s plebe-year roommate, Dave..., only a week or two before.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Dave had yelled at the instructor who failed him less than an hour into the first night at Ranger. In eight years in the Army and at West Point, he’d never failed a PT test. “Eight more!” called out another instructor. Sure enough, eight of the fifteen candidates behind him failed as well.
In a Time of War also seemed to indicate that graduating from Ranger School and receiving the Ranger Tab is far more important to your career. According to the book, all eyes go to your left shoulder when fellow military first meet you and the lack of a Ranger Tab results in the question, “What happened to you at Ranger?” One West Point graduate who did not get the tab was unhappy to hear he was being assigned for the summer to West Point because he would be disgraced by not having the tab.
I did not wear the tab. When one of my classmates heard about that, he, too, stopped wearing his tab. Both he and I gave long notice that we were leaving the Army at the earliest possible opportunity and we were both told the military equivalent of “You can’t quit! You’re fired!” Yeah. Drive on. All the way. Whatever.
Apparently, not getting the tab ends your career. That was more or less the way it was back in the 1960s, but apparently it has become more so.
This is insane. A guy busts his ass to get into West Point. Then he busts his ass for four years to graduate. Then he starts his officer career and it ends in a flash during the first several months after West Point because Ranger School needs a large supply of flunks to elevate their “elite” status. Do the American taxpayers know that they are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per student to send men through West Point, only to tell them to get lost as far as a military career is concerned a couple of months after they graduate? And that the criterion for ending a Ranger student’s military career is the whim of a sergeant with a double-digit IQ whose only life accomplishment consists of surviving Ranger School’s random-flunk-out game?
Pride through masochism
I also thought that Army Ranger School was tougher than it needed to be from a physical standpoint. They sent us out on multi-day patrols without adequate food or sleep. We got one C ration a day which is approximately a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, an individual serving size can of peaches, and an airline packet of cookies. We all ravenously ate the non-dairy creamer packet and sugar packet that came in the C-ration box for the coffee we never brewed or drank. One of my West Point classmates lacerated his tongue when we were in Ranger School trying to get the last bit of peanut butter out of a tin can with a jagged edge where it had been opened.
They would not let us sleep more than a few hours a night and not at all some nights when some of us had to go on a resupply mission while the other Ranger students slept. And we had to walk 10,000 meters a day carrying an 80-pound ruck sack and a 9.5-pound rifle—if you were not unlucky enough to have to also carry a 20-pound radio or a 23-pound machine gun instead of the rifle.
They said this was to show us that you could still function in spite of such deprivation. True, we would not have believed that if they just told us. My fellow Ranger students and I learned from experience in Ranger School that it was correct and amazing how much deprivation people can stand and still function. So, point taken, but why did we have to go out on patrol after patrol to suffer the same deprivation and learn the same lesson over and over?
I know why. So we can brag about it for the rest of our lives. It’s like banging your head against a wall for days just so you can later brag that you banged your head against a wall for days. The first deprivation patrol was educational. The others were all childish masochism for the sake of masochism. We would have learned more true Ranger skills if we had adequate food and sleep.
When Ranger School ended, we looked like liberated concentration-camp inmates. Our skin all looked like your finger tips do when you stay in the water too long: white and wrinkled. (We were not allowed to have raincoats, ponchos, sleeping bags, or tents in Ranger School.) When it rained when we were on patrol, we got soaked to the skin and if it rained for three days we were soaked to the skin throughout that period or longer. We slept on the ground in the open often in eight or more inches of soaking wet leaves with more rain falling on us as we slept in 40-degree weather. Does that sound horrible? It’s far worse than it sounds.
The palms of our hands looked as if we had been doing push-ups on gravel. For 43 years, I did not know why. Then I asked my dermatologist in 2011.
Sounds like Pitted Keratolysis, but that usually happens to feet, not hands.
Pitted Keratolysis is a bacterial infection. The pits are places where the bacteria ate the skin. Lovely. Wikipedia says of it,
Fairly common, especially in military where wet shoes/boots are worn for extended period of time without removing/cleaning.
Another Web site says,
Pitted keratolysis is a skin disorder characterized by crateriform pitting that primarily affects the pressure-bearing aspects of the plantar surface of the feet and, occasionally, the palms of the hand as collarettes of scale. The manifestations of pitted keratolysis are due to a superficial cutaneous bacterial infection.
Did the Army or ranger school warn us about this infection?
Did they tell us how to prevent it or treat it or provide medical personnel to treat it?
Did they give a shit whether we suffered from that bacterial infection?
No. If this discussion had been presented to them they would have smirked, celebrated it as yet another way to torment ranger students and give themselves further evidence of how tough they are to brag about.
Are there technical terms to describe the Army/ranger instructor cadre approach to this and other similar problems?
Yes. They are immature overage adolescent morons who seek pain and injury so they can brag about it and they seek to inflict pain and injury/illness on their military students because they are what psychiatrists call “sick puppies” or more technically, “sadists.”
The U.S. Army and Marines and SEALS are magnets for sadomasochists, which outside of the military, is considered a psychiatric disorder. That, in turn, suggests that outside of the military is a place you should try to get to or a place to remain if you are already there.
Our eyes were sunken because we had lost a great deal of weight. I do not remember how much I lost. I would guess I dropped from about 160 to 145 or some such. At six feet tall, I was not supposed to ever weigh 145 pounds. Most Ranger graduates do know how much weight they lost. Ask one of them.
The Ranger School Web site brags, “Ranger School is one of the toughest training schools a Soldier can volunteer for.” That’s what I am talking about: toughness for toughness’ sake. They torment the Ranger students to a dangerous degree just so everyone involved can brag about how tough it is, not to make the students better soldiers.
Someone once said that politics is Hollywood for ugly people. I think it is equally true that “so-called ”elite military units are the NFL for guys who are not big or athletic enough to play in the NFL. (The late Pat Tillman being the single exception to that rule.)
If you go to a West Point reunion from my era and eavesdrop on the conversations, about half of them would be about the 57 days we spent in Ranger School, not the four years we spent at West Point or the year we spent in Vietnam—in spite of the fact that both West Point and Vietnam were also very eventful experiences. At least that has been my observation when I attended our reunions—including my 40th in 2008. That’s how traumatic those 57 days were.
Dying to be a Ranger
When I was taking swimming classes at West Point, they told us that a recent graduate had drowned crossing the Yellow River in Ranger School. When they recovered his body, they found that he had tried to take off his 80-pound ruck sack by pulling the right shoulder strap off his left shoulder thereby tangling it hopelessly around his neck.
I started Ranger Class 3-69 in early August, 1968. When the Ranger instructors were warning us about heat stroke, they buttressed the point by noting that a Ranger student had just died of it the previous month.
While my class was in the mountain phase in Dahlonega, GA, two or three Ranger students died in the swamp phase at Eglin Air Force Base, FL when they were under a tree to get out of the rain and the tree was hit by lightning. A bunch of other Ranger students were burned by the lightning bolt that killed the others.
Here is an email I got from a guy who was a FL ranger instructor when the lightning incident happened and my response to him.
On Aug 19, 2011, at 10:03 AM, Lee Harris wrote:
Mr. Reed I read with interest your article about Ranger School and need to get one of your facts corrected, first, I was an Instructor at the Florida Ranger Camp at the time of the lightening strike, and second, it was initially 3 students down, however, only one unfortunate student finally died as we did mouth to mouth and I administered O2 to one of the more seriously on the way to the helicopter pick up site. The two who survived the initial strike did have some memory loss and other injuries. This incident happened on the old field 10 patrol area, which we called the East Bay area. The initial strike had another 15-20 students temporarily in various stages of being electrocuted and lightening was striking all around us. All weapons and field gear was taken off the students and the entire ranger company was lined in the prone position in low ditch areas to put them as low as possible. Our camp commander at the time was Maj Getz (DSC, 9 SS and other awards. who also was my company commander in the 1st cav 1st bde co. b 8th cav) who later became a General and was also a WP Graduate so I never heard any negative comments about west pointers and I can assure you that half of our officer instructors were regular army and west pointers. Don't forget the RIs also walked each and every mile with you and got just as wet and cold as you. (As instructors we were required to wear one less item of clothing, so if you had a field jacket we did not wear one........ I made honor graduate of class 7-62 and was an instructor in august of 62 as a 21 year old. So my second trip back is when you went to ranger school. I am sorry that you had such a bad taste for ranger school and you would have enjoyed an assignment as an RI more then you can realize. RLTW, Lee Harris, HG 7-62, RI FRC 62-64, 67-69.
Reed reply: Thanks,
Maybe the Anti-West Point we noticed was just in the mountain phase. It is possible there was none at Benning or Eglin now that you mention it. The commander of the mountain phase was Shalikashvili, a non-West Pointer who was not the Shalikashvili who later became Chief of Staff. We were very attentive to who was a West Pointer and I only remember one lane grader who was a West Point grad.
We were ranger students during the lightning strike injuries so my statement of what happened is just memory of what we were told verbally at the time, probably during a change of lane grader during a patrol. We had no access to news media.
As coach of 35 athletic teams, we had to deal with lightning danger repeatedly. We got indoors. Evaluating the negligence if any of the ranger instructors in that incident would require detailed knowledge of what weather information was available regarding lightning strike possibility at the time, also climate information regarding whether Eglin was an appropriate place to have a ranger school segment at all. I think swamp training is just sadistic and has relatively little military application.
My sense is that ranger school was reluctant to do things like get indoors to avoid lightning because of a macho drive-on bias. During our Benning phase, the instructors kept telling us that "Today is another Category Four Day (high temperature and humidity) so all outdoor training is canceled today—except ranger school. That was bullshit. Rangers are no less likely to suffer from heat stroke in terms of selection and are more likely to suffer heat injury because of the nature of the training. The steps you took to prevent lightning injury that day in FL ware appropriate If you are out in the bush during a lightning attack. The point is those steps were inadequate and that is no surprise. They simply try to get a little marginal improvement is what is fundamentally, a situation so bad that they should not be in a situation where they are lying prone on the ground during lightning. In my athletic experience, there were no lightning injuries and we never even got close to any. The injury rate in the military, especially tho so-called tough courses, is too high and it is too high mainly because the people in charge have a "defective attitude" if you'll pardon the expression, about safety versus proving your manhood.
Regarding the one less article of clothing, we did not notice. I had a U.S. Navy Rain parka which I bought with my own money. Most rangers did not have one and I believe we were prohibited from wearing or carrying field jackets. I know we were prohibiting from possessing ponchos. Maybe the winter class at Eglin wore field jackets. We were there in October. A U.S. Navy rain parka provides little warmth. It is to keep you dry and serves as a sort of suit of armor against twigs and branches which may sound wimpy to those who never walked through the wood all night.
I do NOT recall however, that instructors carried more weight than we did. We had a 9.5-pound rifle and a pack full of ammo and miscellaneous stuff like C-rations (heavy cans of food like you would buy at a supermarket). I think all the instructors had was one day’s worth of instructor stuff, like grading forms and pens. Other than canteen of water, I did not feel the instructors were doing anything more difficult than or even equal to what we were doing. Most notably, the instructors on the patrols changed every 24 hours and had I don’t know how many days off in between. We were out there for 3, 5, or 7 days with no breaks.
One more furthermore, why were the instructors wearing one less item of clothing? Sounds like the Cat 4 mind set that ranger instructors are so tough. The danger in cold in hypothermia which is not a mental-toughness issue. One ranger instructor died when I was a ranger student. Seems to me they need to be protected better, too.
I]ll have to take Harris’s word for it that I would have loved being a ranger instructor. He may have been right.
The Ranger class after us, which also had a lot of my West Point classmates, saw a Ranger instructor die. He was a jumpmaster in the plane for a night parachute drop of Ranger students. Apparently to show how macho he was, he did not secure himself to the plane with the safety line he was supposed to use. He also was not wearing a parachute. The jumpmaster has to lean out the door to see the beacons on the ground to tell when they are over the drop zone. While doing so, he fell to his death. The official cause of death was terminal machismo, also known as terminal stupidity.
A couple of years ago, a West Point graduate who won a Rhodes Scholarship went to Ranger School the summer before he was to begin studying at Oxford, figuring he would never be in better shape to go through the ordeal of Ranger School. He died of heat stroke at Ranger School.
On February 15, 1995, four Ranger students died of hypothermia (low body temperature) when they crossed the Yellow River during the swamp phase in FL. The Ranger students were immersed in 52-degree water for eleven straight hours—too long. (Rangers cross a river by tying a single rope to a tree on each side then using the rope to drag themselves across the river. The rope is wholly in the water and so is the Ranger except for his head.) You can read about one of them, Citadel grad Captain Milton Palmer at http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/mpalmer.htm.
The article says the Rangers had lost 10 to 15 pounds by then from being in Ranger School and that loss of fat makes humans more vulnerable to hypothermia. As do fatigue and stress.
That article quotes an active-duty officer as saying, “Realistic training is going to cause injuries and possible death. It is the way of a Special Forces soldier's life.”
In my humble opinion, that is an appallingly stupid statement. It is the training equivalent of the notorious Vietnam statement that, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Ranger School has to kill its students in order to train them. Dying is the Ranger’s way of life.
Right. And up is down.
One of the four who died, Lt. Dodge, president of his class at West Point, was separated from the others and was not found until the next day, lying face down in the mud. Losing track of a soldier from your unit is an absolute no no. For one thing, every Ranger student has a Ranger buddy to prevent that. Plus, it is standard in all Army units everywhere to constantly take roll to make sure everyone is OK. Hell, we did it about ten times a day at West Point where there was no danger at all. “Report!” “First platoon all present or accounted for.” “Second platoon all present or accounted for.” etc.
Captain Palmer had washed out of a previous Ranger class with frostbite in the mountain phase but was so determined to win the tab that he went back to another cold-weather class. Also dead from the incident were Second Lieutenant Curt G. Sansoucie, 23—a West Point classmate of Spencer Dodge; Second Lieutenant Spencer D. Dodge; and Sergeant Normal Tillman, 28 (married with a five-year-old daughter).
The officer instructor in charge decided the pertinent safety rule was overly conservative and violated it. At the time, the news media reported that this was a freak accident and that Ranger School said they had never had any Ranger students die before.
My impression is that Ranger students die every year. I almost died crossing the Yellow River because the Ranger instructor decided we were crossing too slow and told the guy behind me to speed up which caused him to get too close to me which caused the rope to go down so far under the water that it pulled my head under. Since we were tied to the crossing rope in the swiftly-moving current, I could not raise my head above water. My screaming at him to get back before he pulled me under caused them to realize the problem and they backed off enough to let my head get back above water.
In 1985, another Ranger student whose name I do not know drowned while trying to cross the Yellow River.
In March, 1992, a black Ranger student died. The Army said he had sickle cell anemia trait in blood tests that contributed to his dying along with stress and “high altitude” in the mountain phase. I do not recall Dahlonega having a high altitude. Checks on the Internet seem to indicate it is between 1,400 and 2,000 feet. High altitude my ass.
Citing sickle cell anemia strikes me as racist and a lie. I would appreciate it if a medically-trained person would tell me if there is any validity to the notion that a healthy person with a sickle cell anemia trait in his blood test is more likely to die at moderate altitude when stressed. If so, why was that soldier allowed to be at Ranger School, or even in the Army for that matter? And how come blacks seem to do just fine when they are subjected to stress and higher altitude playing in the NFL at Denver’s Mile High Stadium?
The above-mentioned story on the four hypothermia deaths said two other Ranger students died of hypothermia in the same crossing of the Yellow River in 1977.
The above-mentioned article also said this: “Rangers are reticent to talk [about the four-hypothermia-deaths incident] because, as one 26-year-old Ranger put it, ‘for those of you who are not Rangers you cannot probably ever understand’.” That’s macho crap.
He reminds me of when we were in Vietnam watching a free, first-run movie in an air-conditioned room, and someone wondered out loud how such occasional activities would affect our answer to the, “What did you do in the war, Daddy” question. I jokingly responded, “Just frown, stare off into space, and say, ‘I don’t want to talk about it’.”
There is only one reason why Rangers do not want to talk about four guys dying in Ranger training from being in cold water too long. They are embarrassed by the profound stupidity of it and by the fact that it does not help them in their attempts to claim Superman status.
Here’s another line from that same paragraph in the article:
A senior noncommissioned officer with the Ranger [School] said, “I could sit here and tell you what it’s like to go through Ranger School. I could describe in detail what we are trying to do and the dangers they face, and you would only make it sound goofy.”
It IS goofy. How could repeatedly dying in training be anything else?
To their credit, higher-ranking Army officers had the good sense to admit that training fatalities, including those in Ranger School, are never acceptable. But talk is cheap. We will know they really mean it when the stream of fatal incidents stops. Last I heard, it had not. The Rolling Stone article that got famous ranger Stanley McChrystal fired said,
…nearly two dozen rangers were killed in training accidents during the Eighties.
They died so the rangers who survived could brag about how tough the training was.
Newspaper accounts quote Army brass saying they cannot comment because of the ongoing investigation. In reality, they cannot comment because they are guilty and would be embarrassed to take the Fifth, which would end their careers. They hope that not commenting “until the investigation is over” will mean not commenting until the media loses interest and stops asking. And that almost always works. In the Ranger Pat Tillman case, for example, they stonewalled including claiming they could not recall, until the press lost interest in the story in 2007.
Dying on the slide for life
In August, 1992, a Ranger student died when he fell off the so-called “slide for life.” The slide for life, like rappelling, is total B.S. that has no relationship to any effective military skill. You climb to the top of an 80-foot platform. There is a rope or cable going from there to a body of water below. The cable is inclined at about a 45-degree angle. There is a sort of bicycle-handlebar device with a cable wheel in the middle. You take hold of the handlebars and, on command, lift your feet off the platform by beginning a chin-up. When you do, the wheel starts rolling down the top of the cable picking up speed.
If you slip, deliberately let go prematurely, or the device malfunctions, you die. Falling 80 feet, even into water, is generally fatal. If you hang on until signaled to let go a few feet above the water, there is usually no injury. Not only did we do this at Ranger School, we had also done the same thing at Camp Buckner at West Point. To show you how difficult the slide for life is and how much it proves with regard to military prowess, sophomore cadet dates were also allowed to do it one weekend each summer at Buckner.
My main reason for not wanting to be a Ranger instructor was I did not want to share the students’ misery. My second reason was that the Ranger instructors were idiots who got students killed and injured unnecessarily. The above-mentioned article on hypothermia deaths blamed, in part, the Ranger ethos that, “Your Ranger tab will keep you warm.” Like I said, idiots.
Pride through the deaths of Ranger students
I used to think that no one at Ranger School wants a Ranger student to die in training. Then I got the email two paragraphs below. I detect a slight tendency of the Ranger community to see such deaths as an opportunity for increased bragging rights. As in, “Our Ranger training is so tough that guys die in it.” That is certainly evident in the quote from above that, “Realistic training is going to cause injuries and possible death. It is the way of a Special Forces soldier's life.”
Since some Rangers take pride in the student deaths, I doubt they are really trying as hard as they should to prevent them.
‘Risking your life in military training is OK’
A guy who claimed to be a Ranger School grad and a former Ranger School instructor wrote me to say,
But every venture in life has certain risks, often the reward greatly outweigh the risks, which is how I feel about Ranger School.
He also uses the word “leadership” repeatedly as a justification for people dying in Ranger School. Military and former military people use “leader” and “leadership” a lot. They describe officers as leaders the way civilians use the phrase “nice guy.” Their logic seems to be that if you are in the military, that makes you a leader by definition. No, it doesn’t. See my review of the West Point Way of Leadership for another example of that in the military and my article on leadership training.
First off, attending Ranger School probably does not affect your ability to lead much. It’s only two months, too much of which is spent falling asleep standing up and such, to impart leadership or any other skills. What you learn from riding the slide for life is how to ride the slide for life. What you learn from ambushing “aggressors” who are scripted to die in the ambush is how to ambush actors who are scripted to die in an ambush. What you learn from not eating or sleeping enough for two months is what it feels like to not eat or sleep enough for two months. You spend about 98% of your time in Ranger School as a follower and only about 2% (four 8-hour patrol leader stints) as a patrol leader.
Going to Ranger School is akin to having major surgery in terms of its danger to your health. As a result of exposure, deprivation of nutrition and rest, extreme exertion, and irresponsibly dangerous activities, your body will be moved far closer to death than ever before. You may be one of the many unlucky ones who die as a result. In surgery, you are in the world’s best-equipped place if you need emergency medical care—a board-certified surgical facility. Also, in surgery, you are typically under the care of a board-certified anesthesiologist and a board-certified surgeon who are extremely eager to see you get well.
Contrast that with Ranger School where you are far from medical facilities in the woods or mountains or swamp and in darkness about half of each day if and when you need emergency care. In addition, the people who are taking you close to death and who are responsible for preventing your death, include high school or college dropouts, have little or no training in medicine or safety—compared to even an Emergency Medical Technician—and who actually think that a certain number of deaths in Ranger training are inevitable and desirable signs that the training is appropriately challenging. Your life is entrusted to the hands of men who think a few deaths here and there enhance their bragging rights when they are trying to impress laymen about how tough they are.
‘No matter what the conditions’
The Ranger Web site says, “Rangers lead the way no matter what the conditions.” The phrase “no matter what the conditions” implies that Ranger admission standards, training, equipment, and ongoing physical conditioning after Ranger School enable them to deal with any conditions. That’s a lie—a dangerous lie because it encourages Rangers to attempt things they should not attempt. As the great philosopher Clint Eastwood once said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”
At West Point, they were constantly teaching us the “capabilities and limitations” of every aspect of military equipment and personnel. They thought it was important that we know both. I agree. Ranger School apparently has forgotten the importance of knowing both your capabilities and your limitations. They need to identify the capabilities and limitations of the “M1A1 Army Ranger” and make sure that their graduates and those serving in Ranger units never lose sight of either the capabilities or the limitations.
The “no matter what the conditions” lie is also dangerous because it causes non-Ranger higher commanders to assign Rangers missions that are beyond their abilities, training, and equipment. It is even more important that the higher ups in charge of using Rangers know both their capabilities and limitations.
Another line at the Ranger Web site is, “Army Rangers are experts in leading Soldiers on difficult missions.” That is also not true. In fact, Ranger School graduates are experts at nothing. 68 days of training in dozens of different subjects cannot make you an expert in anything. It makes you a Jack of All Trades and Master of None.
Furthermore, the 68 days of training is misleading. There is only about 30 days of training I would guess. The rest is going out on patrol after patrol. Those patrols are repetitive—Ground Hog Day—so you learn little new. In addition, the Ranger students are so tired and hungry on patrols that they cannot focus on learning even if any new material were offered. They can do little more than put one foot in front of the other, which is how I described most of Ranger School in my book Succeeding.
My Vietnam patrol
I had to take out a routine reconnaissance patrol in a relatively secure area in Vietnam once. Because of my Ranger training, I was able to do it competently. That is, I made sure all my men drank a ton of water beforehand and left with two full canteens each, that we did a commo check with the corps TOC before we left (they weren’t listening—we had to get them to turn their radios on), that we had prearranged artillery concentrations and a commo check with the pertinent artillery unit, that my men were told of rallying points to return to if we got separated during the patrol, etc.
That patrol was a weekly event in our battalion and the other, non-Ranger officers who took it out the other weeks generally did absolutely none of the things I just listed.
One such officer almost lost a man to heat stroke on the patrol. He tried to call for a medevac chopper, but found no one was listening to the radio frequency assigned to the patrol. That officer had not made sure everyone drank water beforehand and had done no commo check before he left.
He got a medal from the non-Ranger battalion commander for performing CPR on the heat stroke victim and thereby “saving” him. He should have been court martialed for not preventing the heat stroke to begin with, not doing a commo check, and for administering CPR, which is probably one of the worst things you could do to a heat-stroke victim.
The cardio portion of CPR is for unconscious persons whose heart has stopped and the pulmonary portion is for unconscious persons whose breathing has stopped. Heat-stroke victims generally have neither of those symptoms. They need to be cooled down, not French kissed by a hot, sweaty lieutenant. Having everyone else pour their canteens on his clothing would be more like it. That’s why I had everyone bring extra water.
But Ranger School had not made me an expert on patrolling. I was just competent.
Another line in the article about the four hypothermia student deaths is, “Rangers from corporals to colonels are proud of what they call a ‘drive-on’ attitude that enables them to preserve during tough times.” I agree, but the drive-on attitude needs to be tempered with intelligent knowledge of the limits of human endurance.
Spirit can overcome a lot, but it becomes irrelevant when the human body’s ability to function reaches its limit. Unconscious Ranger students do not have a drive-on attitude or any other attitude. Also, someone in charge needs to recognize the difference between training where nothing is at stake and war where a man can rationally be sacrificed for the greater good to accomplish a mission, save a bunch of his buddies, or defend the nation
One reason for that is the military’s notion that every military person can do everything and that the average tour of duty should be a couple of years. The Ranger officials making decisions about the safety of Ranger students are almost invariably regular Army non-coms and relatively junior officers who are on a three-year tour after serving in prior assignments that had little or no relation to training safety. To put it another way, not long after the Ranger School non-coms and officers in question learned their lesson about hypothermia or heat stroke or lightning or whatever, they were sent somewhere else and replaced by new guys who had not yet learned the lesson. In comparable civilian schools, the instructors are there for decades.
It goes without saying that whenever the U.S. military screws up, it investigates itself and finds itself not guilty or—in extreme cases when it cannot get away with finding itself not guilty, it metes out light punishment to some enlisted men and maybe some company-grade (low-level) officers. The My Lai massacre is the best example. The Pat Tillman incident is the most recent.
Please send me a list
I would appreciate it if someone would send me a comprehensive list of those killed in Ranger training since it began in 1951. There are a lot more than the ones I have listed above. It’s probably in the local Columbus, GA newspaper, if not in national newspapers.
I would like to list here the names of every Ranger student who ever died during Ranger School as a result of Ranger training, along with the date of death and cause. I also want a chronological list of every Commander of the Ranger School since it began to post next to the list of the dead students and their dates of deaths. The dead students deserve to have their sacrifice noted and remembered and the macho idiots who run Ranger School deserve to be outed for what they let happen to their students.
I have coached 15 football teams. We take extreme precautions to prevent heat stroke, broken necks, and so forth. We have to take first aid and CPR courses every year or two to be coaches. We generally had trained medical personnel at practices and always had orthopedic surgeons or certified EMTs at games.
While I was a Ranger student patrol leader, one of my patrol members got stung by a bunch of bees—another common Ranger School adventure. (Step over fallen trees, not on them.) He swelled up like a balloon and I told the Ranger instructor to evacuate him to the hospital on the next resupply patrol.
He declined until I went nuts ranting and raving about anaphylactic shock. I don’t think he knew what anaphylactic shock was, but it made a big enough impression that he relented and medevacked the guy. Parenthetically, the stung Ranger student happened to have been in my platoon at West Point when we were freshmen before he flunked out of West Point. He had later enlisted in the Army and was in our Ranger class and my patrol by sheer coincidence.
All training stopped—except Ranger School
While we were in the Fort Benning phase of Ranger School in August of 1968, the weather was so hot and humid that the base commander often declared that it was a Category Four day and that meant all outdoor training stopped—except for Ranger School. Our instructors were very proud of that—in between drinking refrigerated soft drinks that we were not allowed to have access to.
Why was training stopped at Fort Benning on such days? Why do all competently-coached football teams have similar rules? Because it has been well established that humans cannot withstand certain combinations of heat, humidity, and exertion without unacceptable risk of death or permanent brain damage. So why did this human rule not apply to Ranger students? We’re superhuman, remember? Even when we are only in the third day of 57 days of training that most of us will flunk out of.
One of my classmates went down with heat stroke next to me at Benning. The doctors at the hospital said he was 15 minutes from permanent brain damage when he arrived there. It was good that his ambulance did not get stuck in traffic. It was even better that we were not in the mountain or swamp phase when it happened—where it took far longer to get a Ranger student to a hospital. An investigation of the four Ranger hypothermia deaths above found that taking hours to get the students to hospitals contributed to their deaths.
When I went through double days in August in high school football, we would get so hot we would talk about how we were going to get under the shower at the end of practice and run it as cold as possible. When we tried, we could not stand that cold water for more than a second.
In Ranger School at Fort Benning in August, we said the same thing, then did exactly that. When we got to the shower after the reveille run, we turned the water on full cold and let it blast the whole time we were there. If you can stand water that cold for that long, you were too close to heat stroke when you got into the shower.
Like I said, the Ranger instructors are idiots—so dumb they kill many of the soldiers whose welfare they are supposed to be looking out for.
Sergeants Littrell and Marney
OK. They weren’t all idiots. I remember Sergeants Gary Littrell and Gurman Marney. Littrell was a Vietnam vet if I recall correctly. He was one of our mountaineering instructors at Dahlonega. I do not recall him doing anything stupid or great. My Ranger buddy recalls that he did the demo of a tension climb (technique used to climb upward over an overhanging cliff) which requires great physical strength. But I remember him mainly for the fact that he was always trying to make us laugh in a place where few of the other instructors evidenced any such human impulses. He and his joined-at-the-hip straight man, Sgt. Gurman V. Marney, another Ranger School mountaineering instructor, were great guys to us.
Littrell went back to Vietnam after he was our Ranger instructor and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor there.
He had an additional brief bit of fame in 2000 when the presidential election was tied in Florida. Remember the hanging chads and all that? There was some talk by the Democrats of throwing out the absentee ballots. Those are typically more Republican than Democrat. They also include military personnel stationed overseas. Littrell went on TV as a CMH winner to denounce the idea that overseas military ballots would not be counted.
Littrell was the president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society in 2006.
When I say the Ranger instructors were idiots, I mean most of them or at least the ones who had the most influence over how the School was run. The various dumb and/or dangerous things I describe in this article are my basis for saying that.
The Ranger Web site says the third phase of Ranger School takes place in a swamp. It sure does. Why? Do military units work in swamps? I suspect it may have happened once in the history of the world. American Revolutionary War officer Francis Marion was known as the Swamp Fox for some of his maneuvers in South Carolina. But I cannot recall off hand any other swamp operations by any other military unit of any country in any war in history.
When I searched for “military swamp operations” in Google, it asked me if I meant “swap.” Most of the resulting search results were about U.S. Army Ranger School or use of the phrase “drain the swamp” in military discussions. They do not teach Rangers how to drain the swamp. That’s probably the only thing they ought to teach about a swamp—other than to avoid them.
So why is one-third of Ranger School in a swamp? Probably because it sounds really horrible in a Hollywood way. In other words, it’s a show-off stunt chosen for its public-relations benefits, not its relevance to real military operations—not unlike rappelling and riding the “slide for life.”
If I were an Army commander near a swamp that contained enemy soldiers, my response to learning of where they were would probably be, “They’re in the swamp? Great! Let ’em stay there. They’ll be straggling out looking for food and medical care soon enough. We’ll get ’em then.” I sure as hell would not go into the swamp after them unless they proved able to mount significant operations against us from there, which I doubt they could. How would they rest? How would they get much equipment, weapons, and ammunition through the swamp? How would they get resupplied? How would they evacuate their wounded and sick? Ranger School students who die in the swamp phase often did so because it took too many hours to get them to a hospital.
During World War II in the Pacific, we let hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers languish on swamp-like tropical islands for the entire war.
Most Ranger School student deaths appear to be in the swamp phase.
God bless Sam Champi
Sam Champi was an Army football player who graduated two years ahead of me in the Class of ’66 from West Point. After graduation, he went to some masters degree program for a year or so. Then he went to Ranger School belatedly after his West Point classmates had mostly finished it. After he completed Ranger School, he took time to send our class a letter with advice on how to survive Ranger School. God bless Sam Champi. I followed every single thing he said.
I do not know if his advice still applies or is allowed by the Ranger School, but here is what I remember. He said to go to Ranger Joe’s Army-Navy store in Columbus, Ga. Columbus is adjacent to Fort Benning, the starting point of the three-location Ranger training. At Ranger Joe’s, he said to buy a U.S. Navy rain parka and a space blanket. I did.
The U.S. Navy rain parka was not a rain coat. It was made of canvas and the rain got through. But it was so strong and heavy that it protected you from the branches of the trees and bushes we barged through all night long. When you are behind enemy lines, you can only move at night. It was olive drab in color so it looked Army-ish.
My Ranger buddy arrived at Benning a little later than I and Ranger Joe was out of U.S. Navy rain parkas when he tried to got one. He bought a civilian rain parka that was in tatters by the end of the first day of the first patrol. I felt armored at least from the waist up. When I got back from Vietnam, one of my brothers immediately took the rain parka to wear in his construction work, so obvious were its durability virtues.
A space blanket is a civilian product. Mine was about the size of a twin bed. It was olive drab plastic on one side and aluminum foil on the other. It was tiny and light when folded. One night, in the pouring rain and about 40 degrees it the mountains, the Ranger instructor told us we could sleep for a few hours. “Where,” I asked, breathing smoke. He pointed at the ground which was covered with about 10 inches of soaking wet leaves.
I unrolled my space blanket onto the wet leaves. It was quickly was covered with puddles of cold rain. Then I laid down on it curled up into the fetal position, and grabbed all four corners of the space blanket and pulled them as tight as I could into my belly button. I looked like an olive drab baked potato wrapped in aluminum foil. I hoped my body heat would raise the temperature of the rain water in which I was laying up to my body temperature, thereby letting me sleep. It did and I did.
God bless Sam Champi. My Ranger classmates, including some West Pointers, who did not comply with Champi’s advice spent that night lying totally unprotected in the rain and the wet leaves.
Sam also told us to buy Bacitracin or some similar over-the-counter antibiotic. When you move through the woods—especially on moonless or overcast nights—the branches constantly tear at your skin—or at last the portion of your skin that is not covered by your U.S. Navy rain parka or combat boots. That is, your hands, neck, face, ears, and legs. Each time you get scraped or cut, you must apply the antibiotic.
Some of us West Pointers did thanks to Sam Champi. Our other Ranger classmates kept swelling up like balloons from infections. (We shared our antibiotics with others as much as possible once we saw how right Champi was. We could not share the rain parkas or space blankets. I felt bad for my non-West Pointer Ranger classmates and the generations of West Pointers who went previously and maybe subsequently through Ranger School without a letter from Sam Champi.)
Protect your eyes
Similarly, he also told us to wear our glasses, with safety straps to hold them on, and to get plano glasses if we did not need glasses for eyesight reasons. The reason is the same as the rain parka and antibiotics: branches. They can easily poke your eye out at night when you cannot see them. Nowadays, I would recommend that Rangers wear polycarbonate sports goggles like those for playing hand ball.
Champi did not recommend, but we tried hunters’ pocket warmers that you would light before dark then put in your shirt pocket. They contained lighter fluid or some such and would burn for hours. They did not work very well and burned our skin a little.
Champi also did not recommend, but we bought, C rations at Ranger Joe’s. When you first went out on patrol, you were issued the first day’s C rats in camp where you had your foot locker. If you got a lousy C rat like ham and lima beans, you could substitute the one of your choice that you had bought at Ranger Joe’s: chicken noodle soup, canned peaches, and a canned chocolate bar in my case.
Don’t go to Ranger School
Do not, under any circumstances, go to Ranger School. It’s too dangerous and too much of an ordeal for too little real benefit in terms of training that has value. If you are just trying to prove what a tough guy you are, stay a civilian and play football or box or compete successfully in iron-man or weight-lifting competitions.
Champi’s comment was, “I thought it was going to be the most miserable experience of my life and it was worse than I expected.” I expect that virtually all Ranger School attendees would say that. But if you must go there, find a Sam Champi-type who recently graduated from Ranger and who has a brain about how to best prepare yourself for it. And follow his advice.
They teach “mountaineering” in Ranger School—sort of. We also learned it at West Point in a little mini-Ranger School called Recondo training during Camp Buckner. Camp Buckner is an Army camp adjacent to West Point in the mountains there. All West Pointers spend the July and August before their sophomore year at Camp Buckner doing Army field training.
Mountaineering at Ranger consists of learning how to rappel, free climb, climb while attached to a belay rope, and the use of grappling hooks to climb. The grappling hook stuff is apparently a vestige of the above-mentioned Pointe du Hoc operation, which is probably the Ranger’s proudest moment.
While I greatly admire the World War II Rangers, I must comment on Pointe du Hoc. In that operation, the Rangers attacked Pointe du Hoc, which was a sheer cliff overlooking the Normandy invasion beaches. They attacked in broad daylight by firing grappling hooks up over the top of the cliff and with the use of skinny ladders. On top of the cliff were German soldiers who were fully aware of the Rangers’ attack. They fired down on the Rangers, dropped grenades on them, pushed their ladders off the cliff, and tossed their grappling hooks off. Amazingly, the Rangers prevailed and captured the top of the cliff.
Why was that spot so important? U.S. military intelligence thought there were heavy guns there pointed at the invasion beaches. In fact, no such guns had ever been installed in the concrete bunkers there. Only telephone poles sticking out to fool us into thinking there were guns there.
True, the Rangers went looking and found some smaller German field artillery which they destroyed with thermite grenades. Thermite grenades do not explode. They just burn hot enough to melt cannon barrels and breeches. The Germans were taking a meal break when the Rangers placed the thermite grenades on the unguarded cannons and pulled the pins which destroyed the usefulness of the cannons.
The whole thing reminds me of two things: the old saying that military intelligence is a contradiction in terms and the painting of a buffalo charging head down on a railroad track at an oncoming Old West locomotive. The caption on the painting is, “I admire your courage, but I question your judgment.”
I cannot imagine the Rangers would do that same operation again if they had it to do over. I would suggest that they parachute onto the eastern approach to the top of the cliff the night before or some such.
Anyway, apparently hoping that Pointe du Hoc lightning will strike twice, Ranger School still teaches throwing grappling hooks and climbing up the ropes attached to them. They had a contest to throw them during Ranger School, I was one of only two guys in our class who got it over the upper ledge. Perhaps that contributed to my being recommended as a Ranger instructor. But if I was ever in a Ranger unit and someone ordered me to do another Pointe du Hoc, I probably would have argued against it with my superiors at length before I reluctantly did it.
(Another thing that brought us to the attention of the Ranger instructors was that my Ranger buddy and I composed a couple of little song parodies that the cadre heard about and made us perform. They seemed to be impressed by any students who could retain a sense of humor during the ordeal of the school. My Ranger buddy, who co-wrote the lyrics and co-performed them with me for the instructors also was recommended to be brought back to Ranger School as an instructor. Click here for the lyrics.)
Rappelling means going down a cliff face hanging from a rope. When I was at West Point and Ranger School, they taught us to bound or bounce off the cliff face as we descended.
Other than the fact that it looks cool, I have no idea why. I quickly figured out that you could just go straight down like on an elevator by letting the rope out slowly and that’s what I did. Bounding, is dumb, too slow, noisy for guys who are operating behind enemy lines at night, too likely to catch an enemy’s eye if done in day time or moonlight, and extremely dangerous. One of my West Point classmates broke his leg trying to bound down the cliff when he let out too much rope for his last bound and slammed into the ground.
Now, I heard on TV, they also teach the just-let-yourself-straight-down-without-the-bounding method that I used.
When my youngest son was visiting a prospective college, the ROTC table students were bragging about their rappelling annually down the tallest building on campus—face first with a gun blazing blanks. I am sure that looks really cool.
I am almost equally sure that it has never been done as part of a successful military tactic in the history of the world and it is extremely ill advised. You need to face the cliff because its surface is irregular and you need to use your feet at times especially when it is not a straight wall but rather goes outward toward you as you approach the bottom. Also, if the enemy is where you could shoot them during your rappel, you should not be doing the rappel. It would be suicide.
It would take an encyclopedia to list all the B.S the U.S. military spouts. And rappelling would be one of the more prominent entries in the U.S. military’s B.S. encyclopedia. It has virtually no military purpose. Virtually every cliff in the world has another nearby, easier, less obtrusive, less exposed way to get from the top to the bottom. The military teaches and practices rappelling solely for sheer adolescent, macho showing-off purposes.
Learning to free climb and climb on belay was interesting and probably useful in some military operations, but Ranger School has so little time to devote to it that they might just forget about it and leave that to a military mountaineering school. I expect the 10th Mountain division has its own school for such things and that they do a far more thorough job of teaching it.
I would also expect that the average civilian mountaineer could climb circles around the average Ranger School graduate. I surmise that mountaineering is in the Ranger curriculum only to keep alive the Pointe du Hoc image and tradition and to enable the recruiters and documentary makers to take cool photos or videos of some Ranger in mid rappel for PR purposes. It’s dumb, dumb, dumb.
By the way, rappelling is also easy. Anyone could do it including an 80-year old grandmother or an eight-year old girl.
My 2007 climb
In July, 2007, I went on my first cruise. It was on a Royal Caribbean ship. They all have a climbing wall. I had never climbed on a climbing wall but figured it would be the same as the free climbs we did at West Point and in Army Ranger School. Although I was then 61, I figured I would try it. I went right up the wall, rang the bell at the top, and rappelled down (bounded for the fun of it). I remembered and used three things:
• don‘t look down
• take your time and plan your next several moves in advance
• use your legs to push you up not your arms to pull you up
Civilian schools better
If you want to learn mountaineering, go to a civilian mountaineering school. The best ones probably have the top instructors in the world—men and women who live for mountain climbing and who have been doing it their wholes lives, not some soldier who is on a three-year tour at Ranger School. The civilians will spend as much time with you individually as you need or want, not put you through some one-size-fits-all five-day course like Ranger School.
The same is true of virtually every skill taught at Ranger School or any other glamorous military training. You can almost certainly learn rubber rafting better at some civilian school on the Colorado River.
Rangers’ kryptonite: dogs and ducks
When we were in the mountain phase of Ranger School in the Dahlonega, GA area, we were patrolling near and on private property, namely farms. They all had dogs. The dogs all barked at us.
Remember, we were sneaking around at night so as not to be detected by the enemy. Well, good luck with that if the enemy or even civilians in the area have dogs. They will detect you—perhaps from as far away as a mile or two. Had we been in a real war, the enemy would have “loosed the hounds” and followed them to us like Southern prison guards chasing down Cool Hand Luke.
Can Rangers operate behind enemy lines after they have been detected? Not if they are outnumbered, which is almost always the case, and the bad guys go after the Rangers.
In Desert Storm, some Special Forces were inserted behind enemy lines in Iraq before our invasion. They had to hide during day time—in the desert no less—until the day of the invasion at which time they had some disruption mission. A villager and his little boy wandered out toward where the troops were hiding in a hole they had dug and covered with something. I do not believe the villager had a dog. But he didn’t need one. The kid saw the troops and told his father. The troops had to decide whether to kill or capture the two until the invasion. They let them go. They brought back the whole village and the Iraqi military. I believe the troops survived, but they had to be rescued.
I heard a former SEAL on the Military Channel say they carried silencer pistols to kill barking dogs and quacking ducks, both of which give alarm to local residents and enemy military. In honor of the dogs, they called it the “hush puppy.” Good idea, but in my limited Dahlonega experience, there were often more than one and they started barking when we were far away. We would not have been able to shoot them with a pistol until maybe ten to twenty minutes after they started barking, and the sudden stopping of their barking would probably alarm the humans there if the barking did not.
If you don’t kill the dog or duck with the first shot, its yelling in pain will warn the bad guys if the barking did not. Barking by a dog might be considered the boy who cried wolf if the dog barks at every racoon or other normal animal, but wailing in pain or stopping in mid-bark or some such is different and likely to finally convince the enemy that something suspicious is going on..
So Rangers behind enemy lines generally need remote, dogless and duckless areas. Furthermore, the notion that Rangers will hide by day and move only at night requires relatively large areas of thick vegetation.
Rangers’ kryptonite two: cold weather
I went through Ranger School in August and September. It was still quite cold—in the low 40s—in the mountains. The guys who went through Ranger School in winter built fires every night to warm up. They also slept with some sort of shoes called Mickey Mouse boots to avoid frostbite. I suspect they also had sleeping bags.
Excuse me. We were not allowed to use any of those things because we were behind enemy lines. A fire is totally out of the question. You can see it for miles. You can’t even light a cigarette. They demonstrated how far you can see that to us at West Point.
If you are in a remote, sparsely-populated area, which is the only type of area Rangers can do their thing in, such a fire would almost certainly attract enemy troops. So why were the winter Ranger students allowed to build fires every night? Because it was simply too cold not to. Conclusion? Rangers cannot operate in cold weather like temperatures in the 30s or lower. They are too lightly equipped.
Similarly, they cannot carry and use things like sleeping bags and Mickey Mouse boots because they have to be able to move fast and on a moment’s notice. In Ranger School, we slept fully clothed, sometimes, in ambushes, with our hands on the pistol grips of our rifles and the rifles pointed at the ambush area. After you ambush the enemy behind enemy lines, you have to haul ass out of there immediately.
No sleeping bags or Mickey Mouse boots, which are unsuitable for walking. Essentially, Ranger School teaches warm-weather patrolling in winter because warm-weather patrolling is the only kind Rangers can do. Rangers are summer soldiers, if Thomas Paine will pardon the ironic, altered use of his phrase.
Very effective in Vietnam
I said above that Rangers were very effective in Vietnam using their Ranger ambush training. What were the conditions? It was a dogless, warm, thickly-vegetated, sparsely-populated, remote environment. Q.E.D.
I never said the Rangers were ineffective when they had the right conditions, only that those conditions are pretty limited when you look at all U.S. wars. Iraq and Afghanistan, to take two current examples, do not appear to me to be dogless, warm, thickly-vegetated, remote, and sparsely-populated. True, they have some of those conditions some of the time in some areas. But they need to have all of those conditions simultaneously for the Ranger training to be effective. Otherwise, the Rangers are just more highly motivated infantry with no special pertinent skills. They are not super soldiers who can be inserted into any situation and be expected to have a greater chance of success than other soldiers.
There is a pertinent phrase in medicine. When a drug company has a new medicine, they submit it to the Food and Drug Administration for approval. They have to provide the FDA with evidence that the medicine is safe and effective to treat specified diseases or injuries. Once it is approved, the label on the medicine must say what illnesses or injuries it has been approved for.
If a doctor prescribes the medicine to treat a disease or injury that is not on the label, that is said to be an “off-label” use of the drug. That could be unethical or illegal in some cases.
The “label” on U.S. Army Ranger School graduates would be that they are effective at executing small combat and reconnaissance operations in a dogless, warm, thickly-vegetated, sparsely-populated, remote environment. You could add the precise details of their training like 8 hours or whatever of rappelling training, etc.
Dropping Rangers onto the roof of a building in downtown Mogadishu was an “off-label” use of Rangers. Off-label uses, like that one, generally result in the mission not being accomplished and many of the Rangers being killed or wounded.
The Army, media, and Hollywood need to stick to the label when describing Rangers and their training. Current and past hype is causing them to be used off-label, which is an extremely questionable and dangerous decision.
Our scout dog in Ranger School
On one patrol in Ranger School, we were accompanied by a scout dog and his handler. True, the two of them were still in training. But what a disaster!
You would think dogs are superhuman. They do have better senses of smell and hearing and maybe sight. But the full-grown German shepherd scout dog we had was also a subhuman wimp. After trudging through the woods for a mile or two, it began to whimper loudly. The handler, who was also carrying a pack with food and water for himself and the dog, had to carry the damn dog. It probably weighed about 70 pounds. He carried him in his two arms against his chest.
Had the dog and his handler been on a real Ranger operation in Vietnam, the dog would have had to be destroyed on the spot to prevent it from revealing the location of the Rangers. Indeed, had I been leader of such a real combat patrol, I would have assumed our location was compromised by the dog and called for a chopper to get us out of there immediately, canceling the patrol.
Scout dogs have done great stuff in various wars. God bless them. But do not take one on a patrol behind enemy lines if my Ranger patrol experience was typical.
Ranger Pat Tillman
NFL football player Pat Tillman decided to quit the NFL and become an Army Ranger, which he did. When I first heard about it, I considered sending him a letter advising him to reconsider. The letter would have been more or less the same as this Web article. I decided not to send it because he sounded too headstrong to listen. I regret now that I did not send it. It might have saved his life. I have written this Web article in part so that I never have that feeling of regret on this subject again.
To make a long, very sad story short, Tillman was killed by his own fellow “elite” Rangers in Afghanistan. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart medals. Nothing against Tillman, but as I read the reports of the incident, he was not eligible for either medal no matter what he did. Both require enemy soldiers. There were none in the “fire fight” in which he was killed.
Here is a description of the criteria for the Silver Star that I got off the Internet:
The Silver Star is awarded to a person who, while serving in any capacity with the U.S. Army, is cited for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing foreign force, or while serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party. The required gallantry, while of a lesser degree than that required for award of the Distinguished Service Cross, must nevertheless have been performed with marked distinction. [Emphasis added]
Here is a description of the criteria for the Purple Heart that I got off the Internet:
Public Law 98-525, 19 October 1984.
a. The Purple Heart is awarded in the name of the President of the United States to any member of an Armed Force or any civilian national of the United States who, while serving under competent authority in any capacity with one of the U.S. Armed Services after 5 April 1917, has been wounded or killed, or who has died or may hereafter die after being wounded-
(1) In any action against an enemy of the United States.
(2) In any action with an opposing armed force of a foreign country in which the Armed Forces of the United States are or have been engaged.
(3) While serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.
(4) As a result of an act of any such enemy of opposing armed forces.
(5) As the result of an act of any hostile foreign force
(6) After 28 March 1973, as a result of an international terrorist attack against the United States or a foreign nation friendly to the United States, recognized as such an attack by the Secretary of the Army, or jointly by the Secretaries of the separate armed services concerned if persons from more than one service are wounded in the attack.
(7) After 28 March 1973, as a result of military operations while serving outside the territory of the United States as part of a peacekeeping force. [Emphasis added]
Initially, there were some enemy shooting at Tillman’s unit. But they ran off early in the incident. However, part of Tillman’s unit kept blasting away long after the enemy had left the area. They were blasting at Tillman and an allied Afghan solider. Tillman’s buddies at the bottom of the hill were on the radio screaming for them to stop. Both Tillman and the Afghan were killed.
The guys who shot him kept firing as if the machine guns were fire hoses. That is incorrect technique. They could not hear the radio above the noise of their own firing. Had they been disciplined, normal infantry, they would have known to fire machine guns in bursts of six rounds at a time and to check periodically to see if who they were shooting at was still there or still confirmed as a legitimate enemy target. Also, units have to listen to their radios whenever a message is coming through to make sure it is not telling them to start doing something they are not doing or to stop doing something they are doing.
Tillman died because his fellow “elite” rangers were trigger-happy slobs with regard to proper military skills and technique. I would ask the guy who killed him for his side of the story, but he is a moral coward who is hiding and the U.S. Army is helping him do that. Too bad they did not protect Tillman as much as they are protecting the guy who killed him hide from taking responsibility for it.
Rather than honor him with medals he did not technically qualify for, the military should have honored him by creating the Pat Tillman Memorial Anti-Fratricide Institute. Fratricide is friendly fire or accidental (aircraft, motor vehicle, etc.) killing of your own men. In Vietnam I heard it was 30% of all deaths. Some have questioned that. It is hard to get accurate figures because the military covers it up as they initially tried to do in the Tillman incident and may still be doing in that incident.
In Desert Storm, the U.S. military killed more allied coalition military personnel than the Iraqi military did.
The closest I came to dying in Vietnam, other than driving through a North Vietnamese ambush that let me pass unharmed, was when a GI hot-rod drove a two-and-a-half-ton truck fast up to a spot where I had just walked past. He slammed on the brakes at the last second and the truck hit the building full force. On the inside of the windshield of the truck, on the driver’s side, in grease pencil, were written the words, “No brakes.” Like I said, the military is not an “elite” bunch in general so “elite” military units are only elite in a relative sense.
The Pat Tillman Antifratricide Institute would study ways to reduce fratricide, which has been a serious military problem since the beginning of time. Civil War general Stonewall Jackson (West Point graduate) was killed by his own men. So was Mickey Marcus, a West Pointer who helped Israel in its war for independence from Britain. The movie Cast a Giant Shadow was about him. The U.S. has twice killed Canadian allies in Afghanistan. One American bombing near an Afghan prison riot in Mazar-e-Sharif, seriously wounded four Americans and nine Brits and was captured on TV.
I am not trying to shortchange my fellow Rangers with regard to their legitimate skills and accomplishments. In part, their impulse to join the rangers was magnificent and noble. I am only trying to reject exaggerated praise and claims and dispel the notion that we are Rambo-like supermen who have been trained to do anything and everything military. Ranger training teaches the students how to engage in a very limited range of somewhat glamorous operations under very limited conditions.
So why expend so many resources to teach such limited skills? Good question. As I said above, so-called “elite” units like the Rangers and paratroopers tend to fight much better than lesser trained soldiers when used in normal infantry roles. The reason seems to be espirit de corps. The source of the espirit de corps is the extra training and higher standards.
The problem is that the extra training is part B.S., like rappelling and the slide for life, and otherwise of extremely limited value, like patrolling only in dogless, sparsely-populated, heavily-vegetated, relatively warm areas. Roughly speaking, the Rangers and other “elite” military units extract a pound of espirit de corps from an ounce of useful training. That is an interesting equation, but it raises questions about the IQs of those who derive so much pride from so little genuinely effective training.
Or maybe it’s not IQ. Maybe it’s honesty. Many Rangers know that the training per se, aside from the deprivation, was not that significant, but they like being lionized as real-life Rambo’s so they passively or actively encourage non-Rangers to believe the exaggerated image. In other contexts, that might be a harmless bit of immature behavior, but with regard to U.S. Army Rangers, the exaggerations are getting people killed. They need to stop.
The more dangerous problem is that the top civilian and military leaders seem to believe their own B.S. about the “elite” troops and demand more of them than they can perform. The Special Forces trying to hide in the desert during the daytime is one example of getting nutty about believing Rangers are real life Rambos.
Another was the infamous Blackhawk Down incident in Mogadishu. That was a combination Ranger-Delta Force operation and about as stupid a plan as has ever been attempted in military history.
Another plan—to rescue our hostages who were being held by Iranian students was even dumber and more disastrous in result. That was an “elite” Delta Force operation.
Another Delta Force operation was brilliantly executed. That was the rescue of U.S. prisoners of war from Son-Tay North Vietnam. The problem there, as with the Pointe du Hoc operation, was a profound intelligence failure. The American prisoners had been moved out of the camp in question some time before we attacked. So we rescued no one and no other such rescue was possible after we tried the first because the enemy stepped up security as a result.
These idiotic operations are apparently based on the notion that Rangers and other so-called “elite” forces are supermen. We are not. Ranger training prepared us to do ambushes, tiny hit-and-run combat operations, and reconnaissance patrols in enemy-infested areas as long as the weather was warm, there were no dogs, the population was sparse, and we had lots of thick vegetation to hide in by day. In the case of non-reconnaissance missions, we also need a way to be extracted quickly after we attack. If the patrol lasts more than a few days, we also need a way to be resupplied with food and water during the patrol.
In any other situation, Rangers are just ordinary infantry with stronger motivation. You cannot, for example, drop Rangers onto the top of a building in densely-populated Mogadishu in broad daylight and expect them to survive or accomplish a difficult mission. Rangers were not trained to do that that. Nor could they have been. It was a suicide mission no matter who was assigned it and no special training could change that. Asking Special Forces to hide in the desert all day in Iraq near a civilian village before Desert storm was almost as dumb.
There is an excellent comprehensive history of the Rangers and “Ranger-like” U.S. military units at http://www.ranger.org/history.html. The most successful Ranger operation in modern history appears to be the Raid at Cabanatuan which was the subject of the 2005 movie The Great Raid. Once again, the conditions for that raid were the ones I have stated repeatedly in this article are necessary for Ranger success: the weather was warm, there were no dogs, the population was sparse, and they had lots of thick vegetation to hide in by day. Wikipedia has a decent, albeit party-line, article about the Rangers.
Much of it deals with Ranger frustration at not being able to use their training in our various wars. Much of it deals with botched operations like Grenada, Somalia, and the failed attempt to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran. The rest involve small scale, but bold, operations that “advanced the ball” in little ways in various wars.
I would appreciate hearing any other pertinent stories, logic, or facts that will help me give the public a more accurate version of the true capabilities and limitations of Army Rangers and to buttress the case for needed reforms in the way Rangers are trained and used.
Click here to read an email I got from another Ranger who attended the school in winter as opposed to my summer-fall class.
A current ranger complained that media guys like myself were not writing about how he did good deeds for little kids in Afghanistan. I have seen reports of that nature in the media. It’s not going to be in this Web article because it does not relate to the thesis that Rangers are being oversold. That ranger also wanted me to report on every good thing the Rangers ever did in combat and to downplay every screw-up, like Blackhawk Down and killing Ranger Pat Tillman, because they had learned from their mistakes. The exploits of the Rangers in combat have been well-documented in the media as I said above. There are other Web sites where you can get that information. I do not believe for one minute that the Army has learned the lessons they should have from Mogadishu or the Tillman incident.
I am a journalist, not the Ranger public relations vice president. The sort of stuff that guy wanted me to write about is what you see in news releases. Boooring! We journalists write about “man bites dog,” not “dog bites man” subjects. Many accuse us of only writing negative stories. Not true. Man bites dog can be positive or negative. The key is unexpectedness, not negativeness. There were some positives in Ranger school and I talked about them in this article. But my salient impression of Ranger School was the stuff I write about above, namely that it is dangerous, overhyped, and in need of reform that will make it more effective, safe, and fair.
There is a list of prominent people who were awarded the ranger tab at http://duckduckgo.com/c/Recipients_of_the_Ranger_tab. Would you believe James Earl Jones and Kris Kristofferson? I cannot vouch for its accuracy. It is certainly incomplete and oddly so. For example, it includes Gary Littrell, whom I mentioned above, but not Captain Buddy Bucha, who also won the Congressional Medal of Honor in Vietnam. My name is not on it. True, I am not as prominent as many who are on the list, but I also never heard of many of the others who are on it.
Here are a series of emails I got expressing displeasure with my ranger article from an Army captain who claims to be a special ops guy.
I truly welcome constructive criticism. I have gotten little of it. I link to my Web article on intellectually dishonest debate tactics. But the criticism I have gotten about this article generally only uses a couple of the many intellectually dishonest debate tactics: namely name calling and claiming longer ranger resumes than mine. Those who claim to have more time in rangers than I say they are “real” rangers and I am not. Maybe so, but I’ll wait for the letter from the Department of the Army announcing that Ranger School graduates who were awarded the Ranger Tab need to return them and remove mention of them from their resumes and biographies if they were not also in a ranger unit. I suspect the Chief of Staff of the Army and General Petraeus and a whole lot of others will be affected.
Meanwhile, my “real” ranger critics need to straighten out the U.S. Army Ranger Association. They say,
Any Ranger knows that once a Ranger, always a Ranger.
Who is eligible for membership?
We welcome all Rangers that have earned the U.S. Army Ranger tab...
Maybe the guys who say I am not a “real” ranger should go to the annual U.S. Army Ranger Association convention and lecture the attendees on the difference between “real” rangers and fake rangers. After all, I am not the only guy who graduated from the school who did not serve in a ranger unit. Indeed, when I was in, the vast majority of Ranger School grads never got near a ranger unit. There were only a few such units in the whole Army and they were tiny. I would not be surprised if most members of the U.S. Army Ranger Association were never in ranger units. Or maybe the “real” rangers could start the U.S. Army Real Ranger Association. It would have a much smaller budget.
Claiming longer ranger resumes than mine implies that I am wrong about some of my facts, but conspicuous by their absence are citing of any specific facts that I got wrong. That causes me to conclude that I got the facts right. If not, they would have jumped on the errors. These two debate tactics are typically accompanied by profanity and trash talking.
Although so-called “elite” troops do, indeed, have a little bit more training than “non-elite” troops, they, as a group, tend to me be the opposite of elite with regard to IQ and maturity. When I compared notes with West Point classmates who were platoon leaders in non-airborne (rangers are usually also airborne) units, it sounded like their troops were about 20 to 30 IQ points smarter than mine and only about one or two years behind their chronological ages compared to about eight years behind for my “elite” guys. Profane, trash talking Internet postings about my ‘elite” unit articles by guys hiding behind handles only prove my point. Professionals have better things to do and when they offer criticism, it is fact and logic based and signed with real names.
When I first posted this article and the one about airborne, I expected that I overlooked some pertinent points and looked forward to having them pointed out so I could make the article more complete and accurate. To my surprise, I heard relatively few such comments. I have gotten some nasty grams, but they were surprisingly lame and immature. They all seem to say the same thing, apparently as a result of coordination between the various writers. Namely, that since I was never in a ranger unit, I am required to shut up completely about the subject of rangers.
1. As far as I know, the only ranger units in the Army from 1968 to 1972 when I was an army officer were D company 75th Rangers in Vietnam. That was III Corps area. They may have had a similar unit in II Corps. I think I Corps area was mostly Marines.
2. Those ranger units were made up to a large extent of warm body, non-ranger-qualified volunteers from among soldiers already in Vietnam. In other words, the guys in the ranger units were not rangers in any sense other than it was the unit they were assigned to at the time. It was probably rare for them to be in the unit for the whole year of their tour and since there were no other ranger units other than those in Vietnam, they were almost certainly only in that one unit. Nowadays, special ops and ranger companies are a formal, ongoing thing. During Vietnam, they were a sort of thrown-together after-thought experiment or rejuvenation of a World War II unit.
3. This ranger talking point that I was not in a ranger unit is middle-school-level one-upsmanship The only stateside ranger unit when I was in was the ranger school cadre. I was not in that unit, but I was standing next to them 24-7 for two months. About 2/3 of the officers and NCOs on the Ranger cadre were morons. About five guys died when I was going through ranger school. One was a ranger cadre member who decided he would show how macho he was by not connecting his safety line in a parachute jump. He was the guy who was supposed to tell the ranger students when to jump. He was not wearing a parachute. When he looked out the open door, he fell out. Another guy who died just before my ranger class started came from the Mountain Ranger camp where he was assigned to work at the base camp (not an instructor). He died of heat stroke in spite of knowing far more about ranger school as one of its employees than we did as newly-arrived students.
4. If you want to know about current ranger units per se, talk to people who are in, or who were in, such units. I am skeptical that they are as special as they would have you believe by objective standards compared to civilian “elite units” like college or pro sports teams or successful businesses or students at selective colleges or universities. They are only special when compared to the less motivated soldiers in regular Army units, which is not saying much. I would characterize them as being somewhat like civilian firemen, only in fire stations that have far fewer fires than most. Lots of running and weight lifting. I don’t know how much actual ranger training they do in ranger units. When I was in the Airborne, we did very little combat or parachute training—like one jump every three months to remain eligible to get jump pay. They were mainly interested in VIP d demonstrations and mother vehicle inspection preparation—same stuff as you would do in a non-airborne unit.
5. My main question to the nasty gram guys is what actual important battle did U.S. Army rangers win? There are none. The World War II rangers in the Pacific rescued some American POWs. That was a great job. But what are the others? Rangers won’t shut up about Pont du Hoc, but the bottom line was there were no artillery in the bunkers they attacked. There never had been. The “guns” were telephone poles. The whole Pont Du Hoc deal was a decoy that the rangers fell for. Did they show great skill and courage climbing those cliffs under fire? Yes, but they accomplished almost nothing meaningful for D-Day. Sometimes they claim the guns had been moved and the rangers found them and destroyed them. That’s a half truth. The guns they were supposed to destroy were large, fixed, coastal artillery guns. They had never been installed so they could not have been moved. After the rangers got to the top of Pont du Hoc, they looked around the area and found a German 88mm artillery unit that was having lunch away from their guns and they quietly destroyed the guns with thermite grenades—no fire fight. That reduced the amount of artillery fire on the beaches, or at least would have when the Germans finished their leisurely meal. But the bottom line is results and the embarrassing fact is that the ranger “solution” has rarely found a ranger problem to solve. And the rangers have been involved with many disasters and false alarms like Pont du Hoc, the raid to free POWs in North Vietnam (they had all been moved out of the camp in question), the raid to free IRAQ hostages (idiotic plan that accomplished nothing but killing special ops guys and destroying their aircraft), Blackhawk Down (18 guys killed in another idiotic are-you-kidding-me? plan), squad of rangers found slaughtered in Grenada. Give the rangers an E for effort, like they do in kindergarten. But they get few Rs for results. Results are the adult-world standard. Too much masochism. Too much macho bravado and posturing. Too much Hollywood hype. Too much weight lifting. Not enough common sense, intelligence, quality-by-civilian standards recruiting and hiring of ranger candidates, and not enough reliable advance reconnaissance before missions. The reality of Army rangers reminds me of the painting of the Old West locomotive speeding down the track toward a charging buffalo coming from the other direction. The caption is, “I admire your courage but I question your judgment.”
As a ranger, I am all in favor of the rangers living up to their hype. I would be proud of them. But that requires real combat results, not “my ranger résumé is longer than yours” taunts.
Here is another email from a reader:
I was reading your critique on the Benning jump school, the length of
it, and the Ranger training as well.
I was aircrew in the Air Force. The very few AF jobs that required
regular jumping went to the Benning jump school (there was one in my
career field - weather - called Para-weather. These guys jumped with
regular Army and supplied weather support for forward locations). The
rest only received any jump training during basic Air Force survival
Aircrews were not required to attend AF survival training, although it
was highly recommended and encouraged. I met several aircrew during
my time that had not attended the training but were active duty aircrew
This was in the 80s so perhaps that requirement has changed. At the
time, basic survival training was at Fairchild AFB, Washington, near
Spokane (the base has since closed, don't know where they do it now).
The training was 3 weeks, and included about 3 days of jump training.
We did not actually jump from a perfectly good plane, but did the
whole 34 foot tower bit, as well as some repelling at the end just for the
fun of it.
Along with the tower there was a nine-foot swing, in which you swung
back and forth about 9 feet above the ground in full harness, and they
would drop you, unannounced, several times forwards and backwards so
you could practice landing properly. The landings were hard but in
sand and no one was hurt that I could see. We also trained in packing
a chute, putting on harnesses, and so on.
There were about 100 students in my class, of which about 90% were
Most were pilots or navigators. None were higher in rank than
Captain, the majority were 1 LTs.
The first week was all survival classes - escape and evasion, finding
water, building shelters, finding food, building a back pack from your
harness, etc. This included us actually dismantling a harness and
building a pack with the tools at hand. This pack was used in the 2nd
week when we were in the woods. The site was about 30 mi south of the
Canadian border, in very rugged, hilly, rocky and heavily forested
country. The first couple days we practiced our survival skills such as
finding water, food, navigating, etc.
We also practiced helicopter extractions, learning to coordinate air
rescue, actually being hoisted up from the ground into a chopper, and
so on. The final 3 days we were on our own. We were given map
coordinates about 15 miles away, told what day and time to be there,
and left. Everyone was to pair up with one other student, and then
go. The entire time you were being chased by unfriendlies, so you had
to use your escape and evasion skills as well as finding water and
food and shelter. The terrain was very difficult so it was hard to go
more than a few miles each day. The temp during the day was up to 90, but
dropped into the 30s at night, with rain one night.
We did have a sleeping bag and poncho, plus a few survival items, but
no food or water. On the final day the sleeping bag was taken away as
well. We had to interact with partisans if we encountered them, and
avoid unfriendlies if we detected them without being caught. Water
was scarce, sometimes gotten from mosquito-infested mud puddles. Food
was down to insects or the occasional bird or rabbit if you could
catch one. I lost 20 pounds that week from the heat, 14-hours per day
hiking in rough terrain, and lack of food.
The training was useful and practical. At no time was there petty
harassment or "make-them-suffer just to make them suffer" bullshit
that the Army does. Following the backwoods survival training was the
POW camp. You were stuck in simulated POW camp and treated
accordingly for three days, enduring interrogations, hazing-type
behavior (being locked in tiny cramped boxes, being stripped naked and
hosed down in 30-degree weather and so on, usually right before an
interrogation session), and propaganda-brainwashing type sessions. It
was as realistic as possible without actually harming people beyond just
The jump training followed all this. After basic survival, I attended
water survival at the same location, another week-long class. Jumping
in water was taught - how to get out of your harness in the water
without drowning, getting out of an ejection seat underwater - getting
rafts set up, setting up solar stills, and the like. Again, practical
training without petty harassment and BS.
There were no tabs, awards, or certificates given after all the training.
Nobody would ever know you attended such training. You can't even
assume just because someone has wings on their uniform that they
attended the course, since it was not mandatory. There was another
jungle survival course offered as well (one in Florida, another in the
Philippines), which I did not attend even though I was posted in
WestPac and flew out of the PI many times. The jump training in my
case was also moot because as we flew in the hurricanes/typhoons for
the weather recon mission, we didn't carry parachutes since bailing
out in a typhoon is not possible. Even if it was, we were frequently
thousands of miles from the nearest sandbar in the middle of the Pacific.
Here is an email from a doctor:
thank you for your very interesting article about elite military units. I'm a former physician and I may be able to help you out with the (alleged) sickle cell-related death
you wrote about. If my English sounds a bit strange or if I made any mistakes, I'd like to apologize in advance. English is a foreign language to me and although I lived (and worked)
several years in the US, this was more than 15 years ago.
Firstly, not every black person automatically suffers from sickle cell disease, which is why "blacks seem to do just fine when they are subjected to stress and higher altitude
playing in the NFL at Denver’s Mile High Stadium". It is possible that the Ranger student did not tell the doctors about his sickle cell anemia because he feared that he would
otherwise not be allowed to enter the Army, let alone Ranger School. While the diagnosis is usually easy, there is no reason for a doctor to order specific lab testing (like a simple reticulocyte count) for an asymptomatic patient without a history of sickle cell disease. Another possibility, although an unlikely one, is that the student had never experienced
symptoms in the past and was therefore never diagnosed. Today, 44 of the US states provide for universal neonatal screening, but they didn't in the 70's or 80's.
Assuming sickle cell anemia based on race might appear to be racist, but this actually is a very racist disease and the majority of sickle cell patients in the US are of African-American or Middle-Eastern descent.
I agree with your remarks about the "high altitude". True, pressure changes may increase the possibility of an outbreak, but we are talking about settings like flying in an
aircraft at >10.000 feet, not 1400 - 2000.
Regarding the circumstances, the most common triggers for acute sickle cell crisis include: stress, extreme exertion, dehydration, untreated infections and hypothermia. Does that
I can only make an educated guess what happened to that student, but this is what I think happened: for some or all of the reasons listed above, he developed an acute sickle cell
crisis, most likely of the vaso-occlusive type. When the deformed red blood cells started to block the smaller blood vessels, he might have tried to hide the pain unless he couldn't
take it any longer, or the instructors mistook the pain for a stitch or musculosceletal pain from the physical stress.
So, to answer your question, the sickle cell story might be the truth. But I'd like to add that I see some contributory negligence on the Army's side. Apparently, the instructors
didn't want to (or couldn't; I'm not sure if it would have been possible to get the student to a hospital immediately, considering the descriptions in your article, I think not) get
the student emergency medical care, which would most likely have saved his life. I don't know if he got at least sufficient first aid, but I somehow doubt it. (It would
have been quite easy even without medical training to bridge the time until qualified assistance was available: complete rest, drinking a lot of water, trying to normalize the body temperature if too low, some OTC pain meds like acetaminophen, aspirin or ibuprofen. The reason for the pain meds is not only to make the patient feel more comfortable, but mainly to facilitate breathing; patients with chest pain usually avoid breathing deeply)
In the spring of 2015, they tried to put 19 females through ranger school. Here is a report my ranger budy gave me on 5/10/15 (Mother’s Day):
“The first phase of Ranger School is done (the Camp Darby phase). No women are moving on to the mountain phase. Of the 19 women who started, three flunked the first day, eight more failed the first week, and now the remaining eight have failed the Darby phase and will be recycled into the next Ranger class that starts next week and they will start all over.”
The first phase is the easiest. And these 19 women got some special pre-school class over an extended period to prepare them for it. We had none of that.
I think they need to go through the school in an all-female class to prevent them from asking the males to help them carry their load.
Here is an email exchange sent to the members of the West Point Class of 1969—the class behind me. My comments are in [red].
From: Karl Ivey <email@example.com>
To: usma1969-forum <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Cc: Forum with Decorum <email@example.com>
Sent: Sun, Aug 9, 2015 11:03 pm
Subject: Re: usma1969-forum: 10 Days to Graduation
BOTL Buddies - - I have a friend, retired former SF Battalion Commander who lives in Dahlonega near the Mountain Ranger Camp. I questioned him about what he knew or what his contacts knew about the successes of the ladies who are now in the Florida Phase of the Ranger Course.
Below is the response I received from him.
And for those of you who think I am a recalcitrant curmudgeon who hates women in the military, let me set you straight: I have no problem with women going to Ranger School and being awarded the Tab as long as the standards are not changed to allow them to pass when a male student would not pass if he performed identically.
In fact, I, and I suspect all other Rangers, would hold in high regard any lady who could actually meet the Ranger Course's exacting and difficult challenges.
Karl, A Zooian
I am in very close contact with the Ranger Camp. The comments below from a Mountain Ranger Course Cadre [Ranger School instructor/grader] are pretty much what has happened.
When the administration wants something to succeed, they will do anything at all to make it succeed. For those of you who went to Ranger school, I will assume that you did not have a general officer as a lane grader (called a walker these days I guess) [the officer who observe you when you lead a patrol and grades you on whether you passed or failed]. When you are social engineering, you make things work regardless of the standards or the consequences because it’s the engineering that’s important.
Here's the breakdown:
Army wanted 200 of the most badass women from the army, guard and reserves to start ranger school in April. The deal was they had to pass RTAC to get a slot.
138 women attended several RTAC classes and 20 passed
The 20 women were put in their own unit to train exclusively for Ranger school in the months preceding their start date. 1 quit before school started.
19 women started Ranger School in April.
11 failed in the first 3 days: pt test, land nav and road March
All 8 failed patrols and were inserted into Darby the following class.
All 8 failed patrols again. 5 were sent home and 3 were offered day 1 recycles.
Nearing the end of their third attempt at Darby, all three had 2 failed patrols, and General Scott Miller (movement excellence commander of Ft Benning) showed up to be their guest walker. [As far as I know, no officer above the rank of colonel was ever a walker or lane grader. When I went to Ranger School, I believe the graders were all either NCOs or captains or majors. I do not even believe that any officer associated with the school was a general including the commandant of the ranger school. I think he was a LTC or Col.] All three passed.
All three advanced to Mountains
Nearing the end of the patrol phase of mountains all three women had 2 failed patrols and guess who showed up again to be their guest RI [?] walker..... 2 of the three passed, and one has been recycled.
Some of the guys I work with here remember Miller from Delta [Force]. I'm sure that's not what's being reported, but when we first heard a general had walked them, three of them chimed in with "Scotty Miller" in unison.
They will pass, and probably be honor grads. "
Sounds like command interference to me...[plain old dishonesty to me if they did not earn passing grades]
Does not surprise me. The General’s Boss most likely told him (Miller) if you want to make three stars, there will be female Ranger graduates! So he Santa Claused them so they would pass. Sad times. This PC BS will be the end of us, if it hasn’t already sealed our fate!
On Sun, Aug 9, 2015 at 2:26 PM, Stewart Bornhoft <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
John T. Reed
Link to information about John T. Reed’s Succeeding book which, in part, relates lessons learned about succeeding in life from being in the military
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