Only a tiny fraction of soldiers in the Army will ever attend Ranger School. Infantry officers and members of the 75th Ranger Regiment will most likely get a shot (or multiple) at going to the school. For the rest of the Army, depending on where and when you are, it can be challenging to get the opportunity to go.
And if that chance appears, it is even more challenging to get soldiers to volunteer.
Even in the infantry, where you might expect to find more eagerness, finding volunteers is not easy. The question “Who wants to go to Ranger School?” is often met with blank stares and laughs.
Everyone knows the school is challenging and “sucks,” and the idea of voluntarily thrusting yourself into that can seem anywhere from unappealing to masochistic to the soldier who already spends a lot of time away from home, deployed, training, or in various states of misery. At 30th AG at Fort Benning, where all infantrymen begin, just about everyone is committed to being an Airborne Ranger and being all they can be. Somewhere between laying on a cot at 30th AG, dreaming of what could be, and mile 23 of a loaded foot march under the hot Georgia sun, that eagerness fades away. The reality of what it means to “suck” seeps into the soldier, and the idea of what might transpire at Ranger School becomes understood.
The school carries its own mystique. In the book Black Hearts, author Jim Frederick accurately describes the deference afforded to the Ranger tab and the cult that surrounds it as “shamanistic.”
On top of that, Ranger School has always been a bit of a mystery. It’s all tales of privation, darkness, and pain. It’s about small camps in the middle of nowhere, cutoff from civilization. The high attrition rate frightens soldiers away before they ever even think about putting a packet together.
It’s certainly too early to tell for sure, but I think last week’s historic graduation might not just have an effect on whether the course ultimately opens up to women (and it’s hard to imagine how it won’t at this point), but I think there are likely a lot more men who are suddenly rethinking whether they might consider going to the school themselves.
Put simply, those who may have been frightened by the mystery or questioned their own ability are looking at Captains Griest and Hayer and thinking “Well shit, if they can do it, maybe I can do it too.”
While the past few months have been particularly embarressing in military social media in regards to the crazy, conspiratorial posts about the school, the one guy heard from another guy about lower standards posts, last week’s very transparant lead up to the graduation ceremony saw a significant change in what was being shared and discussed online. As more information emerged on what actually happened in the woods, mountains, and swamps over the past six months, the “haters” kind of faded into the background.
There was a popular image that was floating around once it was announced the two female Ranger students had passed. It essentially says that Ranger School is now a different institution. The implication was that the only way they could have possibly passed was because the standards had been lowered.
As stupid as that image was, it was actually right in one regard. Ranger School will be different. More men will now be willing to raise their hand and volunteer for the school, simply because they’ve seen that a woman can do it. It’s not misogny that’s will drive them, but the fact that female Ranger students have so much more to overcome in order to pass the course, and despite their shortcomings, two were able to do it.
The Army wants more Rangers. The school wants to graduate as many Rangers as they can. It’s good for the Army. But Ranger School will not, rightfully, lower standards to do it. The best way to effect the net number of Ranger graduates is sending more, better prepared students.
Most men self-select themselves out by never volunteering in the first place. The fact that two women have made it through removes some of the self-doubt that prevents a majority of soldiers – both combat arms and support – from ever considering volunteering.
In conversations among infantrymen, I already hear men talking about Ranger School a little differently now.
“It’s pretty motivating that they made it through. Hmm…”
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An interesting thing happens when infantrymen who have EIBs but no Ranger tabs come into direct contact with infantrymen with no EIBs but Ranger tabs. An argument will break out as to which one is more important to the infantry or whether one or the other matters more.
Camp EIB will usually argue that Ranger School is just a suck-fest that tests one’s ability to suck, be hungry, and stay awake for a long time, whereas the EIB is an actual comprehensive assessment of an infantryman’s core tasks.
Camp Ranger will usually argue that given the EIB’s relatively short duration (usually two weeks at home station) it doesn’t require the same level of commitment to attain. Camp Ranger may also argue that the leadership aspects of Ranger School are significantly more important than the technical/physical aspects of the EIB.
Of course, the whole thing is just another topic of conversation to make it through one more hour of staff duty.
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“We had international students in our Ranger class. They pretty much got pushed through the course, because one time they sent home a student and he was killed for failing.”
I still hear variations of this one, despite the fact that all around I’ve seen international students fail a course and get recycled or sent back to their country. While it might be true that international students get cut a little more slack by American instructors, straight up failing usually results in failing the course, just like American students.
I’m not sure where this rumor started or if there is any merit to it. The original rumor that I heard was about a student from Thailand who failed Ranger School and was executed when he returned home. Since then, I’ve heard variations of this where the country is different or the punishment is less severe (substitute beating for killing). Nobody wants to fail a course, and I’m sure it is embarrassing for any soldier to travel across the world only to have to return back without success. But I find it hard to believe that a professional military would summarily execute one of their own. And if it did happen, we would probably know more about it, and it wouldn’t just exist as a Joe-Rumor.
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It’s back to school time. For new student veterans, that means awkwardly moving between campus buildings at a 120 paces a minute, looking for the seat with either the easiest egress route or full view of all students (my personal choice), and digging deep into regulations on how to fully access education benefits.
I thought that it might be helpful to write a post that links some good reading for the new student veteran. If you know of anything that I should add to this, let me know in the comments, and I’ll add it.
The last couple of times I’ve been on a land navigation course, I didn’t do so well. The first time, I tried to “take it easy” and walk the course (I normally run a lot). I wasted a lot of time slowly traversing the course, and then because I had it in my mind that I was “taking it easy” it was more difficult to get amped up to crash into the woods and destroy the homes of hundreds of Fort Benning spiders.
Then, at Ranger School, I made a couple of bad decisions at the start of the course which threw me off.
This past week I had another go at a land navigation course for IBOLC’s mini-RAP week. Excited for the chance to get back on a land navigation course and “get my groove back” I put in a little more preparation than usual. One of the problems I had during RAP week land navigation was poor fieldcraft. I didn’t have a clipboard or flat writing surface and I placed my map haphazardly in a zip-up map case. I wasted lots of time digging it out for map checks. Precious minutes spent standing around on a land nav course messing with gear can add up and work against you.
Eager to not make the same mistake twice, I dug through my giant box of old Army gear from my enlisted time and fished out a plexiglass map case I made. It’s something I picked up from watching officers on the drop zones of Fort Bragg. Many of them would pull out these hard map cases with all of the key information they needed already plotted. The case was easy to handle, flat, and protected the map (see here for instructions on how to make one).
After making a few minor repairs to the case, I headed out to the land navigation course with the other post-IBOLC students for the land navigation course (a painful day, wake up at 0030). Surprisingly, we did not go to the usual Red Diamond course I’ve done almost a dozen times since being here at Fort Benning. It was some other course that I’ve never been to before, just south of the Ranger School land navigation site. It was exciting to have to do a new, unfamiliar course.
The map we got for the course was pretty bad. The contour lines were difficult to make out and everything was blurry. I slipped the map into my case and began plotting. Lesson learned: it would probably be better to plot directly on the map and then put the map into the case. The map case is tight, but the map tends to slide around a little bit, and I had to ensure that the map was correctly lined up each time I pulled an azimuth. Also, the parallax caused by the thickness of the plexiglass can effect grid plotting and azimuths if you are not looking directly down at the map case.
I don’t plot out my exact route or course of action for a land navigation course. After plotting my points (and checking!) I usually move myself to the furthest point first, using the night hours to erase the distance. I’ll have a general route plan in mind, but I don’t lock myself into it because I don’t know how the course is going to treat me. I choose my first point, and move out. After getting it (or not), I’ll look at the map and choose the next point. I repeat this until I finish.
After pinpointing my location, I began the course. I used the trails to get myself to attack points. Most of the course was done during the night, so I kept my attack points within 300 meters. While moving along the trails, I jogged. Time spent traversing the course is time wasted. I want to have as much time as possible to locate the little orange and white boxes in the woods after navigating to the general area. The way to get more of that time is by moving swiftly from point A to B.
On this particular lane, I had three points close to the start point, so I snatched those up first. Then I moved to my two furthest points and got those before bringing it back to the start point, grabbing the last two points along the way in my lane.
At the end of the course I was soaked in sweat, but hadn’t actually broken too much brush because I used good attack points. Going with what I know worked (moving quickly, especially at night) and doing well on the land navigation course provided a much needed shot of confidence. Bringing out the map case was helpful, and I learned some lessons on how to use it effectively.
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I’ve done the Red Diamond Land Navigation course at Fort Benning almost a dozen times since arriving here last October. I consider myself pretty good at land nav, I know the course pretty well, and I’ve scored 8/8 every single time I’ve done the course.
Except this past week.
I was not able to attend the last Ranger School class because I needed a waiver, so I had to complete (again) IBOLC’s “mini-RAP week,” which is a series of training events like the ones Ranger students will face during Ranger Assessment Phase (RAP) week in Ranger School. The major events are the Ranger Physical Fitness Test (RPFT), land navigation, and a 12 mile foot march. The RPFT and the 12 mile foot march are mostly physical events. If a person is in good shape, he (or she) will usually pass.
Normally, I go all out when I’m doing land navigation. I don’t try to make it easier by shuffling through the score sheets as they’re being passed around, looking for a lane with easy points. I take a sheet and pass the pile along. When the course begins, I plot my points and take off. I run the course. And when I get all of my points, I run back to the start, regardless of how much time is remaining.
This time, however, I wanted to try things a little differently.
Around 80˚, humidity somewhere near 100%. Half moon in the sky.
I received my score sheet and looked down quickly scanning the eight digit grids. My points were spread out over a large swath of land about four kilometers west of the start point. Normally you receive a clipboard with the map laminated to it for the land navigation course, but this time we received a map printed on a sheet of paper. I folded up the map so that only the land navigation portion was visible. I quickly plotted my points while resting the map on my knee, and confident in my map reading skills and my ability to ace this course. I plotted once.
Once I finished plotting, I looked over the map to plan my route. Behind accurate plotting, this is perhaps the most important task during the preparation portion of land navigation because it sets the pace for the entire lane. Since this is a night-into-day land navigation course, I would normally use the hours of darkness to run to my furthest point. The idea being, night land navigation is hard, so it’s better to use that time to erase the distance between the start point and the furthest point. Then, begin careful navigation in the darkness, collecting as many points as possible without making any mistakes. Once the sun comes up, I can pick up the pace and finish the rest of the points easily.
Instead of “going with what I know” by running to my furthest point, I decided that I would follow a counter-clockwise route and pick up the points along the way, darting into the woods to collect the point, and then skirting the roads along a circular pattern until I’ve collected them all and return to the start point.
Not a terrible plan, so long as it is executed well.
I folded up my map and scoresheet and tucked them into my zip-lock bag and headed out. I walked briskly to my first “attack point,” the intersection of a railroad track and a dirt road. My first point was about 800 meters from there and this intersection was the closest attack point I could find. The plan was to move to the attack point, shoot an azimuth to the first point, and then walk nice and easy to the point.
I reached the attack point within 30 minutes and shot my first azimuth. “Here we go, I thought to myself,” and boldly stepped into the dark woods.
I missed my first step and tumbled forward, catching myself with a quick-reacting trail foot. My face and hands caught a fistful of spider-web and I reacted as all warriors do, by freaking the hell out and karate chopping invisible tarantulas.
I regained my composure and re-shot my azimuth and took another couple of steps into the dark. A thin branch of thorns slid across my face and I stumbled again over loose earth.
Angrily, I gritted my teeth and took another step forward, rolling onto a weak ankle.
This wasn’t going to work. I took a knee and examined the map again.
Okay, I could follow the railroad track another 500 meters, and then shoot an azimuth into the woods, hit a trail, and then shoot another azimuth to the point. That would be an attack point just 300 meters from the point – perfect.
Now, for some background on land navigation, walking pace along a road or tracks and then jutting into the woods is never a good idea. There are too many variables that could go wrong. I am counting on my 100 meter pace count being completely accurate (which it’s not), and the map to 100% accurately reflect the terrain (which it does not). Then, I am counting on hitting a trail, which is difficult to identify at night, and then shooting another azimuth the point from there, and walk 300 meters to hit it. An attack point of 300 meters at night is do-able. But the other things – pacing a road/track and shooting in from there – is never a good idea. Sometimes this works. Especially during the daytime. But it’s not good technique.
Confident in my ability to find the point based on a history of always finding the point, I give it a try.
I pace 500 meters, shoot into the woods, and find the trail. Looking good. I shoot my azimuth to my point, and then walk 300 meters into some thick stuff.
Eh, just walk another 50-75 meters. You usually find it then.
Still no point.
Okay, start boxing out. Small circles.
I spend about 25 minutes looking for the point, but come up empty. I take a deep breath. No big deal. It’s dark, I took a risk trying to find this point and came up short. I’ll get it on the way back.
I take a look at my map and my next point. This one should be easy. It is about 100 meters off of the railroad tracks and right on the west side of a north/south road. Too easy.
I skirt the railroad tracks until I come to the road. At this point, the sun is just under the horizon and the air is a gray/blue color. Mist obscures my vision.
“Okay, here I am. Railroad track. North/south running road. The point should be 100 meters north and just west of the road.”
Box out, semi-circles. Still nothing.
I spend about 45 minutes looking for this point because it is so clearly marked on the map. To miss it would be a crime. (It turns out the graders said this particular point has a bad plot – it is actually on the east of the road.)
At this point, I’ve killed two hours. I have three to go. I have collected zero points. I haven’t been running the course, so these early mistakes cost me more time than they normally would have.
Still, I don’t panic. I’ve got three hours to go. The sun is coming up. I’ll get the next point and then run the rest. I’ll grab 6/8 without a problem and escape with my dignity.
I’m heading to my third point, which is the point furthest from the start point. On the way there, I come across a known point. I plot my position and record my azimuth to the next point. 350 meters at 313˚. Nice and easy.
I take off at a jog, eager to make up time now. On the map I have the point plotted in some low ground between two spurs. I hit 350 meters and I’m dead between two spurs. The sun is out and I can see clearly.
No point around me.
Now I’m just angry. My course is imploding. No worries though, just go with what you know.
Box out, semi-circles. Running around the woods looking for the point to jump out at me. Take a knee and conduct SLLS, hoping there’s someone else out there approaching a point.
I take a deep breath and take a knee, pulling out my map. I recheck the original plot.
Crap. I misplotted. The point is about 100 meters to the east of where I plotted it. I recalculated my azimuth from the known point, and instead of 313˚, it is more like 335˚.
I run back to that point and reshoot the azimuth at 335˚. I run the azimuth at 350 meters.
I take another deep breath and figure this is it. It’s just not my day. I walk another 50 meters, just in case, and there it is, just a few feet buried in the woods. I walk up to the point, confirm with the scribble on the point that this is it, and record the number on my scoresheet.
I’m almost three hours into the course and I’ve just recorded my first point. At this point, I’m back on track and manage to scoop up two more points within the next hour. After those two points, I head back to the start point and with great embarrassment, turn in my meager scoresheet.
I spent a good portion of the rest of the day brooding over this failure. Having killed the course every other time I was on it, it stung more than it should have.
As painful as it was, I think doing so poorly was a good thing. Here’s why:
Had I done like I normally do and scored 8/8, I would have increased my confidence in land navigation (a dangerous thing for a lieutenant, no doubt), but I would not have learned anything. Failing, as it were, provided me with a number of lessons. Lessons I had already learned, but can now be reinforced.
Some of these lessons may only apply to land navigation, but I think they can be used more broadly.
Lesson 1: “Go with what you know.”
I normally run land navigation courses. It saves time. Even if it means spending more energy, it is always worth it to run the course and buy that extra time in the event a mistake is made. I know this, but failed to do it this week, and paid for it.
I also know that it is not smart to dead reckon for more than 300 meters at night. The chances of drifting are too high. I chose to dead reckon 800 meters at night, and then, seeing as that wouldn’t work, tried to dead reckon from a not-so-certain attack point.
If I did what I normally do, I would have chosen a route which would have taken me ultimately to the furthest point on the course, and snatched up points with certain attack points (< 300 meters). This would maximize my night land navigation time and provide confidence by getting a couple of points early in the course.
If you do something that works, keep doing it until it doesn’t work.
Lesson 2: Plot, check, re-check
I plotted my points while leaning a flimsy piece of paper across my not-so-flat knee. And I didn’t check. As a result, one of my points was misplotted by about 100 meters, which resulted in me wasting lots of time on the course.
I should have used a flat surface, carefully plotted, and checked my work to confirm I had the correct points.
Lesson 3: Sometimes the map is wrong
I wasted almost an hour trying to find my second point. I was so confident in my plotting (I plotted it correctly) and it should have beeneasy to find because it was right at the intersection of three major features. But I couldn’t find it, and it turned out that the grid for the point inaccurately places the point on the west side of a road when it is actually on the east side.
I should have realized that there was something wrong after walking in circles for about 20 minutes and moved on, chalking the point up as a loss. Desperate for a point, I wasted too much time looking for something that didn’t exist where I thought it did.
Mistakes snowball. My first mistake of not running resulted in me having less time to navigate the course. My second mistake of not following my own plan and trying to find a point based on a weak attack point resulted in me missing that point altogether. My third mistake of wasting too much time looking for a point that wasn’t located where it was supposed to be wasted more time. And my fourth mistake of misplotting the furthest point sealed the deal.
I don’t think I’ve ever done a land navigation course perfectly. Somewhere along the way, I’ll make a small mistake and have to correct for it.
This time, however, I made a number of small mistakes which altogether made my day very painful.
But the net result of the training is positive. Because I learned something, which, is what training is for after all.
The moral of the story here is failing can be a good thing. We learn through failure. If I did well on the land navigation course, I wouldn’t be thinking about land navigation at all. Doing poorly forced me to examine my course of action, what went wrong, and how I could have done better. And writing about that experience here reinforces the reflection.
Nobody wants to fail. But failing is an active ingredient in success, so long as you learn from it. I’ve learned a lot from this experience, and I’ll take the lessons and internalize them, and try my best to not make the same mistakes in the future.
“Part of me wants to be hard as nails, the other part of me wants to chiiiiiiiillllllllllllll.”
In the days and weeks leading up to my now delayed Ranger School class, every moment, meal, and quiet nothing took on monumental significance. Driving somewhere on post with a couple of buddies, we discussed the two axes of thought regarding any impending military event, in this case, Ranger School. The spartan in us wanted to do nothing but read the Ranger Handbook, drink water, and train. The sybarite in us wanted to do nothing but go out, party, and soak up every vice allowed in the final moments before disappearing into the woods/mountains/swamps. These two opposing thought patterns exist simultaneously.
The thing that drew many of us to the military in the first place and the infantry specifically was the shot at adventure and the opportunity to be hard. In that hardening process, a deeper appreciation is gained for the simple things in life. An old Army buddy once marveled at the civilian’s freedom to sit down wherever and whenever he pleases, for example.
Imbibing and gorging before a sleep-away camp like Ranger School satisfies the craving to enjoy life now while it is still under control, but sabotages training for the same. Any time some great luxury sits in front of me, it’s hard to resist knowing that when I’m taking a knee on a mountaintop with a shrunken stomach in the near future, I’ll want to slip back in time and dropkick my old self for not eating the freaking pizza. But any thoughts in that food/sleep deprived state aren’t entirely rational and cannot be taken as absolute truth.
What are we training for? This is the question that anyone who trains has to ask. There is a tendency out there (myself included) to think that by virtue of tough training, we’ve bought our permission to enjoy the things that set us back (name your vice). In fairness, I know some people who seem to be able to train hard and party hard all the time. I don’t know how they do it, but I know that I can’t. If I want to achieve something difficult, I have to commit to be all in.
And that’s hard.
“I’m calling you a killer. A natural born killer. You always have been, and you always will be. Moving to El Paso, working in a used record store, goin’ to the movies with Tommy, clipping coupons. That’s you, trying to disguise yourself as a worker bee. That’s you tryin’ to blend in with the hive. But you’re not a worker bee. You’re a renegade killer bee. And no matter how much beer you drank or barbecue you ate or how fat your ass got, nothing in the world would ever change that.” -Bill, to the Bride (Kill Bill)
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