The unexpected benefit of last week’s historic Ranger graduation

Shaye Haver, Kristen Griest

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.

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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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EIB Week: Camp EIB vs. Camp Ranger

Ranger EIB

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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Ranger Hall of Fame: SGT Martin Watson, Abraham Lincoln & Tom Hanks

We signed out this morning for leave at tables setup in the Ranger Hall of Fame, a large room at Ranger Training Brigade Headquarters which has pictures along the wall of Rangers who have been inducted. Behind the “A to G” table was the group of inaugural inductees, who were mostly Rangers from history, like COL Mosby, MG Merrill and MAJ Robert Rogers. At the bottom though, was a picture of one of the scariest looking men I have ever seen. It was a black and white photograph of a shirtless, muscular man. He was bearded, but it wasn’t a 21st century cool-guy beard. It seemed legit. Blackbeard legit. The name was SGT Martin Watson.

After signing out on leave, I scribbled his name down on the back of my leave form and told myself to look him up later. Which I did. Here is his story:

SGT Watson: Ranger
SGT Watson: Ranger

Sergeant Watson served with the 1st Ranger Battalion in World War II and fought in the Northern Africa, Sicily and Central Europe campaigns. He was captured by the Germans at Cassino, Italy and remained a prisoner of war for fifteen months. Sergeant Watson attempted escape on one occasion but was recaptured. He was repatriated following World War II and volunteered for the 4th Ranger Infantry Company (Airborne) during the Korean War. Sergeant Watson and three other Rangers were detected by the enemy while on a mission 65 miles behind Chinese lines. Following a foiled rescue attempt, Sergeant Watson, a downed U.S. Navy pilot, and nineteen South Korean agents evaded capture by the North Koreans for ten days with no food or supplies. After his capture, the North Koreans repeatedly tortured Sergeant Watson for attempting escape on three separate occasions. Sergeant Watson was the last U.S. serviceman repatriated following the Korean War. He earned the Silver Star for valorous actions during the Korean War, and the Bronze Star for his resilience and refusal to cooperate with the enemy after repeated torture. Sergeant Watson’s iron will and unshakable resolve are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and clearly illustrate that surrender is not a Ranger word.

I’m not sure I have ever heard of any other soldier who qualified for a POW Medal with an oak leaf cluster, but apparently it’s a real thing. Pretty bad-ass.

Anyway, while looking up information on SGT Watson, I came across two interesting Ranger Hall of Famers: President Abraham Lincoln and Mr. Tom Hanks.

Abraham Lincoln: Ranger
Abraham Lincoln: Ranger

Early in 1832 he was elected captain of a company of the 4th Illinois Regiment, which served during part of the Black Hawk War (1832). When his company was discharged, Lincoln volunteered as a private in a company of the Illinois frontier guard, whose soldiers were known as Rangers, scouts, and spies. For two and one-half weeks during the late spring of 1832 he patrolled the northwestern frontier of Illinois with his company, on the lookout for Indian war parties. When the company’s Rangers were discharged, Lincoln immediately reenlisted in another company of the frontier guard. He and the company served a three week tour of duty during the early summer by scouting in advance of the army as it moved northward into Wisconsin. After his military service Lincoln became a prominent Illinois attorney, a popular political leader, and President of the United States. His strong, successful leadership as the Union’s President during the War Between the States (1861-65) made him a great American folk hero. He is often considered the best example of the greatness that can be produced by a democracy.

Mr. Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks: Ranger
Tom Hanks: Ranger

Tom Hanks is inducted as an honorary member into the Ranger Hall of Fame for his honorable and accurate portrayal of a Ranger Company Commander during World War II in the movie Saving Private Ryan, and his continued commitment to ensuring the honor of those that served was properly recognized through his service as the National Spokesman for the World War II Memorial Campaign and Honorary Chairman of the D-Day Museum Capital Campaign. Although a renowned Oscar winning actor, his service to the Ranger community through his untiring efforts, numerous interviews and public appearances helped the World to remember the sacrifices and courage of our Armed Forces during World War II. He was instrumental in assisting in the funding for, and the dedication of, the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, and the National D-Day Museum in Louisiana. Mr. Hanks said in an interview: “I am fascinated by this period and see it as something that very much relates to how we live our lives today. The world is still, by and large, a question of what is right and what is wrong. And the best example that we can have at our disposal is to take a look at what happened during the Second World War.”† Mr. Hanks also helped write and produce the critically acclaimed and Emmy Award winning miniseries Band of Brothers.† He hoped that Band of Brothers may remind Americans exactly what The Greatest Generation sacrificed for us. “As filmmakers, we certainly hope to entertain those in search of a great story. We also hope to enlighten those who are unaware of history and those who are unappreciative of the human cost of preserving our great freedoms.” Through his efforts on many fronts from actor, to filmmaker, to spokesman, to chairman, Mr. Hanks has enlightened Americans and the World on the most honorable profession; that of a Soldier.

Who knew.

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