My Ranger School Experience Essays

Tom note: This originally appeared in War Council, a fine blog out of West Point. I am running it here with the permission of the author, who is in Afghanistan, and of the blogkeeper.

By Lt. Scott Ginther, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist

After ardently attempting once to write an essay on "what I know now that I wish I knew then," I realized that writing even just a two or three paged paper is something cadets do not want to read. This being said, when I was posed with this task I swore I would do three things: 1) provide an honest answer, 2) express the truth in the most unvarnished way possible, and 3) keep things short. Therefore, I have decided to make a list that cadets can squeeze in between their class and sports demands, and their beloved naps and "Not Being At West Point" time.

1.      You’re not going to be the greatest Platoon Leader Ever — This is hard to come to grips with for new lieutenants. Especially considering the competitive spirit among most West Pointers — and Soldiers at-large. The reality is most Soldiers in your future platoons will have between 5-12 platoon leaders before they become Sergeants First Class. Chances are they’ve had someone better than you. This is not a knock on personal talent or capability, but rather a matter of perspective. Excluding outliers, most new platoon leaders have zero experience in the Army. You are there to learn and make yourself better, not be the subject matter expert.

2.      You may not be the greatest, but you’re the most responsible — Again, this is another facet that is hard to come to terms with. You may not be the most experienced in terms of tactics, time or doctrine, but you’re the only one that has been formally trained on leading. Your job is to take responsibility. You are the best qualified member of your platoon to pull your Soldiers together collectively and make things happen. You control your own consequences.

3.      "Should" is the most dangerous word in the Army — As a lieutenant when your PSG, XO, CO and especially your Soldiers ask you questions – no matter how important – you cannot respond with "It should be done already, sir." Or, "We should be at this grid coordinate." Check on things and get oversight so you don’t have to say "I should not have done that, sir."

4.      Don’t be tougher than you have to but don’t be indulgent either — If you try and John Wayne your way through PL time and you’re really more of a Woody Allen, your Soldiers will instantly see your ruse and not respond to you. Be YOURSELF.

5.      Most of the time you’ll have no idea what you’re doing — This cold bucket of water is strange and uncomfortable at first, but you’ll have many tasks assigned to you at once that you’re going to have no idea where to start. I have gotten farther on problems just by deciding to dig in somewhere and not stop working or asking questions until circumstances become clear. You WILL figure things out. Turn off your $250,000 educated-brain for a second and stop arriving at the conclusion that the world is going to end because of you. Just close your eyes, grit your teeth and clear the jump door.

6.      Your parents probably did a better job prepping you for leadership than anyone — If your parents taught you to get along with everybody as a kid, work in school, made you clean your room, be home by curfew and they trusted you, you’ll be alright. Being a good, honest person has gotten me much farther in my relationships in the Army than I ever expected.

7.      West Pointers are spoiled — Yes you are. Even if you’re the nicest most considerate person in the world, you won’t realize the gift and legacy West Point is bestowing on you until well after you’ve graduated. The organizational infrastructure and support — let alone the Ivy League quality education – is something that can’t be matched. There’s a reason why West Point ranks in Forbes magazine’s top five universities in the country on nearly a consecutive basis. Don’t squander the opportunities you have because of the infamous "cadet cynicism." This Academy has been in business for 200+ years.

8.      Start ruck marching — Do it a lot, and do it often. Especially if you plan on branching infantry, no one really cares how much you can bench. Your Soldiers are going to care how far you can take them in the disgusting, soupy Georgia heat and humidity with Banana Spiders hanging in the vines in front of your face. Furthermore, bench pressing is not going to get you your "Go" at Ranger School anyway. The mountains of Dahlonega are unforgiving to body builders and top heavy guys.

9.      Band of Brothers, Black Hawk Down, The Unforgiving Minute and other sources — Just because you read these books and saw these movies doesn’t make you an expert on warfare or the next Chris Kyle or Mike Murphy. Furthermore, these sources are not the benchmarks for which you should measure the fallibility of tactical or technical opinions and TTPs of others around you. These are personal accounts and reflections on leadership, personal challenges and demons, and should supplement your development as a leader, Soldier and as a person.

10.  Don’t focus on being a badass — Focus on being the PL your Soldiers need you to be. Finding, fixing and finishing the enemies of the United States with extreme prejudice is awesome, but as an officer, you’re not a trigger puller. Your main weapon system is thirty-five to forty other trigger pullers. Learn when to be a hard-ass and when to be a human being, I suggest reading Eric Greitens’ book, The Heart and the Fist.

11.  Stop being "slugs" — I absolutely hated this at West Point. I never understood why people would voluntarily go to USMA, just to become soft and do the bare minimum. You’re setting the tone for the rest of your Army career to be rather unenjoyable and you’re screwing over your future Soldiers. Get out now.

12.  Stop being "brutal" — I also absolutely hated this at West Point. I never understood the "tool-bags" working their asses off just to gain praise from the administration. Being a good West Pointer is NOT the same as being a good Army Officer. Success bred from arrogance is not success at all.

13.  Stop the division between "good" cadets and "bad" cadets — Like I said before, being a good West Pointer does not equate to being a good Army Officer. Work on your weaknesses now because they’ll be amplified in the Army. Work together as a class! You WILL run into your classmates and other West Pointers that know who you are all the time. If you’re a an arrogant "tool" now, and you get paired up with that "slug" you hated when you move on to Ranger School, you’re both going to have to earn each other’s tabs, or go home empty handed. Moreover, the RI’s know who you are and they can see this.

14.  Take time to learn your school’s history — I feel that if West Point (and cadets) as an institution did a better job of this early on, I think cadets would have a better understanding of a.) what they are getting into, and b.) a deeper appreciation of their Academy. We all know the big names, battles and events throughout USMA’s history; but just barely. These pivotal events and monumental men are often relegated to lofty figures and dates in history books, not a living part of each cadet’s heritage. Doing this will help you figure out why you decided to come (or stay) at West Point in the first place.

15.  Since when did Microsoft Xcel become a leadership tool? — This is a huge pet peeve of mine. When I was a cadet, I saw way too many kids immediately go to computers, spreadsheets and power point to solve problems. Yes, these are skills you will use at nausea when you’re a lieutenant, but get outside of your own head and go work with your Soldiers. Memos, briefings and trackers can only get you so far. Everyday interactions with Soldiers ultimately enforce and set standards.

16.  Your Soldiers will do stupid things — I always heard this as a cadet, but I didn’t realize how stupid things could get. I can’t delve into examples without long stories, but be prepared to encounter circumstance you thought only happened in the movies.

17.  Your Soldiers will do amazing things — Far more often than your Soldiers doing stupid things, you will be blown away at how talented they are. I have the following Soldiers in my platoon: a former blacksmith and rodeo clown, a NASCAR pit crewman, two carpenters, a private who is a multi-millionaire and drives and Audi R8, a Sugar Bowl-winning, University of West Virginia offensive lineman and a SSG who graduated college at 17 years old and taught physics at Tulane before the age of 26.

18.  Lieutenants will do stupid things — This issue often gets swept under the rug. I understand that as brand new lieutenants you will do every day stupid things; it’s expected of you in your learning experience. But more and more often I’m seeing or hearing of lieutenants doing inexcusably stupid things that land them in prison and out of the Army. Every incident I’ve seen or heard involves alcohol.

19.  NCOs will help you not do stupid things — Everyday I am completely blown away by how hardworking, and professional this brassy, prideful group can be. Sergeants indeed run the Army. Your platoon can function without you, but it cannot function without NCOs. For the umpteenth time, trust your NCOs. You do not know more than they do, this is their Army not yours, officers just get to drive it for awhile.

20.  Friends of yours are going to die (and not necessarily in combat) — This won’t necessarily happen in combat. Fortunately I’ve only had three friends of mine killed throughout my Army career. Surprisingly though, only one was in combat, he was not a West Pointer. 2LT Justin Lee Sisson was my best friend and the best lieutenant I’ve ever seen. He was a Florida State grad, prior service and Ranger and Sapper qualified. The Motorcycle VBIED that hit him didn’t discern between how well trained he was or where he came from. This job is very, very real. Don’t wait to realize this until you are looking at your best friend’s mother at his funeral.

I hope this list will be worth all cadets’ time and they can relate to it. A message to cadets everywhere: Please — above all things — take personal accountability of your personal development. It will not be long before you have to "grow up" and do things on your own and be proactive.

1LT Scott Ginther (USMA ’11) was a proud member of the West Point Boxing Team and member of cadet company A-2. He is currently a Platoon Leader with A Co., 1-504th PIR, 1BCT, 82nd ABN DIV. This is an unofficial expression of opinion; views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. Military Academy, Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola

The United States Army Ranger School is one of the most challenging military schools in the world.  It is the Army’s premier combat leadership and small unit tactics course.  For the last 12 years, only 49% of those who have attempted the course have succeeded.  Each month over 400 students arrive at Fort Benning, Georgia for their chance to face the toughest physical, mental, and emotional challenge they will likely ever encounter.  There is a reason Vietnam veteran and former Department of Military Instruction Director at the U.S. Military Academy COL Robert “Tex” Turner famously said, “I woke up in a cold sweat, I had a nightmare that I was still in Ranger School. Thank God that I was in Vietnam. Compared to Ranger School, combat was easy.”

I get a lot of questions from cadets on how to prepare for Ranger School.  Every Ranger School graduate has a horrific (and most likely true) story of the pain, suffering, and seemingly unimaginable feats of human endurance from their time during the course.  These stories help maintain the cultural significance afforded to soldiers that wear the ranger tab.  But these stories offer little that will help hopeful ranger students prepare for the experience.  There are many challenges and stressors in Ranger School – some challenges you can prepare for and some you cannot.  These are my personal recommendations for aspiring Rangers.

Not knowing what to expect: You can reduce the stress of the unknown by seeking out information from reliable sources.  Ask questions of Ranger graduates that will make you more aware of what the course entails, rather than Ranger School war stories.  How are patrols graded?  What does a normal day look like during the field problems?  How do peer evaluations work?  The Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade has done a great job of providing information on theirwebsite.  They’ve even provided a program of instructioncalendarthat shows the events of every day of the course.

Gaining entry.  Many hopeful Ranger students fear that they will not pass the entry tests that are given during the first week of Ranger School.  This week is aptly dubbed the Ranger Assessment Phase (RAP) where students are evaluated for their ability to endure the 62 day school.  Failing to pass the tests of RAP week is the biggest reason soldiers fail out of Ranger School, topping all other failures at62%.

RAP week includes the Ranger Physical Assessment (RPA) given bright and early on the first day of the course.  The RPA requires students to complete 49 push-ups, 59 sit-ups, a 5-mile run in 40:00 minutes, and six chin-ups from the dead hang.   Of the testable events of RAP week, the RPA is the biggest killer.

This is a challenge you can overcome.  There is no Ranger School standard or quota as many believe.  Students are graded against Army standards.  Students fail because they have never been held to these standards.  I’ve seen many eager soldiers that reported to Ranger School having scored 90 or 100 pushups at their unit or last school clearly shocked when they fail to achieve less than the required 49 push-ups.  They fail because they did not follow thearmy standardsof “when viewed from the side, your body should form a generally straight line from your shoulders to your ankles…begin the push-up by bending your elbows and lowering your entire body as a single unit until your upper arms are at least parallel to the ground.  Then, return to the starting position by raising your entire body until your arms are fully extended.  Your body must remain rigid in a generally straight line and move as a unit while performing each repetition.”

The next highest attrition event in RAP week is land navigation.  This is another challenge where your preparation can make a big difference.  Fort Benning terrain lends itself to terrain association, but dead reckoning may also be your preferred technique.  The best way to prepare for this is to practice.  If you are constrained by resources or training sites, you and a few friends can set up points at your local park and practice navigating to them.

You must prepare for RAP week.  Yes, I do advocate training for the test.  I am old school in that I follow the frequency, intensity, time, and type (FITT) methodology.  All this means is that if you want to pass a push-up, sit-up, pull-up, run, and foot march test, then there better be a lot of that in your work out plan.  You should also have someone else test you—to Army standards–frequently.  My last recommendation for the entry test has always been that you should be able to pass the requirements on your WORST day, not just when you are feeling good.

Physical exertion: Great.  You made it into Ranger School.  Now you have to physically perform and endure during the course.  This is where being overall strong and fit comes in.  There are many real and fake workout programs out there that guarantee success in Ranger School and Special Forces courses.  The U.S. Army Ranger School provides a30-60-90 day workout planand anutrition/progressive overloadprevention guide.  My only recommendation is to foot march with a ruck sack – a lot!  You will wear a ruck for up to 15-20 hours a day for each of the three 10-12 day field problems.  The craziest thing I observed as a Ranger Instructor was students in the mountain phase with something we called “rubber neck.”   Because the students’ bodies were weak and not prepared for the pull of the weight of the ruck on their neck and back for extended periods of time, their neck muscles seized, a large lump formed, and their heads were locked all the way down on their chest.   Like any muscle injury, their condition was temporary.  It was also preventable.  Be prepared!

Sleep deprivation: You will get zero to four hours of sleep per day in Ranger School.   I’m not joking.  You will experience a level of tiredness you could never impose on yourself.  You will see people fall asleep standing and some that remain asleep even as the slam into the ground.  This is not a challenge you can do anything about.  You can’t and shouldn’t practice sleep deprivation.

Food deprivation: You will get two Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MREs) a day during most of Ranger School.  Each MRE provides an average of 1,250 calories.  That may seem like a lot but since Ranger students are moving most of the day they burn multiple times over that amount.   It is very common for Ranger students to lose 10-20 pounds during the course.  There is not much you can do about this challenge.  I do not recommend attempting to “bulk up” or adding weight before attending the course.  That will only detract from your efforts to be in an overall healthy and physically prepared state.

Not knowing small unit tactics: Ranger School is designed to teach students everything they need to know in the course.  The classes given during the school start with the role of a riflemen and progress all the way up to how to conduct a raid with a Zodiac boat insertion.  Science will tell you that being sleep deprived is not conducive to learning.  You will definitely learn in Ranger School, but it will be more from repetition than anything else. So the more you know about light infantry small unit tactics, the easier and less stressful Ranger School will be.

I strongly recommend that anyone heading to Ranger School to have a firm understanding of troop leading procedures – specifically giving Warning and Operations Orders.

All phases of Ranger School will include you conducting a recon (squad and platoon), ambush (squad and platoon) and raid (platoon).  You will also establish and operate in patrol bases for a majority of the patrols.  If you know the doctrinal requirements and steps to executing each of these operations, you won’t have to stress about learning them while being evaluated.

The only resource you will have in the course is Student Handout 21-76 (SH 21-76), the Ranger Handbook.  I do not recommend reading and memorizing all 357 pages of the Ranger Handbook.  Much of it is not applicable to passing the course.  That is because the handbook doubles as the handbook for the course and a tactical handbook for light infantry forces.  In preparing for Ranger School, I would focus on the following:

Chapter 1 – Duties and Responsibilities. Pages 1-1 through 1-8

Chapter 2 – Operations.  2-1 through 2-17; 2-29 through 2-31

Chapter 6 – Movement. Pages 6-1 through 6-10

Chapter 7 – Patrols. Pages 7-1 through 7-24

Chapter 8 – Battle Drills. Page 8-1 through 8-20

Appendix A – Resources. Pages A-1 through A-19

If you are a West Point Cadet, I would highly recommend reviewing the recon, ambush, raid, and patrol base chapters of yourMS300 (Platoon Operations) Digital Textbooks.  The step-by-step interactives included in the book use Ranger School techniques.

I would also review theMCOE Warrior Universityvideos of Consolidate & Reorganize, RTB (Dismounted), Formations and Orders of Movement, RTB (FOOM) Dismounted, React to Contact, RTB (Dismounted), React to Indirect Fire, RTB (Dismounted).  All of these videos were made with information provided by Ranger School cadre.

Being graded: Ranger School is one of the few places where students are graded for their performance in tactical operations.   While the success of the operation will contribute to your assessment, the instructors evaluate each individual’s actions in their leadership position.  Each phase of Ranger School patrolling is grading using the same three block model.  A chain of command will receive an Operations Order in the early morning.  The Platoon Leader, Platoon Sergeant, and Squad Leaders will be graded on their troop leading procedures from receipt of the order through stepping off for the mission.  Generally, at that point or shortly after, a new chain of command will be put in charge and lead the operations from movement through actions on the objective.  Next, a new chain of command will take over to lead movement to the patrol base through patrol base operations during the night.

The best way to prepare for the stress of being graded is training to standard (as discussed above) and confidence in your abilities.  Ranger Instructors will be looking for you to be assertive, make decisions based on sound planning and the principles of patrolling, and violence of action where appropriate.

Internal conflict:  The final challenge of Ranger School is you.  Ranger School will take you to mental, physical, and emotional places you have never been before.  You must be committed to finishing the course or you will question yourself during the darkest moments.  Some people will give you recommendations for developingmental toughnessbut it will ultimately be a question of how bad you want to graduate.

The worst thing I saw in Ranger School were students that gave up either during the course or in the boards that decide whether you continue, recycle, or leave the course.  Each had their own reason, but the worst were the ones that rationalized their decision on something waiting for them outside the course (family, deploying unit, etc.).  My best recommendation is where possible remove the idea of leaving the course for your own reasons.  Ranger School will let you stay in the course as long as you show improvement and desire to remain.

Ranger School is a masterfully designed experience that will place all students at the uppermost limits of physical and mental stress before the point of injury.  It will suck.  That is the common experience shared by all graduates.  If you endure, it will also be one of the most memorable experiences of triumph of your life.  Many of the challenges and induced stress in Ranger School have nothing to do with your preparation.  But there are challenges you can and should be ready to tackle.

 

Maj. John Spencer is a scholar with the Modern War Institute at the United States Military Academy in West Point.  A former Ranger Instructor,  he has held the ranks of private to sergeant first class, and lieutenant to major while serving in ranger, airborne, light, and mechanized infantry units during his 23 years as an infantryman. He looks forward to connecting via Twitter @SpencerGuard. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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