Since I was a kid, I always knew I wanted to be in the military. My inspirations for what I wanted to do in the military changed throughout my adolescence. After I saw the movie The Rock, with Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery, I thought I wanted to be a Navy Seal. I had two life mentors in middle school who were both Marines in the Vietnam War. They convinced me the Navy was for the birds and I needed to be a Jarhead. This was what I worked towards until my freshmen year of high school. My brother-in-law had just dawned his tan beret for the first time and informed me of the prestige associated with the coveted Ranger Regiment. From that point on, that tan beret was the objective.
Fast forward almost six years and you would have found me submerged in one of the most grueling things I had done in my life. I had completed basic training, AIT, and airborne school. I was three weeks into Ranger Assessment and Selection Program, formerly known as RIP (Ranger Indoctrination Program). The Ranger Assessment and Selection Program is broken down into two four-week parts, Phase 1 and Phase 2. Phase 1 is designed to weed out those that can’t hack it in the 75th Ranger Regiment. Some have referred to this process as hazing, I think of it as grooming individuals for the extremely difficult adversity they are going to face in this elite unit. Phase 2 is used to train individuals on the types of tasks they will be asked to complete on their deployments. Some of these tasks include advanced marksmanship, breaching, and driving.
The part of RASP or RIP that all candidates fear the most is “Cole Range.” This is a field exercise at a place in Fort Benning, GA that I have no desire to ever, and I mean ever, return to. Ranger candidates, on average, only get four hours of sleep. They are “smoked” and yelled at continually for almost the entirety of the week. This is the part of RASP I remember most.
It was a cold and rainy day in February 2010. My heart was pounding as I loaded the LMTV to be transported to the starting point of our 8-mile ruck march to Cole Range. “It’s only eight miles. I have done worse than this,” is what I thought in my head, but when we started off I was in the middle of the formation I saw one of my instructors take off at a jog. A ruck march consists of putting a certain amount of weight in what is a called a ruck sack (looks like a backpack), but functions like a torture device when carried for long distances.
“Is he running? Yep, he’s running,” I said to myself quietly. Normally ruck marches are completed at a fast walk, so seeing him take off at a run was the first of many mind games practiced while we were at Cole Range. By mile four, my legs were smoked, my lungs felt like they were going to burst out of my chest, and I was questioning my physical shape. I had fallen to the back two-thirds of the formation and about every half mile I would see instructors keeping track of who was where. My spider senses started to tingle, and something told me if I didn’t catch back up to the front of the formation I was going to regret it.
I spent the remainder of my four miles sprinting for one minute and jogging for two. I was the last guy to get to Cole Range and join the first group of men, which was about 1/3 of our class. Everyone else in our class was put in a separate formation and smoked (push-ups, sprints, flutter kicks, etc.), while we were allowed to relax for 10-15 minutes. The rest of our day was spent “hitting the wood line,” a phrase that still sends chills down my spine to this day.
I remember as the sun faded behind those beautiful Georgia pines, thinking about how the hell I was going to make it through another few days of this. My uniform was soaked through from the rain and sweat. The temperature was falling below freezing rapidly and our whole class could see the cadre building a huge bonfire while roasting some hotdogs and having a good time. They set us in formation just outside the warmth of that beautiful bonfire and left us there in parade rest, a rigid and uncomfortable position when maintained for prolonged periods of time. We could all smell the familiar and enticing aromas of the fire and warm food. About every ten minutes one of the instructors would come over and yell at the students who were not maintaining the rigidity of their position. Then the instructor would assume a reassuring gentler tone to inform us, “Just quit, Ranger. That’s all you have to do. Then you can come over, grab a hot dog, change your uniform, and enjoy that beautiful fire.” This was more torturous than any physical exercise. Our uniforms were beginning to freeze from a culmination of the temperatures dropping, wearing our wet uniforms, and standing in the same position for hours. My peers began to drop like flies.
I watched friends I had known since my first day in the Army quit and walk over to that beautiful fire. My heart broke silently as I thought about the fact I would never see most of those guys again since they would be sent to other Army units all around the world. One of my favorite instructors walked over after they had a satisfactory number of students quit the course.
This instructor would probably not win any popularity awards in the civilian world. He always cussed very fluently with a huge wade of dip in his mouth, normally screaming inches from your face. The look in his eyes and the way he carried himself just abounded a feeling that he could destroy you with words or fists, but this fact made us love him. He was the epitome of what we imagined a Ranger to be and he reminded most of us of a Nordic Viking with his reddish blonde hair.
He walked over and told us it was time for layouts. Layouts are something anybody in the military dreads. It is extremely tedious. We all had a very specific list of items we HAD to have in our ruck sack for the ruck march. It had to all be laid out in a very specific way on your poncho. “Your toothbrush goes here, your underwear go here,” you get the point. Well for every person in my class that had something out of place we got smoked. We somewhat welcomed doing physical exercise at this point because at least we were warm! But the smoking got worse as more items were found to be out of place and the instructor's tempers began to rise. It looks like one of those discovery shows when you see a group of tiger sharks devouring their innocent pray. It was during this chaos that it happened. A speech from the previously mentioned instructor that will resonate with me for the rest of my life.
One of my fellow ranger candidates had screamed or ratted on another one of our classmates. And this instructor leaped into one of the best speeches I have heard to this day. I’ll do my best to give an accurate synopsis of it. “Rangers, look to the men on your left and right. Some of these men are going to become your brothers. You are going bleed with them, cry with them, and some of you are going to die with them. This process is going to forge a brotherhood with some of you that you will never forget. I guarantee that each of the instructors here today would die for me, and I for them. The greatest way I can possibly think of dying is buried in a pile of my own brass defending one of their lives.”
A slow tear rolled down my cheek as my muscles ached in the front leaning rest position on that frozen ground outside Columbus, GA. I wasn’t sure why, but that speech struck something deep inside of me and I knew then I wanted to be part of that brotherhood. I’m not sure if I got his words correct, but I do know I cut out a lot of expletives that were thrown in the middle of it.
The rest of Cole Range was a blur. Plus, I don’t want to ruin the surprise for any potential recruits that might be reading this. Out of 162 of the beginning class, 60 of us dawned that coveted Tan Beret. Of those 60, 2 of them did not make it home from their first deployment. One of which, was posthumously awarded a Silver Star with Valor for protecting the injured body of his fellow ranger from an enemy frag grenade.
Fast forward to today, and these lessons learned during my time in service carry over to my civilian life. I had the inspiration for this post early this week. My wife and I had woken up early to catch a glimpse of the “Super Blue moon.” I told her we should do it by the barn with a fire, so I can get a quick workout in before my day. I got a beautiful fire lit that radiated my body with heat as I did kettlebell swings, pushups, and gut work. I finished and gazed into that fire. It brought me back to that cold night at Cole Range and I thought of my brothers, the hardships from when I was in, and most of all it made me think of the friends that aren’t here anymore.
It’s the perfect reminder I needed to embrace the suck of being a business owner. To not get discouraged by the hardships that are coupled with starting a new business, but to lean into the pain and fight through it. To remember the guys that did not make it back and the Rangers that are still fighting today. When I think of it like that, it puts life into perspective and reminds me that I’m here enjoying the warmth of the beautiful fire. Rangers Lead the Way.