Ranger candidate Taylor England (Photo: Nate Bressler)
Ranger candidate Taylor England

Army Ranger School Is a Laboratory of Human Endurance

The military's toughest training challenges have a lot in common with outdoor sufferfests like the Barkley Marathons and the Leadville Trail 100: you have to be fit and motivated to make the starting line, but your mind and spirit are what carry you to the end. A Ranger graduate breaks down an ordeal that shapes some of the nation's finest soldiers.

Why the hell am I standing here, shivering on a remote mountain trail in the Appalachians?

The answer can be found in my dreams. Starting in 2006, I spent 13 violent months serving as an infantry officer in Iraq. Thankfully, I rarely revisit that experience while I sleep. But hardly a month goes by when I don’t wake up with a jolt, my heart racing. Each dream is different, but the basic plot is the same: I have to go back to Army Ranger School, which I graduated from in 2004.

And so I do.

In late February of 2019, I join 363 soldiers and officers comprising Ranger Class 05-19 at Camp Rogers, which occupies a remote corner of Fort Benning, just outside Columbus, Georgia. These young men, and a few women, are starting what is arguably the most demanding course in the military. (The Navy SEALS would beg to differ. Debate about whose training is tougher is never-ending.)

For the next 61 days, I’ll track them as they shed their ranks and any past military accomplishments. The course they’re taking on is divided into three parts: Benning Phase; Mountain Phase, at Camp Frank D. Merrill, in north Georgia; and Swamp Phase, at Camp James E. Rudder, on the Florida Panhandle. Aside from a few short trips home to check on my family, I’ll lug my own, much lighter rucksack alongside the students, over mountains and through swamps, as I experience what I believe is the first opportunity for a journalist to embed with a class all the way, observing every aspect of their training.

The students will be sleep-deprived, often getting only two or three hours’ rest on rugged terrain, with little more than a poncho to shield them from the elements. They’ll be perpetually hungry, their daily field diet of two MREs providing only 2,500 calories, a fraction of the estimated 5,000 they’ll burn lugging 90-pound rucks up and down mountains. By graduation day, many will have lost 20 pounds or more, their gaunt faces sometimes shocking family and friends who attend.

Why do they voluntarily subject themselves to this? First Sergeant James Lovett, a seasoned veteran of the Ranger regiment and an experienced Ranger instructor (RI), puts the question to me like so: “Is Ranger School primarily supposed to be a suckfest, or are we trying to teach something? Because one comes at the expense of the other.”

In modern America, lives of relative comfort have led some outdoor athletes to seek challenges designed to push them out of their physical and mental comfort zones, in the form of pursuits such as CrossFit, ultrarunning, and adventure races like the Spartan series. It’s tempting to view Ranger School as an extreme example of this urge. But to an extent I never fully appreciated as a student, I’ll discover that it’s as much an exercise in teamwork as an assessment of individual prowess.

To be functional enough to report the story, I’ll adopt a schedule similar to the Ranger instructors, shadowing the class 24 hours on, 24 off—earning me some good-natured jibes from exhausted and famished students when I arrive to greet them some mornings, well-rested and well-fed.

In addition to the chance to observe this ordeal, something deeper is driving me back, and it isn’t easy to articulate. In the words of Adam Hurley, a Ranger graduate and former Special Forces officer, Ranger School is “a unique laboratory that administers a self-aware serum.” Another Ranger graduate says, “I had a preconception of what kind of man I was, and Ranger School cut through the fluff and showed me who I was after I had been stripped down.”

My own experience trying to earn a Ranger tab for my uniform was humbling. A lifelong athlete, I reported to Camp Rogers in excellent physical condition, but I struggled to graduate. Ranger School almost broke the competitive drive I’d had my whole life. During Mountain Phase, I failed a knots test, and I ended up getting marooned at Camp Merrill for around five weeks, doing menial labor until I could “recycle” into the next class and try again. Eventually I made it through, but after that first failure I wanted to quit.

Somewhere deep in my psyche, that memory still haunts me. I feel a need to revisit a past that continues to exert a hold on me, and perhaps banish a few demons.

Army Ranger students evacuate a casualty during a training exercise.
Army Ranger students evacuate a casualty during a training exercise. (Photo: Nate Bressler)
Ranger candidate Hilary Thomas
Ranger candidate Hilary Thomas (Photo: Nate Bressler)

Mountain Phase Commences

March 17, 2019

“Ranger School begins in mountains.”

That’s the old saying that welcomes students arriving at Merrill. By the time they spill off the buses that deliver them to this small camp near Dahlonega, Georgia, they’ve already passed Benning Phase—an unforgiving battery of tests that typically eliminate almost a third of the class—as well as the first series of simulated, around-the-clock combat patrols that are the essence of Ranger School.

The format of these patrols is similar during each phase: Every morning, a handful of students are selected by the RIs as that day’s leaders in a simulated combat mission, usually a raid or an ambush. The leaders are evaluated on a pass/fail basis (in Ranger lingo, go/no-go) as they plan the mission and then maneuver their platoons over long distances and challenging ground to locate the “enemy”—active-duty soldiers assigned to play the role of “OpFor” (opposing forces). Students typically are assigned two or three graded leadership billets per phase and are required to earn at least one go to advance to the next one. If they fail to do so, they’ll either be dropped from the course or given an opportunity to recycle.

While watching the students at Benning, I identified a handful to focus on during the remaining two phases. I chose individuals representing some of the most common Ranger School demographics: young infantry officers, for whom the tab can seem like a prerequisite for advancement; young enlisted soldiers, who will need to graduate to remain in the Army’s special-operations Ranger regiment, analogous to the SEALs; and more seasoned noncommissioned officers from other Army combat units.

The reward for success at Benning will be to do it all over again in the mountains, this time while carrying backbreaking rucks. Nighttime temperatures that approach freezing magnify the challenge, along with the Blue Ridge fog. Not much has changed since I wrote this 15 years ago in a letter home:

There was no visibility—the moon was entirely covered—and my night vision optics weren’t working well. I literally couldn’t see my hands in front of my face. People were falling all over the place. Once I fell down a slope and as I was lying there I could feel something moving under me. Turns out I had fallen on top of someone else, and the movement was his breathing. It was so dark I couldn’t see him, and he was so dazed he didn’t even say anything. People were walking into trees, tripping over rocks, falling down hills.

After a week of mountaineering training, ten days of patrols start with a bang—a real one. A student named Hilary Thomas has just finished a leader assignment, and she and her platoon are dragging their way up Lumpkin Ridge, shortly before sunset, on what’s considered one of Mountain Phase’s most difficult climbs. The students see lightning coming at them, growing closer and louder, almost as if an enemy were guiding in artillery rounds. Some begin to wonder why a lightning lockdown hasn’t been initiated, since training is supposed to stop when there’s a strike within ten miles.

By now the sky has grown dark, unleashing a ferocious downpour of rain and hail. Then a bolt hits terrifyingly close, and word finally comes to “drop your shit and get down the mountain.” Minutes later, Thomas is on the ground, unable to push herself up. Her right arm isn’t working. Nearby a student is screaming “I can’t feel my legs!” while another struggles to lift an RI into a fireman’s carry. As it turns out, several students have been struck by lightning.

After a frantic scramble down to a medevac site, with students taking turns carrying the classmate who lost feeling in his legs, an RI and four students—including Thomas—are evacuated to the battalion aid station. Amazingly, all will return to training the next day, apparently suffering no serious lasting injury.

This frightening episode underscores the risks inherent in training hundreds of sleep- and food-deprived students in the backcountry. For the school’s leadership, the lightning strike must have spurred memories of the terrible night of February 15, 1995, when four Ranger students died from hypothermia after spending up to six hours navigating deep, 52-degree waters during Swamp Phase, an avoidable tragedy, marked by numerous leadership lapses, that continues to cast a pall over Ranger training.

Ranger candidate Nicholas Carchidi
Ranger candidate Nicholas Carchidi (Photo: Nate Bressler)

Just Another Grunt

March 29

At 6 A.M., I join the RI team overseeing today’s patrol. After a morning briefing, we pile into pickups and head into the mountains, where the team will replace the RIs whose 24-hour shift is ending.

First Sergeant Alex Tanner will be one of the RI “walkers” grading today’s leaders, which spells trouble for a platoon that I’m told has been underperforming. His demanding approach results, in part, from the 51 months he spent in combat deployments, and the recognition that many of these students will soon be in harm’s way. (In addition to recent missions in Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, Rangers would be among the first forces sent as a result of escalating tensions with Iran.) Simply put, Tanner is a hard-ass, a throwback to the Ranger School I remember.

He immediately makes his presence known to the students, who, sleep-starved from another night in the cold, groggily go about their morning business, shaving, changing from one ratty uniform to a marginally less dirty one, and defecating in plain sight in a slit trench.

“You all came here to be Rangers, so fucking act like it,” Tanner shouts as he looks with disgust at the zombie-like group. Two students nearby debate whether they really spotted “a civilian hippie tent” the night before as they stumbled toward the patrol base. One is adamant that they did, earnestly saying, “I think I saw a naked woman come out of it, and her dog chased us.”

Most likely he was hallucinating.

Later, as we trudge up a steep incline, I hear a higher-pitched voice. It comes from a petite woman hunched under the weight of her ruck, which has a medevac sled resting atop it, an extra piece of equipment she’ll be responsible for all day. She’s carrying a ruck that weighs almost as much as she does.

Her name is Taylor England, and when she was seven she announced to her mother that she wanted to be a Marine. She would go on to excel at West Point—ranking first among the 230 graduates selected for the infantry branch—but now she’s just another anonymous grunt with a buzz cut, in a state of nearly perpetual hunger.

Despite incoming abuse from Tanner, the students barely accelerate beyond a brisk walk as we ascend. It’s as if the platoon has become a single organism, collectively resisting additional exertion. My legs are burning, and my ball cap is soaked with sweat. My only goal is the same as the students’: keep moving.

Following the day’s mission, Tanner addresses the platoon, starting with a harsh assessment of their “individual soldier discipline” that morning. But he also says, “You have earned a lot of grit. You have been here for five days and look like you have aged five years.” This is high praise from someone who firmly believes that the most valuable thing students get from Ranger School is not specific tactical knowledge but “a layer of grit” that will make overcoming the challenges of combat less difficult.

My experience suggests that the first sergeant is right. My 13 months in Iraq coincided with one of the most violent stages of the insurgency, but I drew strength from the fact that, aside from the physical danger we were exposed to, our quality of life was better than at Ranger School.

First Sergeant Alex Tanner
First Sergeant Alex Tanner (Photo: Nate Bressler)

“Yeah, This Sucks Bad”

March 31

I wake up around 5:30 to catch the morning RI briefing and grab breakfast before heading out on a 24-hour mountain patrol. It’s chilly and overcast, and it’s supposed to dip to 31 overnight. I feel familiar pre-patrol nerves as I dig into my last hot meal for a while, and I’m glad to discover that the mountain chow hall is still serving its famous blueberry pancakes. They were so good that as students we would sometimes skip the silverware and shove them in with our hands, to make sure the RIs didn’t clear us out before we had time to finish.

When we meet up with the students, their uniforms look more ragged and their faces more gaunt. At about 1 P.M., shortly before they strap on their rucks, the sun pops out and the afternoon becomes breezy and pleasant. The first 45 minutes are all uphill. Brandon Sakbun, a young lieutenant and recent graduate of Indiana University’s ROTC program, describes it to me later as the kind of notoriously demanding mountain patrol where “all you see is up—the guy in front of you is above you, vertical.”

I follow the mission’s designated platoon leader, Sergeant First Class Nicholas Carchidi, a 32-year-old husband and father. He’s a big man, among the oldest in the class, a veteran of six deployments and a member of the Army’s Special Forces, known as the Green Berets. Many Green Berets go through Ranger training at some point in their career, though it’s less common at Carchidi’s age. Eager to be reunited with his family, he later tells me that, for him, there will be no recycling. “It’s straight through or bust,” he laughs. He says he was underwhelmed by Benning Phase, with its relatively easy overland movements and cookie-cutter tactical training. But in the mountains he develops respect for the Ranger tab, his suspicion that the course was “overhyped” giving way to a grudging admission: “Yeah, this sucks bad.”

As we trudge up to what will be the site of a planned ambush, I pass Covey Landen, 20, who was sent to Ranger School shortly after arriving at his unit, the Second Battalion of the elite 75th Ranger Regiment. Like all the young soldiers sent from the regiment, he will need to pass Ranger School to stay there. Landen had hoped to become a Ranger since he was ten, only to assume that his dream was dead after he lost parts of two fingers in a high school shop accident. An Army recruiter, impressed by the work ethic he saw Landen display at a McDonald’s near Fort Polk, Louisiana, convinced him he could still do it. The process hadn’t been easy, but here he was, almost halfway toward earning his tab.

Landen is pretty small. I later observe to an RI that most of the students aren’t the muscle-bound specimens you see in movies. The RI quietly reminds me that no body type has a monopoly on grit, and Landen is a good example. The son of a casino housekeeper, he was given an ultimatum at a young age to start earning money or move out. He embraced his McDonald’s job with an enthusiasm that he displays throughout this course. His upbeat mood—I hear him comment on the beauty of the surrounding mountains—stands in contrast to some of the students filing up the hill behind him, staring at their boots, appearing to sink deeper into malaise with each step.

We eventually top a ridgeline above the road where the ambush is to take place. Cold gusts lash us mercilessly; an RI says the wind chill is near freezing.

Carchidi, the platoon leader, spots a Humvee parked along the road. It’s still hours before the scheduled ambush time, but he decides to plan a “hasty raid” on the vehicle, and the RIs approve his unorthodox plan. Everybody is excited by Carchidi’s willingness to deviate from the script, and by their early escape from the exposed ridgeline.

As it turns out, none other than First Sergeant Tanner is in the Humvee. Though he’s only monitoring the day’s training and isn’t part of the exercise, he gamely plays the role of an enemy soldier when he sees the platoon bounding down the hillside firing blanks at him. He’s quickly taken out.

Shortly after the mission, an RI gives the platoon an after-action review (AAR). As the energized students sit on their rucks, he applauds Carchidi for his initiative before giving everybody ten minutes to devour their MREs.

It’s amazing to see the impact success can have on morale. Just an hour ago, the students were shivering on the ridgeline; now they’re smiling and chattering. The sun has set, and after their brief break, the students ruck up and begin a long march to the night’s patrol base, finally arriving around 1 A.M.

Establishing an overnight patrol base is a miserable process that can take hours, at a time when you’re desperate for sleep. The students must perform countless tasks, such as positioning their equipment to best fight off an enemy attack, drawing “sector sketches” that assign fields of fire, and cleaning weapons. Many are virtually catatonic while doing these chores.

An individual’s true nature emerges at these times, because survival instincts can trump even the most resolute intentions to help the platoon. Captain Alec Schaffer, an RI, tells me that “Ranger School happens between midnight and 3 A.M.,” because “every part of you wants to close your eyes and get warm and shut down, but you can’t. The paradox is that the conditions bring out the survival instinct to go into a shell—not act, think, or solve problems—but the only way to graduate is to do the opposite.”

Ranger candidate Julio Dominguez
Ranger candidate Julio Dominguez (Photo: Nate Bressler)

Fighting the Urge to Quit

April 2

The mountains seem to be taking a toll on one of the platoon’s oldest members, Julio Dominguez, 31, who has yet to receive a go on a graded leadership position. With each passing day, the mental stress will increase on those who aren’t yet sure they’ll move on to Swamp Phase. Most students I talk to agree that the psychological difficulties of the course eclipse the physical demands.

Dominguez is no stranger to challenges, having joined the Army in his early twenties, hoping to escape Puerto Rico’s struggling economy and experience something “bigger and better.” He has two young children at home, and though he’s a veteran of three deployments, saying goodbye to them has only gotten harder. Still, he’s committed to doing “whatever it takes to keep my family afloat,” which right now means overcoming the previous night’s hour and a half of sleep. It’s during the seemingly endless, freezing mountain nights, Dominguez says, when “you pretty much want to cry and lay down and not wake up. Everything possible is going through your mind—the pain, fatigue, wanting to quit. The only thing that stopped me was looking around at the rest of these miserable SOBs.”

One student who somehow remains in decent spirits is Brandon Sakbun, the Indiana Hoosier, who stealthily asks me how his basketball team is doing during March Madness. A top graduate of the Infantry Officer Course, he first attended Ranger School in late 2018; he failed a test the first week and was sent home. Now he’s going through it all again with this group, and as always he’s gung-ho. Even Carchidi, accustomed to working with high-performing Special Forces soldiers, is impressed by Sakbun, pointing out that “he never seems to be in a bad mood.” Sakbun credits the influence of his mother, who grew up in difficult conditions on a coffee farm in Jamaica but always fought to remain positive.

Today’s mission is a night ambush, with a low of 35 expected. As the students get ready, I see a young lieutenant who’s been having a tough time. He’s crouched on his ruck, alone and shivering. He shows me hands shredded by the cold. I feel bad for him, his vulnerability reminding me of another lieutenant who had struggled during Benning Phase. At one point, when it came time for him to fire the heavy automatic weapon he had to carry, it jammed. A few students glared at him. He asked, with a tone of self-pity, if anyone could help carry his ammunition, a request greeted with awkward silence. Moments like these, when weak performers are ostracized, can feel like Lord of the Flies.

Meanwhile, T. J. Decker, a young NCO from the First Special Forces Group, looks little worse for wear, saying he feels “pretty good. It’s a little chilly, but you warm up when you get moving.” Decker says the physical punishment of high school wrestling helped prepare him for Ranger School. His father, a Ranger School graduate and Special Forces veteran, also fuels his drive. When Decker graduated from basic training, his dad reminded him that he had yet to get his Green Beret. When he went on to graduate from the Special Forces Qualification Course and earn one, his dad wryly pointed out that he still didn’t have a Ranger tab.

We cross the Appalachian Trail around noon, not far from its southern terminus at Springer Mountain. It has warmed up to become a gorgeous day. We pass two college-age girls out for an afternoon hike, who look on with surprising composure as 46 heavily armed Ranger students in face paint pass by, offering an occasional “excuse us.”

I walk alongside Staff Sergeant Jesus Amaton, a talkative RI from El Paso, Texas. During a previous patrol, I watched him tear into some students who’d dozed off while ­waiting to cross a frigid stream, so I’m surprised when he takes the conversation in a personal direction. He tells me that he sometimes uses these patrols to scout campsites for himself and his eight-year-old son, who has autism. Amaton says he’s never really been able to get much communication or emotion out of the boy at home. In the woods it’s different. Amaton describes setting up a swing on the branches of a mountain laurel, which always makes his son smile. This recollection brings tears to his eyes. “I need the woods for my son,” he says.

Eventually, the platoon arrives at the ambush site. Some help fellow students find positions to place weapons and wait, while others simply fight to stay awake. As I watch the different ways in which people navigate the tricky psychological terrain of the course, I recall, from my own Ranger training, the value of being able to block out thoughts of pleasurable things in the civilian world. An effective way to do this, used by standouts like Decker and England, is to stay busy. Decker says that remaining focused on assisting his squad helped keep him from daydreaming about fishing in the Georgia countryside.

To help fortify the students as they confront these challenges, the chaplain in the mountains, Bryce Wiltermood, a Ranger graduate, conducts a well-attended nondenominational service. Students often talk to him about things they would hesitate to reveal to each other, such as how homesick they are, or anxiety about earning their go. This stress is magnified by the awareness that they can quit anytime. Wiltermood warns students that if they do, “The moment you get a good night’s rest, you will regret quitting for the rest of your life.”

The ambush commences and quickly becomes a disaster. I can’t tell who’s in charge, and I hear an RI say, “If you can’t identify the leader five minutes into a firefight, that’s a problem.” Suddenly, the platoon leader, who was nowhere to be seen during the ambush, emerges from behind a tree. A laugh escapes me before I’m able to stifle it. Then I feel guilty, standing there, rested and fed, snickering at this exhausted young man as he gives his all and comes up short.

The sun sets, the temperature drops fast, and the mission continues to be a mess. The platoon staggers down the road, “casualties” assessed by the RIs during the mock firefight slung over their shoulders. One exhausted student drops a classmate before mumbling an apology. An RI asks, “Is anyone controlling this?” No answer.

The lights of the nearest town, Dahlonega, flicker in the distance. I imagine the people there nestled in their warm beds, comfortably undisturbed by the daily drama that unfolds in these mountains, a world stripped to its essence—humans battling rain, mud, cold, heat, hunger, and fatigue.

Ranger candidate Brandon Sakbun (center)
Ranger candidate Brandon Sakbun (center) (Photo: Nate Bressler)

“Just Like That, the Mountains Are Over”

April 4

Though saying goodbye to my wife and young son was difficult, I’ve started to enjoy the rhythm of being here: the 24-hour shifts in the mountains, followed by a day to recover and write, then back out again. Luke Combs plays on the radio as the RIs and I head out to observe the platoon do the final patrol of Mountain Phase.

It’s a sunny, cold, cloudless morning, and a gurgling stream runs serenely past the patrol base. As we approach a smoldering RI campfire, we pass a Ranger student sitting on his ruck, by himself, his head in his hands.

“Oh look, it’s Taste the Rainbow, so dumb on day five of the field problem,” an RI jokes. The student was caught “grazing” in the middle of the night, busted by an RI as he tried to eat a handful of Skittles. (Though the rule is sometimes ignored, students are supposed to eat their MREs only at designated times.) The unlucky culprit is Covey Landen, the gutsy kid who overcame the loss of parts of two fingers to enlist.

I feel terrible for him; he’d passed his graded patrol in the mountains and only needed to get through the night, return to camp with his platoon, and pack for Florida. Now, if he’s lucky, his punishment will be to recycle, spending six weeks doing tedious chores in camp before repeating the entire three-week mountain phase with the next class.

I also notice the lieutenant who’s been having a rough time. He has a dazed, beaten look and appears to be struggling to tie his boots, apparently battling a combination of fatigue and torn up fingers. He knows he won’t be going to Florida—he has two no-gos and wasn’t selected to lead today’s final patrol, meaning he can’t earn the go he needs. He says he’ll recycle and is committed to graduating, but his words sound rote.

The platoon eventually moves out and begins a long climb to the ridgeline, where they’ll launch their ambush. I chat with John Bleazey, 24, a lieutenant with the Tenth Mountain Division. He says that quitting has crossed his mind. During some brutal night movements, he briefly imagines how he could “just trip, break an ankle, be at Five Guys with my girlfriend in a few days, and no one would judge me.” Other students echo this idea, one telling me he considered throwing himself off a steep trail so he could “wake up in a warm bed.” Bleazey resisted the temptation. “My dad is a badass,” he says, a Special Forces veteran who told him about people he’d known who’d given up. “I don’t want to be that guy,” Bleazey says. “You keep pushing, and when you get to rest for a minute, you are glad you did.”

Julio Dominguez kept pushing. Even as his 31-year-old body was battered by the mountains, he earned his go and will be moving on to Florida. As the platoon makes its way back to Merrill for the last time, he has a bounce in his step. “And just like that, the mountains are over,” he says with a smile.

Ranger candidate Jonathan Osborne navigates through the Florida swamps.
Ranger candidate Jonathan Osborne navigates through the Florida swamps. (Photo: Nate Bressler)
Soldiers work their way up a mountain in north Georgia.
Soldiers work their way up a mountain in north Georgia. (Photo: Nate Bressler)

Conversations with a Higher Power

April 4, Evening

The night known as DogEx gets its name from a special treat for the students: hot dogs. Before that they have to fill out peer evaluations, in which they’re ordered to rank their squad mates from best to worst. “Would you share a foxhole with this person?” they’re asked, a question that helps eliminate people who are insufferable. Then comes this: “Would you go to combat with this person?”

If someone is ranked low by enough of their peers, he or she can be forced to recycle or be dropped outright. (One soldier who failed to advance past Fort Benning had 15 of 15 squad mates say they wouldn’t enter combat with him.) This makes for a peculiar atmosphere during DogEx—more muted relief than celebration, because it’s hard to be animated around someone whose dreams you may have just crushed.

The students who already know they’re heading to Florida dig into paper bags containing a soda, two hot dogs, chips, and a candy bar. Observing the ferocious consumption, an RI says, “That’s why I carry a gun. The average human is only three missed meals away from becoming a savage.”

One student quietly makes his way over to me and explains, almost apologetically, that he turned down the opportunity for a second recycle, which would have prevented him from serving as best man in his closest friend’s upcoming wedding. He appears utterly deflated by having worked so hard only to come up short. I try to encourage him by telling him about Travis Patriquin, who never got his Ranger tab but was the best officer I ever served with. Travis was killed in Ramadi after helping spearhead the so-called Anbar Awakening, helping turn local Sunni tribes against Al Qaeda and transforming what had been one of the most violent provinces in Iraq.

A cold rain begins to fall as the RIs call the students over for mail. Isaac Chalcraft, 20, an upbeat man who overcame a childhood marked by crime and drugs, jokes, “I’m not getting any mail. My family doesn’t love me.” He says he wrote his father several times but never got a response.

His darkest moment came during his soul-crushing third attempt to get through Benning Phase. At one point, his class was brought inside, soaking wet, and subjected to an exhausting session of push-ups and flutter kicks. Fans were blowing, and he remembers shivering and thinking, I am so done with this place.

Sitting by himself, he cried for a moment before saying “a silent prayer to God and my girlfriend.” This led to an overwhelming feeling of warmth and strength that got him through.

Ranger candidate Covey Landen
Ranger candidate Covey Landen (Photo: Nate Bressler)

Swamp Phase Commences

April 15

After a short trip home to check on my family in Colorado, I make my way to Camp James E. Rudder—a remote corner of Eglin Air Force Base that’s home to the Army’s Sixth Ranger Training Battalion. The first thing that strikes me is how I barely remember having been here as a student, thanks to my state of exhaustion.

I catch up with the platoon I’ve been tracking as they sit on their rucks and eat MREs after a mission. They look better than when I last saw them in the mountains. A few nights’ sleep inside the barracks in Florida, coupled with meals in the chow hall, worked wonders on their fitness and morale.

Taylor England is the most talkative I’ve seen her, enthusiastically telling me how she’d been installed in a leadership position at 3 A.M., just as she was sinking into her sleeping bag. She led a “freakin’ good raid” and seems energized by the realization that she can handle a platoon. “If that’s Ranger School,” she says, “then hell yeah.”

Brandon Sakbun articulates something I observed in Decker, England, and some of the other high performers. “If you love your squad and care for them the way you would your family, you will do well, because they are doing well,” he says. It took me a long time to fully grasp this as a student, to see the experience less as a competition and more of a collaborative effort to overcome adversity.

Isaac Chalcraft, the goofy young infantryman with a troubled past, is also in good spirits, having recently received his go. I recall how, during a lightning lockdown at Fort Benning, he had proudly shown me a small mollusk shell he found and carried in a cargo pocket. He later pointed to a nearby area scorched by a forest fire, saying, “It looks like the world is burning, but I can still see beauty in it.”

Chalcraft reminds me of a young specialist I served with in the ancient city of Tal Afar, Iraq, named Vincent Pomante III, who would sometimes borrow our Humvee during his free time to roam the enormous base with a friend, searching for artifacts. I’ll never forget him bounding into our office one day, proudly carrying a large vase he’d found partially buried. The equally quirky Captain Travis Patriquin offered to e-mail a photo of it to a professor of archeology back in the U.S. to see how old it was.

Months later, Pomante was killed, along with Patriquin and Marine Major Megan McClung, when their Humvee struck an IED in Ramadi.

Numb to Pain

April 16

I file into an auditorium for the morning’s battalion meeting. The instructors gather to prepare for today’s lengthy patrol through snake-infested, sometimes neck-deep swamps. These are considered high-risk training days, and the audience is large, reflecting the sweeping safety measures put in place to avoid a repeat of the 1995 deaths during Swamp Phase. It includes the scheduled RIs and representatives from the OpFor enemy platoon, as well as dive teams, air-medevac crews, and medics.

Later that morning, I talk to 31-year-old Cody Nolin, one of 16 students who recycled and are repeating Swamp Phase with the platoon I’ve been shadowing. I ask him how he’s doing, to which this Navy veteran with two deployments chuckles and says, “Oh, not bad. Just falling apart one piece at a time.”

He shows me a slogan scrawled in his field notebook—“Remember the Little Things”—and explains how Ranger School gave him a renewed appreciation for “hot chow, a shower, dry socks, an hour’s sleep, and a letter in the mail.”

It will be a while before he or any of the members of class 05-19 will be able to enjoy the little things, since they’re still only midway through a ten-day field exercise that is the culmination of Swamp Phase. Their mission tonight will be “a raid to destroy the enemy,” to commence no later than 12 A.M. But first they have to get there, which means navigating a densely vegetated swamp featuring boot-sucking muddy slop with occasional deep water.

We board five Zodiacs and, after an hour of paddling down the Yellow River, slide into the cool swamp water. You can’t see below the surface, and every few minutes someone trips over submerged roots and splashes face-first into the muck. Even Chalcraft, who always seems to draw strength from natural beauty, mutters, “The swamps have sapped a little of my appreciation.”

This sort of shared suck, coupled with the disorientation brought on by sleep deprivation, triggers a reflective side in some students. John Bleazey, the young officer who looked up to his Special Forces father, asks me about raising my young son, then tells me he can’t wait to take his parents out to dinner, to thank them for making him the man he’s become. England tells me how Decker religiously checks his watch once a day to see what time it is in Okinawa, wondering what his girlfriend is doing at that moment.

We eventually make our way to higher ground and change into dry clothes. Coyotes howl in the distance, a reminder that this area features just about every kind of wildlife one hopes not to encounter, from venomous snakes to alligators to bears to wild hogs. 

One of the most impressive soldiers today is Brandon Sakbun, the determined young lieutenant. Like England, he remains unflaggingly positive. In addition to drawing inspiration from his Jamaican mother, he says that his father, a Cambodian doctor who survived the Pol Pot regime and then fled the country, instilled an appreciation for everything he has, which helps power him through tough times.

After the raid, the soldiers trudge to the night’s patrol base, where they take their boots off to get their feet checked by medics. I don’t envy the medics: words can’t capture what Ranger feet—after seven weeks of minimal bathing and several recent hours in the swamps—look and smell like.

It’s 2:35 A.M. before the students even begin the miserable process of establishing their patrol base. They plow ahead, seemingly numb to pain and fatigue.

Ranger candidate John Bleazey
Ranger candidate John Bleazey (Photo: Nate Bressler)

“This One Has Been the Toughest”

April 17

With only four days of Florida patrols left, Special Forces veteran Nicholas Carchidi has yet to earn the go he needs. He was frustrated to get a no-go in an earlier field exercise, likely the result of a mistake made by one of his subordinates. This illustrates an unavoidable reality of Ranger School: though the RIs use a standardized leadership-evaluation scorecard, there’s always a degree of subjectivity, and judging isn’t an exact science. Frustrated students use the phrase “RI roulette” to refer to conditions they can’t control, which can have an impact on your chances for success. For example, leading a platoon of well-rested students in beautiful weather could be more likely to yield a positive result than taking an exhausted platoon through a driving rainstorm with weak squad leaders.

Tonight, Carchidi will serve as the platoon sergeant for an ambush, and this might be his last opportunity to earn a spot at next week’s graduation, where he hopes his wife, young daughter, parents, grandmother, and sister will join him. I tell him I’m surprised he considers it such an important occasion, since he’s already survived some of the military’s toughest instruction, like the Special Forces Qualification Course. He says this one has been the hardest, because of the prolonged hunger and fatigue. He guesses he’s lost at least 20 pounds.

Julio Dominguez, who also needs a go, will be one of his squad leaders. Though Dominguez appears relaxed, he says he’s still working to overcome the fact that “the mountains destroyed my body in ways I cannot explain.” 

The ambush is initiated by a furious rate of automatic-weapons fire, and the performances of Carchidi and Dominguez soon go in opposite directions. There’s no mistaking Carchidi’s authority and competence as platoon sergeant. He’s well on his way to a go. I wince, meanwhile, when I overhear an RI say that Dominguez will need another look.

The platoon withdraws from the ambush site at around 10 P.M., and they soon learn that their night has just started. Next comes the Long Walk, a roughly ten-mile march along a red-clay fire road. Before they step off, an RI tells them that the faster they walk, the sooner they’ll arrive at the patrol base, and the more sleep they’ll get. By now they’ve learned that such visions rarely pan out.

As I pass other students, I catch snippets of hushed chatter, which often involve food fantasies, ranging from brownies and ice cream to a trip to an all-you-can-eat Brazilian steak house. An RI shouts at Dominguez to pick up the pace. He does so with a ­grimace. 

I run into an RI named Patrick Barry, the son of a New York firefighter, whose accent stands out in an Army culture that can seem predominantly rural and southern. I tell him I was living in Manhattan on 9/11 and that’s what inspired me to join the Army. We discover a shared devotion to the Mets; he says Mike Piazza’s home run during the first Mets home game post-9/11 was “the most important swing of my life.” 

The next morning I speak with Cody Nolin, the former sailor. I see more of myself in his humorously detached attitude toward this experience—he’s older than most students and is now on his 105th day after recycling Mountains and Swamp—than in upbeat students like Sakbun. He says that, during the march, his “shoulders felt like they were ripping out of their sockets, but when you have a tattoo that says Suck It Up, Buttercup, you can’t quit.”

I ask if he’s joking about the tattoo. Nope.

T. J. Decker leading a swamp patrol
T. J. Decker leading a swamp patrol (Photo: Nate Bressler)

Santa Rosa Island

April 20

The final mission will be a raid on a “weapons facility” located on Santa Rosa Island, just across the Santa Rosa Sound from Wynnehaven Beach. The forecast is for a sunny, pleasant evening with a nearly full moon. Dominguez is tapped as a squad leader. He still needs his go, aware that failure will delay the reunion with his wife and kids by nearly two months. 

It takes about an hour to row across the whitecapped sound in Zodiacs. The platoon settles into a concealed position amid sand dunes to the west of warehouse-like buildings that are reported to contain enemy troops. The students put on their night-­vision devices and begin creeping toward the objective.

At 8:30 P.M., a squad positioned behind a sand berm initiates a withering fusillade of fire. Two assault squads bound forward, quickly clearing a pair of small sheds before stalling a bit outside the warehouse. There’s a cacophony of automatic-weapons fire, soldiers shouting, and RIs barking commands. 

The RIs shake their heads at what has been a spotty performance. One mutters, “There is zero control, just a bunch of fuckheads running around a building.” My thoughts turn to Dominguez, and I overhear an RI describe his uneven performance. “I am torn on Dom,” he says. “Do I want to fuck this guy’s life up for the next five weeks?” 

I recall a number of conversations with RIs who expressed concern about the potential for dilution of quality among Ranger graduates because of pressure to produce more of them. It costs a lot to send a soldier through Ranger School, and some have argued that, if most aren’t graduating, that money is being wasted. Most RIs believe the Ranger tab should mean something, though. One, with an icy expression, explains that his son could be serving under these officers and NCOs someday. He owes it to everybody to make sure graduates are equipped with the skills to succeed in combat. 

The shooting eventually stops inside the warehouse, the enemy eliminated. The RIs declare the exercise complete and tell the platoon to huddle up for their final group AAR. First Sergeant Lovett delivers a fiery speech, telling them, “Don’t think you are Johnny Badass now and know everything. Your job is to keep people alive, and you need to continually work to get better at it. You should walk out of here with your head held high and be proud. This is a hard school to pass. But that’s all it was. A hard school.”

The students are dropped off for a final three-mile ruck march back to barracks. Just after midnight, approaching floodlights that illuminate the camp’s entrance, they shout the final words of their creed in unison: “Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission though I be the lone survivor.”

The exultant mood is not shared by all, however. Dominguez soon learns he was a no-go on this final patrol and will need to recycle. Exhausted and demoralized, he’ll collapse on his bunk, waiting a day before making his way to one of Camp Rudder’s antiquated pay phones to explain to his wife and young children that he won’t be coming home anytime soon.

Ranger candidate Isaac Chalcraft
Ranger candidate Isaac Chalcraft (Photo: Nate Bressler)
The author taking notes during the class’s final mission in Florida
The author taking notes during the class’s final mission in Florida (Photo: Nate Bressler)

Earning the Tab

April 24

Two nights before graduation, as the students clean their gear, I head into town for dinner at a restaurant called the Cantina, sun streaming through the windows from Columbus’s tree-lined Broadway. 

My thoughts drift to a similar night 15 years ago, when I had dinner here with some Army friends, celebrating our graduation. One of them was Derek Hines, who had been captain of the Army hockey team. He was full of charisma, and I’ll never forget the fun we had bar-crawling through Columbus.

He would soon deploy to Afghanistan with the 173rd Airborne Division. Derek was killed on September 1, 2005, bravely returning fire even after he’d been fatally shot. The memory reinforces the reality that what I watched over the past two months wasn’t a game. These men and women could soon be headed for combat.

The big day dawns with lingering clouds, but by the time the 195 graduates—only 69 of whom went through without recycling—gather alongside the famous body of water called Victory Pond, it’s sunny and hot. No one from Isaac Chalcraft’s troubled home makes the trip, but his “Army family” shows up in force, nine members of his platoon surprising him by driving seven hours from Fort Campbell.

For me the moment is bittersweet. It seems like only yesterday that I was one of them, enjoying perhaps the proudest day of my life, looking forward to my military career with enthusiasm and some trepidation. Now a decade removed, I look back with pride, yet I’m haunted by an awareness that the sacrifice of so many failed to deliver the results our leaders had advertised.

I also realize that I’ll miss this world, its camaraderie, physical challenges, and exposure to the power and beauty of nature. Most of all, I’ll miss being inspired by young men and women pushing themselves beyond their limits. T. J. Decker put it well. “I love going to these tough schools because they suck,” he told me, “and you’re living like a savage, but they identify what you’ve been lacking and make you a stronger human.” Following the ceremony, he’ll say goodbye to Taylor England. Rarely more than a stone’s throw apart for months, they’ll soon be separated by 6,000 miles, since she’s bound for Italy, while he’ll return to Okinawa. Decker will then crack a celebratory Coors Lite with his Ranger-qualified Special Forces father, who, this time, doesn’t try to one-up his son.

Meanwhile, Covey Landen, discovered by a recruiter while he was working at McDonald’s, will spend six weeks treading water at Camp Merrill, the result of his costly handful of Skittles. He’ll take it stoically and graduate with the next class.

After his initial disappointment with patrols, Julio Dominguez will impress RIs while leading his fellow recycles as they repeat Swamp Phase and will join Landen at Victory Pond with the next class, where he’ll finally see his wife and kids. 

Months later, I’m driving through Nebraska farmland when I remember that I had an appointment to call a former Ranger named Neil Forbes. As I discover when we talk, we went through the training only a year apart, and we’re soon trading Ranger School stories and joking about mutual friends.

Before we finish, I ask him a question I asked everyone: How did you stay motivated during the dark times every Ranger student experiences? 

He pauses for a considerable time, then it becomes clear that he’s choked up. I have no idea why. 

He takes a few deep breaths before telling me that he wrote the initials JQ, followed by 9/11/01, inside his Ranger School patrol cap. He did so in honor of Jimmy Quinn, brother of a close friend we realize we have in common, Joe Quinn. Jimmy lost his life in one of the World Trade Center towers that day.

Neil says that when times got tough at Ranger School, he would look at those initials, remember Jimmy, and think to himself, How bad can this be? I am still here, still breathing, and this pain is a reminder that I am still pushing myself.

Lead Photo: Nate Bressler

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