DDLLC 2016-006 The 50% Ranger

“I’m going to count backwards from ten. If you can’t stop shaking, if you can’t stop your teeth from chattering, you better let your Ranger Instructor (RI) know right away?” “We’ve already had someone lose a toe. It ain’t worth it.” Finally, here I was at the age of twenty-three, a Ranger student. I wanted to ’embrace the suck’, and I was getting my fill of it right here, right now. Up and to a few weeks ago I had been in the best shape of my life. I was running six miles consistently in the low forties and I was roughly one hundred and fifty pounds of pure muscle. I’d been preparing myself for the rigors of the US Army Ranger school since I was fifteen. Now, as we stood on this dirt road at zero dark thirty soaked and chilled to the bone, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. “Three, two, one, stop.” Crap I was cold. But this is what keeps you alert, and beats focusing on your near starvation. This is why you came here. These thoughts keep ringing through my head. They keep me from falling dead asleep, literally. It was 1989. It was mid March and we were somewhere in the mountains of Georgia. “Raise your hand if you couldn’t stop shaking or if you think you need a medic.” We hesitated. We’d been duped before. Was this some kind of mind trick designed to bring us all more pain? No hands were raised. The white lights of the RIs beamed through the dark and fog. Then, one, two, three eventually all our hands went up, including mine. “You bunch of sorry school girls.” One voice shouted at us. “All right, get these Rangers into the warm-up tent.” Groggy, slogging along, barely able to lift my head, we route stepped into a warm dry dimly lit tent. Heat was heaven. “Get your boots off, get your socks dry and don’t fall asleep.” Yeah, right, I thought. I may have lasted a full thirty seconds and then dead silence. Good night.

Slipping instantly into REM I begin to dream about my youth. I am a child of two fathers. My mom and dad split when I was ten and both remarried soon thereafter. Dad and stepdad raised me to be a man. They imparted fishing, hunting, farming, mechanical, firearm, and all other sorts of skills of manhood each their own way. The cold is leaving my body. I’m blissfully falling deeper and deeper into my dreams, I’m eleven years old now, it’s dark, I’m sitting in a deer stand near Fredericksburg, Texas, I’m alone, the rain falls softly on the roof, like angels’ harps. The field mice are scurrying around at my feet and up and down the walls. I’m afraid, but I control it. My 30-30 is resting across my lap, I’m shivering, I’m trying to control my fear, and I’m begging for sunrise. Everything in the early twilight, a stump or a tree limb grows horns. I’m anxious. I want a grande white tail hill-country buck. It’ll be worth the early morning rising, the long hike through the woods, along with cold wet feet and hands, to get a clean shot at a nice rack. He steps out of nowhere, like a ghost, he just appears in the morning light. I ease my rifle up through the blind. I’m careful not to bump anything that will make a sound. I no longer feel any cold. If anything, I’m suddenly flush. I’m trying to calm myself. My heart is pumping stronger and louder. I have to force my breathing to remain slow and steady. I can’t afford to rush this. I know he may catch my scent and bolt, but I can’t allow myself to spook him. I press my cheek into the stock. I snug the butt into my shoulder. I close my left eye. I find him in my scope. I lay the cross hairs just above his left shoulder. I don’t want to wound him. I don’t want to destroy good venison. I want him to drop dead right there in his tracks. Steady now, squeeze at the extent of your exhale, keep your eye on the target; bam! He’s down. My heart is racing and my ears are ringing. I did it. Sit still, he may jump and run, let him pass peacefully. A single wag of his tail and he’s done. I wait, just like I’ve been taught. I approach; his steam is rising. My knife is out. I am at-the-ready for his attack or for dressing. The fun is over, now the cleaning, quartering, and processing begins.

As I drift deeper and deeper into the spirit world I dream more about what a long haul it has been just to get here. In high school, I would seek book covers from army recruiters. My books were wrapped with the moonlit scene of two Rangers rappelling out of a Huey into some distant jungle. My girlfriend’s brother was a Ranger. I dream of first meeting him. He came home from college over Christmas break. I idolized him in my mind. I told him “I want to be a Ranger”. He surprisingly replied, “don’t, it’s not worth it”. Oh man, did that fire me up even more. My dreams speed ahead to 1983, I’m joining the army ROTC program at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. I volunteer for their cadet Ranger Company. We were the committed bunch in every sense of the word. We road marched, patrolled, fired thousands of rounds of ammunition, and practiced all the tasks in the Ranger Handbook. We even competed against other colleges.

Still fast asleep, I relive a freshman memory from college. I was scheduled to attend the US Army Airborne school. At the last minute my seat goes to a cadet with more seniority.  I am pissed. Karma strikes as the air is stolen from his chute on his fourth jump. His chute collapses and he plummets more than forty-feet to the ground. It takes five successful exits from the aircraft to graduate. He doesn’t get his wings. Instead he is severely broken. I am no longer pissed. I am thankful. The next summer I earn my wings.

A year passes by in my dream; I’m a paratrooper and a cadet spending part of the summer on Fort Riley, Kansas. There, my wings stand out and give me an edge over my peers. My sights remain fixed on branching Infantry and earning a Ranger Tab. I am also remembering my time serving with the National Guard while still a cadet.  I am working as a platoon leader in Cuero, Texas. I maneuver and fire my M60A3 tanks over drill weekends across the wild west of Fort Hood. All the while, the rest of my Sigma Chi fraternity brothers party-on.

“Rangers, you have two-minutes to get your socks and boots on and fall-in outside.” The dreaming is complete, the nightmare continues. I’m almost too sore to move, my feet fight back against my damp socks, and they hang on every torn blister. My boots feel as though they are filled with broken glass. Standing up, rucking up, and shuffling into the darkness requires enormous effort. Groans of the other men surround me. In the darkness we assemble, receive hushed instruction and move out stealthfully, slipping silently into the forest. I’m right again now; right where I want to be.

Sunrise is approaching, chutes are delivered, and we rig for a jump. The Blackhawks approach and land. We hobble to our bird. Our heavy-laden rucksacks hang upside down from our reserves. I’m assisted up onto the floor. I spin and face outward, shoulder-to-shoulder with four brothers from my chalk. Our feet dangle below. The helicopter rises like a high-speed elevator and then makes a forward thrust over the tree tops. Man it feels good to be riding instead of walking. My hands are frozen. I contemplate how I will manage to pull my reserve. The helo rises over a ridge line and then the valley below opens up. Our bird rocks back and settles into a hover. It seems low to me, but the jumpmaster yells “go”. I push off. The prop blast flips me upside down. I count, ‘one thousand, two thousand, … six thousand, pop’. I am violently right sided. ‘Okay, my feet are facing down, I’m not twisted, firm grip on my risers’. Now, where’s that tiny drop-zone? There it is. I must put the wind at my back to make it. I hear tree limbs crashing and Rangers cursing. I’m going too fast, I reach down to yank my two-point release. It sticks. Only one side releases. Here comes the ground. ‘Uh oh’, I think to myself, this needs to be perfect. I hit, feet then forehead as I flip over my own rucksack. I’m sliding on my face. I twist and yank my harness releases. The chute pulls away and collapses. My head is bleeding, I’ve swallowed a fair amount of dirt, but nothing is broken. “That was the most bad ass Parachute Landing Fall (PLF) I’ve ever seen said the Ranger next to me. “Yeah it was, hooah” I reply.

A few days later the mountain phase was wrapping up and we would be off to Florida. Not for me, however. I’d break my ankle after the last patrol in Dahlonega. After more than a month doing tedious tasks in the Gulag, I’d head off to my duty assignment at Fort Bragg. There, I’d seek to return one day to Ranger training, but the First Gulf War would kick-off in the Middle East. Fate would make that my one shot. As I advanced through the years and pay grades, I frequently met other 50% Rangers and each holds a special connection in my heart. Their stories of illness and injury are close to mine. We don’t share a tab, but we do share a bond. I know they each try harder in all that they do. They feel as I have, that they must overcome their one failure along the way and work doubly hard to prove they continue to possess the Ranger spirit inside. To the fathers and step-fathers and 50% Rangers out there, my beret goes off to you. Hooah!