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Friday, September 16th, 2005

In the Company of Rangers

After a couple of days of crashing virtually as soon as I get back into my hotel room, maybe I can finish this post:

I’m here in Savannah, Georgia (safe now from the threat of Hurricane Ophelia), working at Hunter Army Airfield. I had an experience today [Well, Tuesday] that’s definitely worthy of note – I ate lunch in the mess hall of the 1st Battalion, 75th Rangers Regiment.

Have to go into a little history here. After totally bombing in my first year of college (83-84, University of Delaware, Chemical Engineering – the cads actually put such an academic demand on me that I had to work to learn), I took time off from school and joined the Army. Well, I chickened out and joined the Army Reserve, at least then – later I would go Active Duty. It was all at the suggestion of my girlfriend at the time and intended future wife, Donna, and it directly lead to our break up (another long story.) Deciding to throw myself into the fire, I elected to join the military as an infantryman – possibly influenced by a character in an episode of The White Shadow, but more likely by The Green Berets by Robin Moore – another hugely influential book given to me by my father. I did initially sign up to join a reserve SF group, but was rebuffed due to my lack of US citizenship, and was persuaded to go Infantry as a good preparation for SF by my recruiter. Good thing, too. Turns out I was signing up for an SF group support role, not the real thing, and going Infantry really was the better way to work towards becoming an A-team member.

Anyways, I was looking for a transformative leap from book smart to the school of hard knocks, and I found it. Instead of going the regular two summers, part time, regular Reserve training route, I went Active Duty for training and ended up in Fort Benning, Georgia, thrust in with Regular Army soldiers, taking Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training all at once. As a transformative leap, you couldn’t do much better. The drill sergeants at Fort Benning in August took a particular pleasure in turning the dusty red Georgia clay into clogging red mud by the addition of recruits’ sweat. We also learned where all the dips were in the uneven floor of our World War II era barracks at Harmony Church, because when the drills really got us going, pools would form there.

It was there that I had a really insightful moment. I was doing pushups; a lot of them. I was pushed out. A drill sergeant saw me fading out and decided to give me a little personal attention, which came in the form of the most aggressive non-contact posture you could possibly imagine. There I was, limp noodles for arms, and he squatted over me and started laying down such an overwhelming barrage of invective that the paint started peeling off on the nearest building. I had really felt like I had reached the ultimate exhaustion; that it was physically impossible to get my muscles to do any more; and that when he stooped over me he was wasting his time. But he seemd to think it was worth the effort, and as he yelled and screamed at me, in desparation I put all my might into the effort, just to show him how impossible it was – and did another pushup. Barely noting my accomplishment, he demanded more – not just one more, but three.

Oh no, I thought to myself (if that ultra-panicked, crisis mode brain static can be considered thinking), I don’t know where that came from, but there can’t be any more. Compelled by the continuing vitriolic “encouragement”, I tried again – and did another pushup. Without relapse, my drill continued his assault on my personal integrity and the sexual preferences on my ancestors, and once again – I did another pushup. Unsatisfied, he relayed his opinion of the sorry state of the trash he had been assigned to convert into Infantrymen, as personified by myself – and I did another pushup. With a grunt, the most cursory acknowledgement of my success – that time-honored stimulus that has caused men to thrust themselves into the brunt for the respect of their peers and their leaders – he turned and focused himself on the next man.

I can’t remember who that man was, but he taught me something special. I would see it epitomized many years later in John Steakley’s book Armor:

You are
what you do
when it counts

I’ve used that experience many times to get myself through the roughest parts of my life – the knowledge that, when all seemed lost and effort was worthless, something could still be achieved and it was worth trying. At the time, it seemed an almost insurmountable feat to just finish Infantry school, let alone Airborne and Ranger schools, and then going to a Ranger battalion. But as I progressed in my military career, I discovered many ways in which I was able to overcome obstacles and succeed, and although I was tempted at times to change my direction and apply for a transfer to a Ranger battalion, I elected to stay on the shortest course I could find to SF. Thanks to an inopportune broken foot, I never achieved that goal, even thought I came to know that I was not only capable, I would have been good at it. I chose not to go back and finish, but to move on the other things I wanted to do.

Many would call me a wannabe, and in the company of Rangers, I felt awe and respect for the men that had done what they set out to do. I feel a little sad and nostalgic for the things that I had wanted to do and didn’t; and disappointment in the way things have turned out. But I also have a sort of peace with myself. After all, as the British SAS know, “Who dares wins.”

Posted by Greg in Posts About Me

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