Embracing The Suck
The weight of my Ruck pinned to the back of neck forced me to stare at my feet. Moving at a nauseating pace, beads of sweat poured off my Ranger patrol cap and down onto my olive drab jungle boots. I attempted to time my steps with my breath, looking for some semblance of rhythm in what seemed like chaos, a sure sign I was at my breaking point. We were on our last patrol in Ranger school, a combat leaders course that was legendary for being one of the toughest military schools in the world. Ranger school was started after World War 2, and it’s mission was to train 17 Ranger Companies and prepare them for the Rigors of Combat. Each phase of Ranger school replicated an inhospitable environment that soldiers would potentially face in war. The first phase was conducted at Fort Benning and was in the sand hills of rural Georgia, rolling hills with sparse pine-a breeding ground for ticks, chiggers, and poison Ivy. Second phase is in the remote mountains of Dahlonega, Georgia, a break from the heat and humidity of Benning, at Camp Merrill this phase began with a brutal ascent of Mount Yonah. The last phase takes place in the swamps of Florida, where water crossings submerged you up to your neck in murky alligator and snake infested waters. In addition to the difficult terrain you had to operate in, you did so with minimal sleep (3-4hrs a night) and minimal food. The average student loses 20-30lbs and only half that start finish Ranger school successfully.
We received intel that the last movement would be brutal and we would know we were on the last hump because we would see a light coming from a water tower near a base in the distance. Although we were yet to see a light, I knew we were nearing the end because it seemed as if the entire school of Ranger students-consolidated on this particular road march.
We had already been in the field for two weeks and I was running on auto pilot. With little to no food, we had burned up all the reserve of body fat months ago. When your body starts to burn muscle as fuel you start to smell like urine, and although we were immune to the smell I’m sure you could smell us a mile away.
I felt pain in every part of my body, my toes were numb from the brutally cold nights in Mountain phase, and my back was scarred from the metal frames of my Ruck sack repeatedly grinding in my back. The end, the eventual conclusion gave me a glimmer of hope it would be over soon and the pain-although significant was temporary. I heard commotion behind me as one of the men in my platoon collapsed on the side of the road. The formation halted its movement, we looked like overweighted pack mules swaying back and forth under the burdening weight of our rucks and guns. The Ranger Instructor ran to the student screaming, in between expletives coming from the Ranger Instructor I heard “I Quit-I’m done” for a second I thought I might be hallucinating, which was a normal occurrence with no sleep and little food. “I can’t do it” I heard in a strained and weak voice, “Ok Ranger, not a problem, leave your shit and get on the back of the truck.” And that was that, his equipment was distributed amongst us. His 60lb Ruck, weapon, and radio was added to others around him-burdening the already belabored element, he loaded a troop transport vehicle and we continued movement. I was in shock and total disbelief, we had gone months, suffering and over coming so many obstacles and here we were, potentially on the last movement in the hardest school and this guy just quit. How could he lay in the back of a truck while the rest of us suffered, I could never do that I thought.
It was harder to start cold, all the aching and sore muscles were now stiff and rigid. Locking your knees while standing still was a technique to prevent you from going to muscle failure with 100lbs of Equipment on your back, but it always took its toll on your joints. As we started to get warm and step out I saw a guy in our row a few rangers up collapse on the edge of the road, it looked like an enemy sniper took him out-his feet flew above his head as he crashed in a loud “Bang!” screaming in agony. As if it was rehearsed one of the Ranger instructors was at his side immediately, “Ranger! You good?” The Ranger student rolled his ankle, severely spraining it with all the weight of his 240B Machine Gun breaking his fall. I could see in the shadows of red light flashlights and the full lum of the moonlight, what appeared to be the Ranger student attempting to get back on his feet. He had guts and was determined, but his ankle wouldn’t hold his weight. After some conversation that seemed to be taking place, the Ranger was directed to get on the truck. This time is was different, this time it wasn’t a quitter-he was just injured. Reluctantly he dropped his mission essential gear. A Ranger behind him stepped forward and took his radio, but no one picked up his machine gun off the road. At 22lbs the 240B was the most critical weapon system in a patrols arsenal, but with all the additional gear we carried, carrying an additional weapon in your arms could mean injury, and more suck than what was already distributed. At over 200lbs I was a bigger guy, and although I was already carrying a M249 Machine Gun myself I felt obligated to step forward, so I did. I slung the “pig” over my neck and tried to get it comfortable as we began our movement again.
The weight was nearly unbearable, it affected my gait, my breathing, my mindset, and I felt an overwhelming sense of uncertainty. How far could I do this? What if I got hurt? For the first time I actually felt I was capable of breaking, mentally and physically, and only an additional 22lbs made that difference. This would be a gut check.
Rumors were circulating through the patrols that the last road march was a 12 miler. A long straight road, with no real elevation change all the way back to base. At the base was a tall water tower that had a flashing light. The light in the distance would be the end of that patrol and the end of Ranger school, if we finished the road march, we would successfully finish Ranger school. I always loved intel, because it gave you hope for the future, but intel was often wrong. I sometimes wondered if the intel we received and circulated like gossiping children was deliberately and falsely injected to teach us lessons, only time would tell.
Each step was excruciating, the additional weight shifted my feet forward in my tattered and worn boots, and I felt the skin literally peeling off my toes where they met the inside of my boots.
I tried to maintain a pace count by counting every time my right foot struck the pavement. A total of 77 strikes of my right foot to the ground meant 100m, and there was 10 of these every Kilometer. It was an effective way to cross reference your map and your actual location on earth, giving you confidence that you were where you thought you should be. I tried to do this to keep my mind occupied more than anything, but the pain kept snapping me in and out of my pace count. It was like getting punched the face while trying to read a book it wasn’t working.
Occasionally I would gauge the distance of the man in front of me. If you fell behind and then had to run ahead to catch up in such a large element you would cause a slinky effect. This would cause everyone behind you to have to do the same and make it more difficult to maintain a pace for longer distances.
I was trying to find a rhythm, but it was seemingly impossible. With the constant pain, trying to maintain my pace, and the imbalance of weight I was struggling. My stride began to shorten as my hamstrings tightened, I was forced to increase the overall pace to make up for the gap, which increased my heart rate even more. I had a one quart canteen of water on my kit, but it was trapped under the nylon webbing of my sling so water wasn’t an option. I had my M4 Carbine rifle pinned to belt line, a Machine Gun over my neck, a PRC 126 radio slung over my arm, a tactical chest rig full of ammo and water, a 60lb Ruck on my back, and from from my estimation about 8-10 more miles to go.
As the pain overwhelmed me and I started to get angry, I cringed and grunted out loud and used that anger to propel me ahead. With my head and upper body forward I ran ahead, getting side by side from the Ranger in front of me. I would surge ahead, then back off, surge ahead and back off, it’s the only sense of structure I could retain in the chaos that was this movement-then it happened. As I surged ahead in the darkness with only the shadows of red light guiding my feet I felt as if my feet were kicked out from underneath me. I attempted to put my hands in front of me to protect my face, but my hands were behind the barrel and butt stock of my slung machine gun and couldn’t find their way fast enough. I felt the impact of my gun first, then my body as it crashed to the asphalt road-it sounded like a bomb went off. Because everything was retained to my body nothing came undone and for a moment I thought I was dead.
Oddly enough the pain was subsided, I wasn’t sure if it was shock of the fall or if I was paralyzed. I tripped over a small crack in the road, impacted the road face first with all the weight coming with me and for the first time since we started everything was still, silent, and actually nice. An echoing of a voice slowly brought me back from the comfort I had found roadside and it became more refined an distinguishable, “....Ranger, are you ok!?” I had to ask myself, I think I may have said it out loud-“...”R-r-r-roger!!!” I yelled without really accessing any physical damage. As I attempted to move I couldn’t, I was like an upside down turtle stuck on my back. The weight of the Ruck pinned now to the back of my head held me down like a professional wrestler-face down in the road.” Two of my buddies ran over and helped me get to my feet, I did a sensation inspection of my body and I didn’t really feel pain. I wasn’t sure if it was the adrenaline, the temporary relief of the
pre-existing pain, or I was just to tired to care-I was good to go. The Ranger Instructor laughed, “damn Ranger I thought you hit an IED.” “Negative Sergeant I was just taking a break.” All the guys around me laughed and the RI chuckled, “no time for breaks Ranger.” As he stepped out to restart our labored pain train.
As I grabbed my bearing I lifted my head and saw in the distance what appeared to be a light. It was dim and fading in and out between branches of trees, but it was definitely a light high above anything else-it had to be the tower. As I pondered the end I felt an overwhelming comfort, something I never felt before. It was as if I was numb and that....
hope you enjoyed the raw unedited version of things to come!