I interviewed Pete for the first time on the tenth of February 2017. We were standing in his shop surrounded by various tools, agricultural implements and an odd firearm or two. It was a relaxed atmosphere, a case of the infamous Natural Light beer was open and Pete would take an occasional swig and worry the tobacco in his lip with his tongue.
Pete began with a rough description of Ranger School itself, as seen through his eyes. He described it as “the hardest leadership school in the United States Military.” He went on to state that the school maintains about a sixty percent failure rate, and he asked me to confirm that he was right on the Ranger Training Brigade webpage. Later on I checked, and he had his facts straight, the school has an exact 59.5% failure rate. Pretty high.
With justifiable pride, he described it as the “School of Schools.” However, he followed this statement with the perception of veterans of the 75th Ranger Regiment. He said guys there called it “Stupid School.” The reason for that was because in the Regiment, it was expected that you passed Ranger School. It was a “rite of passage,” according to Pete. In the Army as a whole the Ranger tab sets a soldier apart, in Ranger Regiment it was par for the course.
Pete attended Ranger School as a Private First Class. He went on to describe how the Ranger tab set lower enlisted soldiers apart within his home unit, the Ranger Battalion. If a lower enlisted soldier in Ranger Regiment wore a Ranger tab, he was granted certain privileges. He no longer had to ride on the pile of rucksacks in the center of a truck, he could “smoke” other privates, and other soldiers had to address him while standing in the position of Parade Rest. (“Smoking” is the act of giving a soldier corrective training by means of physical exertion.) Also, a “tabbed” Ranger was viewed as ready for leadership positions. A tabbed PFC or Specialist was viewed as a junior NCO; they were frequently made leaders of fire teams upon successful completion of Ranger School.
He returned to the subject, which was the school itself. Pete said that at the school “no one wears rank” or “patches from the unit you’re from” but that everyone knew who the “Batt Boys” were, or soldiers from the 75th Ranger Regiment. The separate Battalions that make up Ranger Regiment are known as “Batts.” Pete said even though no one wore identifiers, you could always tell who were from West Point, the 82nd Airborne, OCS, and who the officers were, and who were enlisted.
Oddly enough, Pete didn’t have much to say about the first four days of Ranger School, which is where the majority of failures occur according to the Ranger Training Brigade Website (36.5%). It could be that he skipped over the hellish first four days because he didn’t think it was hellish, but I don’t know for sure. He began to discuss the meat of the school, the Patrol Phases, and how you could see what position soldiers had held in the Army by what graded positions they were given on the missions.
As an important aside, it must be stressed that leadership assignments in Ranger School are given on a random basis; they can change at any time. This adds to the stress the students are undergoing, and adds an element of unpredictability to the environment. A “fail” grade in leadership can lead to expulsion from the school, or possibly a “recycle” on a phase of training. US Army leadership schools use this as an effective technique across the board, but Ranger School represents the rotating leadership technique at its sadistic best.
Pete continued. “Platoon leaders, platoon sergeants and squad leaders were the hardest graded positions” and the toughest position “depended on what you were doing.” For example, if the soldiers were in a patrol base and you had a “dickhead RI (Ranger Instructor)” and a soldier’s current assignment was Platoon Sergeant, then one of the tasks the Platoon Sergeant would have is making sure he knew how much ammo all of his troops had. The RI would make all of the soldiers “dump their mags in a patrol cap” and he would count each round to make sure the student Platoon Sergeant’s count was accurate.
If the count was wrong by so much as a single round, the student Platoon Sergeant could be graded with a “fail” for his mission which was to report accurate information to his Platoon Leader, another student. Of course, the student Platoon Leader in a patrol base would be in charge of planning the next mission, which had its own unique series of pitfalls.
The platoon leader would call in his squad leaders and plan a mission for whenever. It is important to remember that everyone would be operating on no sleep, and very little food. “It could be a good mission, if he’s a smart guy, and it would be easy.” Then the leadership roles would switch, and someone else would be made the Platoon Leader and he would have to execute the other guy’s plan. This is where the trouble would start. One guy would “collapse the patrol base” and be in charge of movement, the RI’s would change leadership roles again, and another Platoon Leader would have to execute the plan that was hatched two people back.
It was a perfect recipe for confusion, and it reinforced the point that there had better be a rock-solid, simple plan with very little room for misinterpretation. Hungry, tired and pissed-off people would carry out the mission brief.
“You could be screwed by the guy four people back that came up with a shitty plan.”
Pete laughed. “There you are, three hundred meters from the objective, trying to bring everybody up to speed on a plan that you didn’t even make.”
I commented that the school seemed to set people up to fail.
Pete disagreed. He brought up the “Batt Boys” and the significance of the non-graded positions at the school. He mentioned team leaders; there are two in a squad. Soldiers from Ranger Battalion would frequently be used in these non-graded positions to help their fellow students pass the mission. Of course, if the person who needed help were a “dirtbag,” then help would not necessarily be forthcoming. Pete did say, though, that “Batt Boys” were expected to help people, he mentioned West Point students in particular.
That point brought him back to “Stupid School,” in that he perceived that soldiers from Ranger Battalion were expected to perform at a level much higher than other students at Ranger School. One of his perceived missions at Ranger School was to help other soldiers to pass.
Having already served awhile in a Ranger Battalion, Pete’s expectations for a school with a sign that read “Not for the weak or fainthearted” were pretty high. He “feared the smoking” given to him by his platoon mates in his Ranger Batt far more than any punishment he received by an RI at Ranger School, and he seemed oddly disappointed by this. On the last day of Ranger School, as he was sitting in the wood line waiting to graduate, he recalled thinking, “Is that it? Is that all there is?”
Pete feared failure back at the Battalion much more than “this bullshit school.”
It says something about life in the Ranger Regiment that one of the hardest of schools in the US Military, which Ranger School is, made little impression on Pete.
He spat in his can and drank some more beer. And then he proceeded to tell me Ranger School stories.
Stay tuned, readers.