Limits

As we stood around and Pete shared his tales of Ranger School between swigs of Natural Light and the occasional tobacco-laced gob of spit, the thought struck me that everyone has his or her limits. That applied no less to an elite soldier like Pete. We had both seen those physical and mental boundaries in training and in combat.

Napoleon said “Poverty, privation, and misery are the school of the good soldier.” By those measures, Pete was an excellent soldier indeed.

Each phase of Ranger School brought new forms of punishment. Pete started at Darby, at FT Benning Georgia, where there was a five-mile run, the Army Survival Water Test, and a twelve-mile ruck. Then his class moved on to desert phase where they did “long walks between objectives.” Then they moved on to mountain phase where they did rappelling and mountaineering. Finally, there was Florida phase, where the students would finish in the swamps.

“The purpose of Ranger School is teaching people to lead in a combat environment. Because you can’t put them in combat, you take away their sleep, and you would take away their food to put everyone on edge.” He paused and continued. “People get like zombies.”

“You try to stay awake, but you’re asleep, and you don’t know you’re asleep.” Sleep was the enemy, being caught sleeping could result in flunking out of the course. According to Pete, the worst times were when you were laying in the prone. However, he was quick to add that he had fallen asleep when kneeling, or even standing or walking. “I’ve seen people fall asleep, and fall onto the ground… they’d stay asleep, after they just fell over.”

“I had started down the zombie path.” Pete was on a patrol base, pulling security. “Somehow I fell asleep. When I woke up, I was standing in the middle of a road.” This meant big trouble for Pete. He was outside his perimeter without his weapon, position unknown. “I had no idea where I was. This was an oh-shit moment at Ranger School.” He went on to say that if he had been missed, he was “fucked.”

Pete started walking up the road, and the endless ten or fifteen seconds he walked before he saw other Ranger students was “terror.” He had no idea how he had gotten to where he was, and he was frightened by what had just happened. Eventually, as low-key as he could, he found some guys from his squad, located his gear and weapon, and went back to pulling security as if nothing had happened. It was a close call. “I didn’t get caught.”

Pete mentions that they called his class the “Sunshine Class,” because they didn’t get rained on until the last phase, Florida phase. Then the rain started. “And I mean rain,” Pete says with emphasis. “In Ranger School, you’re not allowed to put on that poncho you’ve been carrying around with you in your rucksack, because the RI didn’t say you could.” It was November, and it was cold. “It sucked. You’re laying there in the prone, and water is running down the crack of your ass.” Pete was sick of lying there, soaking wet, with a thousand other places he’d rather be. A lightbulb went off in his head. He had a trash bag in his ruck, everyone was required to have one. So he got his out and put it on under his t-shirt, no-one could see a thing. He began to warm up, his misery factor ticked downwards slightly. “I was snuggly warm, like a hug from your mother.”

“People noticed what I had done.” Before he knew it, lots of people were putting on trash bags underneath their clothes. He didn’t care, “I didn’t think it would go bad.”

But it did. That night, as the students were getting into boats to paddle down a river, a Ranger Instructor was giving the students a hard time. He bumped into a student, and he heard the noise of a trash bag rustle beneath their clothes. He grabbed the student, heard the trash bag, and said “What the fuck?” The RI realized that everyone probably had the unauthorized trash bag beneath their clothes. He started grabbing students by their shirts, and if he heard the crinkle, he singled them out for punishment.

Pete knew he had to do something. Something that no-one wanted to do was to jump in the cold water first to paddle the boat. Pete really didn’t want to face the punishment that the increasingly irate RI was threatening, so he jumped in the water and swam to the back of the boat, unscathed and undiscovered. “I got away with it, I didn’t get caught.” He managed to get the trash bag off in the dark, he left it in the river.

In desert phase, “You would start moving as soon as the sun went down and the rattlesnakes came out.” The students would walk twelve to fifteen klicks, fully loaded, to an objective. Then they would walk to the next one, over and over again. Pete could hear singing in his head, he thought he was losing his mind. The walking was endless, he was bored and a little bit crazy by the end of it.

Florida phase seemed to have made the biggest impression on Pete, he came back to it again. The surging ice-cold swamp water made an impression on him, “you were in it continuously.” One night they were in chest deep water again. The RI that accompanied the students called into range safety (called “Watertown”) because the students had to build a rope bridge. Range safety called back and said that the students weren’t allowed in the water, it posed a real hypothermia risk. “Motherfucker, I’d been standing in chest deep ice-cold water for hours!” Pete said.

The RI was in trouble, and he knew it. He marched the students up on to a dry road, and they crossed the river via a permanent bridge. Pete’s toenails had mostly fallen out, but one that had not was partially loose and was digging into the toe next to it, every step was agony. His feet were bleeding.

The Ranger Instructor told the students they could turn on their “Ranger TVs.” That meant they could start a fire, one fire per four students. He needed to bring everyone’s body temperatures up. It had been a close call.

Finally, Pete had another bad experience with a rope bridge. He got volunteered to swim the rope across the river and tie off to the tree on the far side. So Pete jumped into the November water with all of his gear and a rope tied around his waist. He successfully managed to tie off, and he stood by. That’s when he heard that Watertown had again forbidden the students from swimming; it was too cold.

Pete was pissed. He was soaking wet and bone-cold; he had made the swim for nothing. He heard the RI call out. “Ranger, swim back over here. We’re not getting wet tonight.” Pete was furious. He told the RI to “Fuck off.” Pete had lost thirty pounds when he had come to the school with none to spare. He was at the end of his endurance. The RI didn’t care. Pete lost the argument; he had to swim back.

In the middle of the river, “he couldn’t do it no more.” His platoon had to pull him in by his rope, they fished him out of the scummy swamp creek like a drowned rat.

On another occasion, a carelessly tossed artillery simulator blew him out of an inflatable raft, with ringing ears and a headache he was at least relieved of the duty of paddling the boat.

By the time he graduated, he was “one scrawny, starved, smelly Ranger.”

Pete had discovered his limits, and he had learned that while the limits were real, one could always find that little bit extra that would help you cross the finish line.

Pete the Ranger showed back up at Ranger Regiment with a Ranger tab sewn to his uniform, he felt like a “god.”

Thus concludes Pete’s Ranger School tale.

More to follow from Pete.

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