Thursday, February 4, 2016

Five reasons I failed Ranger school

Most people learn from their own mistakes, but as my father’s co-worker once told him, “it’s a smart motherfucker who learns from other peoples mistakes.” It is in this spirit that I will open up today about my own failures this past autumn, when I was dropped from Ranger school as a double-no-go on Darby patrol lanes and peers evals (I recycled once, and spent 51 days there in total).

This post is designed for military personnel preparing for Ranger school, so that they might learn from the mistakes I made and better prepare themselves for parts of the school they may not have heard about. It is not designed as a comprehensive guide on how to pass – there are certainly plenty of those in circulation elsewhere – but rather as an opportunity for introspection, which I hope others may find incidentally helpful. If you’re a civilian, you may not understand some of the terminology I employ, so bear with me.

Here’s five reasons I failed Ranger school.

1. My tactical knowledge was completely inadequate. My branch is Quartermaster, I did not get the chance to attend a pre-Ranger program, and at the time I showed up to Ranger school, I had only been in the Army for four months. I came in with no tactical exposure outside of ROTC patrol lanes and two weeks of convoy ops at Quartermaster BOLC. To put it mildly, Ranger patrols are a whole different beast. It wasn’t just the elaborate steps I that I had to memorize; little things that other Rangers knew like the back of their hand (like how to mount the tripod on the M240B, or how to emplace a Claymore mine, or how to load the frequency into the handheld radio) were totally new to me. My expertise and domain knowledge were severely lacking, so I spent the entire first cycle of Darby playing catch up. As anyone who has ever attended Ranger school will attest, it’s not a very conducive learning environment. My first few lanes were an absolute abortion, and although I got much better towards the end, it ultimately proved too large a hole to dig myself out of.

Lesson for would-be Rangers: unless you’re coming straight from IBOLC (where they teach you all that stuff) or an 11B MOS, study up. They have YouTube videos teaching you how to do a lot of the basics that I didn’t find until after. This is just as important as physical preparation in my opinion. It will really give you a leg up.

2. I had tremendous difficulty moving at night. Ranger school was my first time using what the Army calls NODS (Night Optical Devices), commonly called Night Vision Goggles or NVG’s. I went in the late fall when daylight is short, and patrol lanes would run from about 3pm to about 3am, so we wore these devices roughly 70% of the time we were moving through the woods. Prior to Ranger school, I didn’t worry about that too much, because I figured the goggles should be pretty self-explanatory: you put them on, and viola! – you can now see at night. Right?

I soon found out the devices are not that simple. There are all sorts of knobs and levers and clamps that need to be fiddled with if you want the device to attach to your helmet, fall in front of your dominant eye, and stay put without jiggling while you walk, none of which I knew how to attach or adjust. I say dominant eye because they are only worn on one eye (who knew?), while the other is kept open and unaided to help with depth perception. That depth perception needs helping because the lenses can only focus on one depth at a time; they do not allow the eye to seamlessly transition between near and far objects as it does under natural lighting. I had no clue about that either, and no one bothered to tell me until I was halfway through my second time through Darby phase. So for the four and a half weeks prior to then, (and 3 of my 5 patrol lanes) I was stumbling on every log in Georgia with one eye closed, thinking I was just clumsy or scared of the dark or something. This made a hell of a racket, and slowed people down around me, which is not a good way to endear oneself to one’s fellow squad mates.

Lesson for would-be Rangers: Find a set of NODS and practice Night Land Navigation with them, with a heavy ruck on your back, in the woods. If this isn’t possible, at least practice clamping them onto your helmet in the dark. Turn them over in your hands until you know their every bump and latch and lens by touch. Make this muscle memory, because you won’t be allowed to violate light discipline just to fiddle with them during lanes.

3. I was far too focused on myself, and not nearly focused enough on the others in my squad. I am very much an introvert, and especially so under stressful conditions. I am at my best when I have some time alone each day to clear my head, unwind, and get organized. Being around the same group of people 22 hours a day did not allow for that. The result was that I tended to withdraw from the group and be antisocial, to the point where I was dissociable from the rest. Whereas other people de-stressed by socializing, and leaned on each other for motivation during rough times, I internalized it all, which meant I became more and more reserved as things became more and more stressful. That’s not a good way to make friends, and it’s certainly not a good way to lead.

Part of the problem was the way I prepared. In the weeks leading up to Ranger school, I approached the course with the attitude of a runner training for a super-marathon: bracing myself for a daunting feat of individual endurance. I created a daily motivation book, for example, full of quotes and stories designed to pump me up for the day’s challenges. I spend many hours ruck marching to prepare my body and mind for the rigors they would endure. I researched basic infantry tactics to bolster my knowledge of what I would be tested on. Whatever happened, I resolved firmly to myself that I would not quit for want of personal comfort, so that upon the completion of the course, I could prove to the world that I was tough enough for battle. In so doing, I imagined the entire course as a self-centered exercise of personal willpower. Sure enough, I did exceedingly well in those parts of Ranger school that required heart and grit and determination not to quit (like RAP week, the ruck march, general pain tolerance, etc).

But I soon found that personal willpower is not enough if you cannot motivate those around you as well. Once you pass the initial hell of RAP week, Ranger school is much more a group assessment than an individual test. You cannot merely decline to quit – you must perform as a leader of men. It is not enough to just keep going – you must motivate those around you to keep going as well. You must lead by more than just example, even when not in a leadership position. To be painfully honest, I was poor at that.

Lesson for would-be Rangers: Ignore anyone who tells you Ranger school is just a matter of “not quitting.” I never came close to wanting to quit – it didn’t matter. Be a leader. Be group minded and results oriented. Doing your job is not enough. Make sure everyone else does theirs. And make sure to reach out and try to connect with the others in your squad. If you’re an officer, especially try to connect with the enlisted, and vice versa (you won’t wear rank, but everyone will find out what everyone else is in the early going). If you naturally tend to withdraw from others in the face of a challenge, take proactive steps to counteract that tendency.

4. I was a sleepy ranger. Prior to Ranger school I thought I would be fine operating on very little sleep, because that’s how I lived throughout much of my college years. But in college, you’re only awake if you have to do something important towards your grade, and that something is rarely physical. In Ranger school, they exhaust you physically, and then make you lie on your stomach for hours with nothing to do besides watch out for imaginary bad guys. I accidentally fell asleep in security on multiple occasions, one of which caused the RI to fire my 249 in my face, and contributed to the squad leader failing the lane. I felt horrible, but at the same time didn’t know what else I could have done to stay awake. I did pushups in place. I chewed gargantuan wads of gum. I even tried to recite the prime numbers from 1 to 100, just to keep my mind active. Nothing seemed to help. I hallucinated on several occasions, even while we were up and moving. Maybe it was just a lack of discipline on my part, but everyone else fell asleep at least once or twice as well. I suppose everyone has a biological limit for that sort of thing, and I met mine.

Lesson for would-be Rangers: Sleep whenever you can. Do your best to stay awake when you must. Find battle buddies whenever you are struggling. DO NOT try the plan where one guy sleeps while the other stays awake to post guard – chances are, without anyone to talk to him or keep him company, the other one will accidentally drift off as well.

5. Under conditions of exhaustion, my attention to detail went to shit. Attention to detail has never been a strength of mine, and extreme fatigue made it downright horrendous. On one occasion I packed my helmet in my A-bag instead of my ruck, thinking we wouldn’t need it that day, and forgetting the RI’s instructions to keep it with you out of sheer absent mindedness. I was right – most of us didn’t need it that day – but of course I was one of the five students voluntold to go on a drop-zone detail that did require it. So that was a major minus. On another occasion, I got a major minus for having my M249 on fire during a debrief – again, I just forgot to switch it back. Sometimes I forgot the day’s challenge and password, or tied the wrong knot in my 550 cord, etc. etc. It may seem trivial to civilian friends, but that stuff is life and death in battle, so it really must not happen.

Lesson for would-be Rangers: Focus. Try. When you inevitably do make mistakes, don’t become exasperated or disheartened by them, but don’t become numb to your own mistakes either. Don’t try and de-stress beforehand; sometimes, stress is helpful. I wasn’t stressed enough. I saw this as a strength – proof that I was unfazed in the face of adversity – but my squad mates interpreted it as indifference to the outcome. Light a fire under your own ass so other people won’t have to do it for you.

Someday, I hope to go back and apply these lessons myself by giving the course a second go. In the meantime, I hope they ca at least help someone else. Best of luck!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing this post. really appreciate the outlook and lessons learned. Hope you get another shot! God speed.