by Joey King
Today is Friday August 21, 2015, and history is being made. Two females will become the first of their gender to graduate from the US Army’s elite Ranger School. Coincidently, I graduated Ranger School almost exactly 30 years ago to the day on August 22, 1985. Good luck ladies, you will need it.
I mean it. Ranger school fucks with your head, big time. Short of prison, torture, rape, or war, it’s the ultimate mind-fuck. The argument could be made that Ranger School is the most stressful thing one can volunteer for. You are sleep deprived, food-deprived, harassed, and stressed with simulated combat situations for over 8 weeks. Everybody who goes through Ranger School contemplates self-injury to get a few days of rest in a hospital. How sick is that?
Of the 9 women who started this Ranger School class, all failed to get out of the initial phase, known as the “Darby Phase.” Five of those nine were allowed to recycle and do the “Darby Phase” again. Two of those five graduated. That’s a78% wash-out rate, which is twice the wash-out rate of men. I’ve gotta hand it to you ladies, I told myself that if I ever recycled, I would say “fuck it” and go to my unit without a Ranger Tab. You are tougher than me, no doubt.
I remember a Ranger Instructor telling me that living up to the Ranger standards after graduation was harder than the school itself. At the time, I thought, “Yeah, right,” but now, 30 years on, I can see that he had a point. Since my time of service was 1984-1987, I was fortunate to never see a day of combat. Even without a combat tour, it took me a full year to unwind from the pace of military service. Civilian jobs seemed boring to me, because I could never find the esprit de corps I had in the military. I struggled with alcohol. My marriage disintegrated. The sales jobs I landed were always stressful; because I felt compelled to meet the monthly quota. To miss quota meant failure, and failure is not a Ranger option.
Also, a couple of times a year, I have that goddamned “dream.” It happened to me again on the morning of August 21, 2015 at about 4:00 am. I keep the TV news on all night, and as I woke up this morning, MSNBC was talking about the new female Rangers.
Maybe that is what triggered my nagging “dream.” It was not as bad this morning as it can be, but I had “the dream” nonetheless. Often, I swing clinched-fists at my girlfriend. Fortunately, I have never connected a punch.
“The dream” always has something to do with the military. I am either back in the military, or I am running from someone who is trying to force me back in.
When I was in the Army, I was a platoon leader in a paratrooper unit. As part of America’s rapid deployment force, we were required to be “wheel’s-up” on an aircraft 18 hours after the President says “go.” It is called the 18-hour sequence. You might think that it’s impossible to be wheels-up in 18 hours, but during the Grenada invasion in October 1983, the first battalion to leave Fort Bragg was wheels-up in 16 hours. As you can imagine, practicing the 18-hour sequence is very stressful.
This time in “the dream,” I was an active duty as a full-time reservist with an airborne (paratrooper) engineering unit in Chattanooga TN. Our commander was Barry Trotz, long-time coach of my favorite NHL hockey team, the Nashville Predators. Dreams are always a little wacky, right? Maybe I dreamed about Chattanooga because I visited there in July 2015 to see the memorials to the 5 military personnel who were shot by a gunman. In “the dream” I was on terminal leave which meant I only had a few days of active duty service left, so I was just hanging around post in civilian clothes waiting for my time to be up.
All of the sudden, my unit gets the call. We are beginning the 18-hour sequence, and our mission is to jump into Cuba. I am not the lieutenant in charge of the platoon anymore. My replacement has taken over. For some reason, Commander Barry Trotz is not making me go to Cuba even though I am still technically in the Army. He is going to let me sit home and watch it on TV. In my dream, I remember feeling a mixture of relief that I did not have to go to Cuba; survivor’s guilt that my soldiers were going and I was staying behind; and bewilderment that Commander Trotz was not forcing me to go on the mission.
That is about the time I woke up and shook my head and said to myself, “there’s that damned ‘dream’ again.” A few minutes later on my morning walk, I realized that the 30th anniversary of my Ranger School graduation date was the following day. Maybe the convergence of my 30th anniversary and hearing about the new female Rangers triggered my dream. It is hard to say what triggers “my dream, “ but something sure does.
Your Ranger Instructors don’t tell you about “the dream,” ladies. No one ever talks about it. They make you feel proud to wear the coveted Ranger Tab. You’re bullet-proof. You are hungry too, but your stomach has shrunk over the last couple of months. I stopped every hour on my way back home. One stop, I ate fries. The next stop, I ate a small hamburger. The next stop, I got a milkshake, and so it went for 7 hours. You also stink. I had two or three showers before I got to my girlfriend’s apartment on the night of my graduation, but I still stunk to high heaven. She made me take a shower as soon as I walked through the door. You have something called cellulitis. The small scrapes you have all over your body are filthy, and the infection spreads through your bloodstream towards your heart. The cellulitis will clear up in a few days. You will sleep for a few days. You will feel refreshed by the time you get to your next duty station, and you will proudly wear your Ranger Tab on your left shoulder.
Then what? As I have gotten older, I have learned to ask, “then what?” Well, I’ll tell you “then what.” You will have your own version of “the dream.” The Ranger Instructors do not tell you that. The first “dream” will come sometime in the next year. I am assuming that, like me, neither of you have a combat tour yet. I hope you never do, because “the dream” by itself is bad enough.
I do not want to compare my “dream” to Post Traumatic Stress (PTS). Those with PTS have it far worse than I, but there is something amiss in my brain, and Ranger School is the cause of it. One can’t go through a traumatic event for two months without some mental scars. I meditate, I do yoga, I am a pacifist, but I can’t get rid of “the dream.”
I am not suicidal but according to Reuters article from April 1, 2015 “Military Suicides are not Linked to Deployment.” In an article from Doctor Rita N. Brock titled, “Moral Injury: The Crucial Missing Piece in Understanding Soldier Suicides” we learn that veteran suicides are partially related to survivors guilt. This is especially true for those veterans who do not deploy to a combat zone. The root of the suicide issue may be moral injury.
Simply defined, moral injury is learning to kill without feeling. Basic training does teaches you to kill without feeling, and Ranger School does even more so. It seems that “my dream” this morning was related to survivor’s guilt. My best friends from my days as a college ROTC cadet days are all combat veterans of Panama (December 1989) and/or the first Gulf War (Fall 1990-Spring 1991). Maybe I have some survivor’s guilt from staying home while they went to war?
Captain Greist and Lieutenant Haver, if you had stopped to ask yourselves, “then what,” maybe you would not have volunteered for Ranger School in the first place. That is the ultimate purpose of this piece; educate the future generation of Ranger volunteers.
My hope is that we have fewer Rangers, period. If 30 years of nightmares are not enough to deter you, I do not know what will. Captain Greist and Lieutenant Haver you have earned the title of Ranger. Your Ranger friends will call you Ranger Griest and Ranger Haver for the rest of your life. My old Army buddies still call me Ranger King from time-to-time. You can join the US Army Ranger Association. You have earned the title of Ranger.
What you can’t do, is get it out of your head.