The Army Ranger Training Tragedy That Never Should Have Happened (2023)

This article originally appeared in the September 1995 issue of Esquire. To read every Esquire story ever published, upgrade to All Access,

The Yellow River begins in southern Alabama, near a country crossroads called Rose Hill, and flows into the Florida panhandle, that westering arm of the Sunshine State where Bible Belt hymns crowd the radio bands and the Latin ballads of Miami stations, if you pick them up at all, seem like music from another world. The Yellow doesn’t lend itself to stirring adjectives; it isn’t “raging” or “mighty,” but a mere yeoman of a river—sluggish, undistinguished, and dull. From the state line, it continues due south for thirty-odd miles, slips under Interstate 10, then turns abruptly westward, uncoiling like a drawn gut through swamps in whose moss-draped precincts gators bask and cottonmouths nest, before it finally empties into Pensacola Bay. This part of its journey takes it through Eglin Air Force Base, a vast military reservation over which pine and live-oak forests roll for miles.

Tucked into a remote corner of the woods, at the end of a dirt road so red and powdery it seems to have been paved with brickyard dust, is a small army base: Camp James E. Rudder, headquarters for the 6th Ranger Training Battalion. With its brown-and-khaki clapboard buildings and dust-blown airstrip, the camp could serve as a set for a World War II movie. Its actual birth was during the Korean War—1951, when the Army established ranger school. Ever since, soldiers seeking to win the rangers’ coveted black-and-gold shoulder tab have come to it for the final phase of their training.

Napoleon once said, “I can make men die for little pieces of ribbon.”

Three miles from Camp Rudder’s main gate, the Yellow courses under a low promontory called Metts Bluff. A narrow cove cuts into the bluff, its bank rising toward a point where a jeep track breaks through stands of towering longleaf pine. It was there, at midday on February 15, 1995, that the 102 students of ranger class 3-95 launched rubber rafts to practice waterborne operations, raids, ambushes, and other skills of their deadly trade. Later that afternoon, sixty-eight of them disembarked some eight miles downstream and, advancing on their imaginary enemy, plunged into the cypress-shaded gloom of the swamp. They had only six days until the end of their training, six days until they could sew the tab onto their sleeves.

Gold letters on a black field, maybe two inches long by half an inch wide: RANGER.

Napoleon once said, “I can make men die for little pieces of ribbon.” Before the day was through, those sixty-eight rangers would learn that soldiers today, as at Austerlitz, can die for the same reason. They would learn a lesson usually imparted to young warriors in combat: that they who in their youth and strength think themselves immortal are frail and mortal after all. But this band of brothers was not going to be baptized with fire; its baptism was to be administered with the element traditionally used in that sacrament. Miles to the north, the Yellow was rising from heavy rains in the Alabama hills, and it was going to turn the swamp into a gallery of terror and confusion that the survivors, despite their blank-cartridge weapons and make-believe mission, would remember as other soldiers in other times have remembered their first battlefields.

A campfire warded off the early-morning chill. Puffing on a cigarette, a tall man, his cropped black hair partly hidden by a camouflage patrol cap, stood by the fire. He was Sergeant First Class Robert Boyden Jr., and he was waiting for the day’s training to get under way. Day nine on the schedule. It was designed to acquaint the students with rafting techniques and swamp movements, preparing them for more difficult exercises later on.

The Army Ranger Training Tragedy That Never Should Have Happened (1)

The original Esquire magazine spread, featuring an illustration by Julian Allen.

Those would be conducted in treacherous places where even the names had a menacing sound—Boiling Creek and Dead River and Rattlesnake Bayou. Today’s mission would take place in the swamps around Sweet Gum Landing, an appropriately gentle appellation, for day nine was a “punk” day, in the parlance of ranger instructors, meaning that it was easy: six miles downriver, a half-mile march that usually took forty-five minutes to, at most, two hours.

“We love that day,” Boyden would say much later in disbelief, the disbelief registering more in his eyes than in his voice. His speech tends toward the Yankee flatness of his native Connecticut, and his piercing gray-blue eyes compensate for his lack of vocal inflection, underlining certain words, providing exclamation points. “It’s introductory. Sweet Gum is a piece of cake! Students don’t get lost—the risks are minimal.”

It was to be an especially easy day for Boyden, fourteen years in the Army and a ranger instructor for the past three. Usually, he was a PLW—a platoon-leader walker—with C Company, or Charlie Company. That meant he slogged with the students on their missions and evaluated whoever had been assigned as platoon leader for the day. But on February 15, he had been tapped to serve as API, or assistant principal instructor. That is, he was second in command of all three companies—Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie, which were actually platoon size at thirty-four men each—and of the day’s training. The principal instructor (PI) was Captain Hal Bradfield,* who was normally C Company’s commanding officer. If the jobs of PI and API were not physically demanding, they did carry a lot of responsibility: Bradfield and Boyden were to assess weather and river conditions and determine if training for that day was a go or no-go. “Good to go” is how they say it in the Army these days. So far, they were good to go, although Bradfield had designated the risk assessment for the mission as cautionary.

[*Denotes fictitious names throughout for people who asked that their real names not be used or whose identities the Department of Defense would not disclose.]

In the winter, the ranger training in Florida is the most treacherous of the four phases. Like parachuting, moving large numbers of exhausted men through murky swamps with sixty or seventy pounds of weapons and gear on their backs is inherently dangerous, and in the winter, hypothermia is the most serious risk. It is the dread of ranger students and of the instructors responsible for them. In 1977, two student rangers died of it during a swamp march. In 1993, two others were struck down but survived. Hypothermia is subnormal body temperature usually caused by prolonged exposure to damp, cold, or both. In physiological terms, what happens is simple enough: When the body is chilled, you start to shiver, which is the body’s way of telling you that it’s losing heat faster than it can be replaced. If no action is taken to warm the body, its thermostat, located in a bundle of nerve tissue at the base of the brain, responds by ordering heat to be drawn from the extremities to the body’s core. That’s all it’s doing—trying to maintain a core temperature of 98.6 degrees. Later, the thermostat calls for heat from your head, burning the sugar your brain needs to function; circulation slows down, depriving your brain of oxygen. You stop shivering. At this point, when the core temperature has dropped to 94 degrees, your body begins to lose the ability to reheat itself. To be saved, you must have hot liquids poured into you, or you have to be warmed by a fire or another body. If none of those measures are taken, your pulse becomes irregular, you drift into semiconsciousness, then unconsciousness, and when your temperature drops to 90 degrees, you die. Psychologically, the process is more insidious. As your brain slows down, starved of fuel and oxygen, you begin to act irrationally; your will to save yourself is sapped. You stop shivering, you stop worrying. You’re dying, but you don’t care.

“Sweet Gum is a piece of cake! Students don’t get lost—the risks are minimal.”

After the 1977 incident at Camp Rudder, an obscure branch of the military service, the Military Ergonomics Division of the U. S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, conducted tests on hypothermia and devised a table of water depths, water temperatures, and immersion times to give instructors guidelines on what kinds of training to conduct under specific conditions. Under these Rules of Submersion, all waterborne and swamp training is to be canceled when water temperatures fall below 50 degrees.

Therein lay the reason for Captain Bradfield’s cautionary light. The day before the February 15 exercise, as required by standard procedures, he had checked the water level in the Yellow River and found that it had risen twelve to eighteen inches since his last check, on February 10; however, the river’s depth on that date had been twelve to eighteen inches below its level during the previous ranger class. In other words, the river was back at a depth at which training had been conducted safely before. Bradfield also walked through the swamps where the students were to conduct their marches. The water there was between knee- and thigh-deep, which was acceptable. But the water temperature, measured at nine o’clock in the morning, was as borderline as you can get: 50 degrees. Still, the submersion charts said that in thigh-deep water of 50 degrees, students could remain in the water for up to five hours, and the swamp march was not expected to exceed two hours. Besides, he anticipated—correctly, as it turned out—that the water would warm up in the afternoon. The forecast for the fifteenth called for air temperatures in the 70’s, with only a 30 percent chance of rain. A pretty fair day. Good to go—but with caution.

Bradfield and Sergeant Boyden did not know that five inches of rain had fallen in southern Alabama and Georgia and that the runoff upstream had brought the Yellow River to near flood stage. No one at Camp Rudder knew, because there was no way for anyone to know. No system of communication existed between the training base and the Southeast River Forecast Center in Peachtree City, Georgia. The agency’s gauge at Milligan, Florida, northeast of the camp, showed that the river’s normal depth of 4 to 6 feet had crested at 11.85 feet on February 14. That was 1.8 inches short of flood stage, so no flood warnings were issued. But all that water was slowly heading downstream.

There was another thing that Bradfield and Boyden did not know and had no way of knowing. That evening, an unusually high tide was going to come in on Pensacola Bay and fill the mouth of the river. The tide would act like a cork in a bottle, preventing the swollen Yellow and the swamps from draining into the bay. The blockage would add eight more inches to the already high waters.

The Army Ranger Training Tragedy That Never Should Have Happened (2)

The September 1995 cover of Esquire, the issue in which this story originally ran.

Not far from Boyden’s campfire, concealed by the trees in their patrol bases, the aspirant rangers were loosening up muscles stiff from another night of sleeping on the ground, shaking out their poncho liners, shaking the sleep out of their heads. Pretty easy to do because they hadn’t gotten much sleep. Nearby, the twelve ranger instructors who had been with them for the past twenty-four hours were briefing the twelve new instructors who would accompany them on today’s mission. A punk day for the RIs—but not for the students. After nearly two months of ranger training, they were run-down, near that point of exhaustion rangers call zoned. Their class had begun with 334 students; these 102 were the survivors, and, gaunt and glassy-eyed, they looked it. Some had lost twenty pounds, a lot of weight for young men who had begun their training in prime physical condition.

Yet they were the cream of the new American Army, which had, in the Persian Gulf, won one of the swiftest victories in military history. Most were young lieutenants, like twenty-five-year-old Spencer Dodge and twenty-three-year-old Curtis Sansoucie, graduates of the West Point class of 1994; a few were enlisted men, like Sergeant Norman Tillman, a mortarman from the 82nd Airborne; one was a captain, Milton Palmer, a top graduate of the Citadel and son of a retired army officer. All of the officers had been through the infantry-officers basic course at Fort Benning, Georgia; many had won their paratrooper wings at jump school. And yet all that training had been to ranger school as kindergarten is to graduate school.

The Army describes it as a “leadership development” course, which suggests that it’s a benign tutorial like, say, a Dale Carnegie course or, at worst, a kind of militarized Outward Bound. It is anything but. Just to get into ranger school, soldiers have to pass rigorous physical-fitness tests: fifty-two push-ups in two minutes, sixty-two sit-ups in the same time, six chin-ups, a two-mile run in under fifteen minutes, a five-mile run in under forty. Candidates are required to demonstrate above-average competence in basic infantry skills like map reading and land navigation, marksmanship, and small-unit patrols.

That’s the easy part. What follows admission is nine weeks of the most rugged military training in any branch of the U.S. armed services, or in any army anywhere, for that matter, with the possible exception of the British Special Air Service, the fabled SAS. Students conduct patrols, raids, and ambushes in every kind of climate, always with sixty-pound rucksacks on their backs. They are limited to two meals a day—MREs, for “meals ready to eat.” At best, they get four hours’ sleep a night. They spend sixteen days at Fort Benning, practicing hand-to-hand combat, bayonet drills, and squad-size patrols; another sixteen days of desert training in the desolate badlands near Fort Bliss, Texas; seventeen days in Dahlonega, Georgia, learning military mountaineering; and, finally, fifteen days at Camp Rudder for jungle and swamp training, small-boat operations, and survival techniques. Former rangers told me that this regimen drove them to such states of exhaustion that they began to hallucinate. One said that he was evacuated when a ranger instructor found him pumping quarters into a tree, thinking it was a Coke machine; another recalled hopping over and around rain puddles during a forced march because, in a delirium, he’d mistaken the reflections of his buddies’ faces for their real faces and didn’t want to step on them. Food and sleep become paramount obsessions for ranger trainees, overwhelming that other great obsession of young, healthy males. “If they were offered a choice between a night with Heather Locklear and a Snickers bar, they wouldn’t hesitate—it would be the Snickers,” one instructor told me.

Military-training deaths occur more frequently than the public realizes and it’s all too easy to grow callous about them.

The primary mission of this planned torture is neither to impart new military skills nor to hone old ones but to test how well men perform under conditions that simulate the stresses—the hunger, fatigue, and miseries—of combat.

“Stress is the key part,” says a ranger instructor. “We try to bring you as close to combat stress as possible without the bullets. Students are pushed beyond the limits they could push themselves to. The idea is to teach them about themselves and their limits. Ranger school turns your life around. You see a side of yourself you don’t want to see—you’re not as strong or as tough as you thought you were. You know more about yourself, and so you’re more confident. That’s the ironic part. By knowing about your weaknesses, you become more confident about yourself as a leader.”

Samuel V. Wilson Jr. is a retired army lieutenant colonel, a Vietnam veteran, and the son of a legendary figure who served with Merrill’s Marauders in the Burma campaigns of World War II and who is now the colonel emeritus of the elite 75th Regiment. Wilson went to ranger school in 1969, and he described it as a “drill of dancing with your mortality. It’s a gradual and profound mental, physical, and emotional descent into yourself…. You come out of it believing that you are superior to other men. And you are, in the sense that you’ve explored yourself better and deeper than ordinary men have. You can lead men better because you know your limits.”

Army rangers made the famous assault on the Normandy cliffs on D-day and fought in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, and Somalia. The rangers are the oldest organized unit in the armed services, older in fact than the United States. Their genealogy goes back to 1756, when a New Hampshire soldier, Major Robert Rogers, formed Rogers Rangers, a regiment of six hundred frontiersmen who adopted Indian tactics while fighting for the British in the French and Indian War.

The Army Ranger Training Tragedy That Never Should Have Happened (3)

U.S. Army Rangers bound for the D-Day landing at Normandy, 1944.

It would be an understatement to say that the rangers, with their distinctive black berets, have a mystique in the Army. Most of the officers and men who undergo ranger training are not from the 75th, however. They are drawn from infantry outfits throughout the Army, and in the culture of today’s officer corps, the ranger tab has become a totemic symbol. Those who wear it are marked as men to watch, men to be respected. With the end of the cold war and the downsizing of the military, the huge, ponderous armored and mechanized divisions that were to confront the Soviet legions on the plains of Europe have been replaced by smaller, more mobile light-infantry divisions adapted to fight in semiwars, like the civil strifes in Somalia or Haiti, rather than in some great arena of set-piece battles. Skills in small-unit tactics and commando-style operations have taken on greater importance, and young officers and NCOs are expected to display individual initiative and the ability to lead men in deserts, jungles, and mountains—in other words, almost anywhere on the globe. That is why ranger training has become a sine qua non for advancement in the infantry. Simply put, if you’re an infantry officer and you don’t have the tab, you probably won’t get to command a company, you’ll certainly never command a battalion, and you can look forward to early retirement. The pressures on junior officers to go to ranger school are enormous.

“I went to ranger training in 1980 as a twenty-two-year-old lieutenant,” an army major told me. “I injured my knee and had to drop out. I went back at the age of thirty-five. That’s on the old side for ranger school, but I had to, because in the infantry, you’re a second-class citizen without the ranger tab. Senior officers will tell juniors who have been dropped to retake the course and ‘Don’t come back without your ranger tab.’”

The consequences of returning without the tab were on the mind of Lieutenant William Griswold,* a member of A Company in ranger class 3-95, as he packed his rucksack and waterproofed his gear for the journey down the Yellow River with his comrades. Griswold is now a platoon leader with an airborne outfit and wears the ranger tab, but he almost didn’t make it. He had been with 2-95, the previous ranger class, and had failed two patrols during the desert phase of training. He was then transferred, or “recycled,” into 3-95 to complete the course.

He recalls that the mountain phase was the worst, for the class was shipped off to the north-Georgia mountains in January. Icy winds, snow, windchills of below zero.

“I hallucinated at night. When it’s dark, your mind wanders. People were weaving off the road, falling into ditches. A patrol would suddenly stop, and then you’d realize that the guy in front of you isn’t moving, because he’s waiting for the guy in front of him to move, and that guy turns out to be a tree. We were relieved when we got to Florida because we knew it was almost over.”

They were the cream of the new American Army, which had, in the Persian Gulf, won one of the swiftest victories in military history.

We don’t know what was on the mind of twenty-seven-year-old Captain Milton Palmer, the Citadel graduate who was with Charlie Company. We will never know, but we would be justified in speculating that he, too, was relieved to have made it almost to the finish line. He had very few flaws as an officer and had a reputation as a hard charger, but this was his third try at ranger school. He hadn’t flunked any of its tests in his previous attempts; he had met and overcome all its challenges—except one.

The son of a career infantry officer (his father retired as a major and now lives in Fishers, Indiana), Palmer had been raised on army posts in the U.S. and Germany and had literally been weaned on the rituals and ceremonies of the soldier’s life. And he learned responsibility at an early age. At thirteen, when his father was sent for a year’s duty in Korea, Palmer told his mother, “I want you to know that I won’t give you any problems while Dad is gone.” He wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and won a Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarship to the Citadel. He was one of a handful of black cadets to attend that most traditional of military academies in that most traditional of southern cities, Charleston, South Carolina, the birthplace of the Confederacy. In his senior year, he was named one of four battalion commanders in the cadet corps. That is an honor given to only the best students, and he took the role seriously. During an inspection, he confined one of his best friends to quarters for the weekend for leaving an item out of place on his desk. The cadet, Robert Palmer (no relation), said to him, “Milton, how could you do that?” Milton Palmer replied, “Well, it wasn’t right, and that’s my job.”

(Video) Navy SEAL goes rogue in Iraq (*MATURE AUDIENCES ONLY*)

He graduated in 1990, was commissioned a second lieutenant, and went to ranger school that same year. He was in his early twenties, six feet and 215 pounds, but he discovered that he had a weakness, though it wasn’t one of will, zeal, strength, or ability: He was susceptible to what the Army calls CWI, cold-weather injury. After passing the first two phases, Palmer suffered severe frostbite during the mountain phase and was dropped from the course. He went on to hold various billets in infantry outfits, rose to captain, won an Army Commendation Medal, an Army Achievement Medal, an expert-infantryman badge, and paratrooper wings. He was missing only one thing. Four years after his first attempt, he returned to ranger school, assigned to the same class as Griswold—2-95. He was dropped for “administrative” reasons (there is no further explanation in his records) and was then recycled into the next class. Again, he succumbed to cold during the mountain phase and was evacuated to a medical station with numbed fingers and feet. Determined to complete the course, Palmer demonstrated his fitness by making a foot march the next day. He was cleared to go on to the final phase in Florida.

If the rules had been strictly applied, he ought not to have undergone ranger training in the winter. At the very least, instructors at Camp Rudder ought to have kept an eye on him as a probable cold-weather casualty. Perhaps they would have had they known about his brushes with frostbite, but they hadn’t. On the student-information card Palmer filled out at Rudder, he stated that he was allergic to bee stings and penicillin, but he omitted mentioning that he had twice suffered serious cold-weather injuries. That omission would raise troubling questions later on, questions that will remain unanswerable. Why didn’t someone notice it and check further into his records? Why didn’t the instructors know that the commanding officer of the 5th Training Battalion at Dahlonega, Georgia, had reported Palmer’s second injury to Camp Rudder officials? Did Palmer deliberately withhold the truth? That seems unlikely for the Citadel cadet who was so scrupulous that he confined his best friend for a minor infraction—but this wasn’t the Citadel. This was the Army, and he was a captain with orders to report to Korea at the completion of his training. Was he worried that if he disclosed his previous injuries, he would be dropped from the course again and jeopardize his chances for command and promotion?

Gold on black, about two inches long by half an inch wide: RANGER. A little piece of cloth a man could die for.

By the late morning of February 15, all the preliminaries were completed: Captain Bradfield had briefed the training-battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Rachmeler; the outgoing ranger instructors had briefed their replacements; the student platoon leaders had compiled their five-paragraph orders and, under the appraising eyes of the RIs, issued them to their “men.” An odd kind of democracy prevails at ranger school. Even though the students haven’t completed the course, instructors refer to them as “ranger,” regardless of rank. A real-life captain like Palmer might assume the role of ordinary rifleman for a day while a real-life sergeant or lieutenant assumes the role of his commanding officer, and all ranks have to defer to the RIs, who are generally staff sergeants and sergeants first class.

About 11:00 A.M., Palmer and C Company moved the patrol base toward Metts Bluff—a file of young men in camouflage green, leaning forward against the weight of their rucksacks, trudging under a gray but unthreatening sky. They tramped down a jeep track, through dense woods of pine and palmetto and live oak bearded with Spanish moss, and came to the cove where the black Zodiac rafts were beached. Beyond, the Yellow River slid between the walls of trees toward its meeting with Pensacola Bay, fifteen miles away. The river’s color didn’t match its name; it was chocolate-brown, running high but not alarmingly so. Some of the instructors, like Staff Sergeant Dave Marino,* who was assigned as one of the four RIs with C Company, had seen it as high during previous exercises. The company set about tying its rucksacks and gear to a safety line that ran through the center of each of the four rafts, so the equipment could be recovered in the event of capsizing. The mission plan called for Charlie Company to launch first, move downriver to its landing point, then disembark, cross half a mile of swamp, and, after reaching high ground, conduct a raid. Bravo and Alpha companies would follow and emplace ambushes on a road.

From downstream, “Watertown”—the radio call sign and nickname for the boat-safety detachment assigned to the training mission—reported that the water temperature was 52 degrees. According to the immersion charts posted in instructors’ handbooks, training could be conducted for three hours in waist-deep water. Ranger class 3-95 was still good to go. The men in C Company attached their weapons to their uniforms with “dummy cords” so they wouldn’t lose their rifles if they went overboard, and climbed in. Each raft carried eight or nine students and one instructor; each had a coxswain to steer at the stern. The paddlers sat on the gunwales, with one foot in the raft, the other over the side, resting on a lifeline. In one boat, an M-60 machine gunner was stationed at the bow. It was 11:30 A.M. In one of the vessels, Sergeant First Class Craig Owens, who was taking Boyden’s place as Charlie Company’s PLW, listened in as the student platoon leader made sure everyone knew what to do. “What’s the checkpoint?” he asked. “Pine Bluff,” someone answered. Similar conversations were going on in the other rafts. What’s our azimuth? One seven zero degrees. What’s our mission? To conduct a raid. But as time wore on, the military exchanges gave way to whispered chatter about the things soldiers have probably talked about since the days of the Roman legions. Girlfriends. Hometowns. Sports. In Staff Sergeant Marino’s vessel, a couple of students started to “eat the cheese,” which is ranger argot for attempts to get on the good side of an instructor.

“They want you to like them or to feel sorry for them or to notice them,” says Marino, a tall, strongly built man with tattooed forearms and a hockey forward’s face. “They started asking me the usual questions, like, ‘Hey, Sarge, where are you from?’ I told them, ‘I’m from hell.’ That always shuts ’em up.”

C Company paddled on, borne along by the current. It was strong enough to allow them to take occasional breaks. Beneath them, too subtly for anyone to notice, the river was rising; it was now perhaps three to five inches higher than it had been in the morning.

Back at Metts Bluff, Sergeant First Class Donald Laney was urging Bravo Company to hustle. The rangers had been waterproofing their rucksacks and gear, but time was running short and the rafts had to be ready for launch at noon. Laney was B Company’s PLW for day nine, and Bravo was having its problems. Even in training commands, units take on a personality of their own. In class 3-95, B Company, after starting off well, had begun to fall apart during the mountain phase. It was plagued with personality conflicts, a lack of teamwork, below-par discipline. The entire class was having difficulties, but B Company’s deficiencies were singled out in a report that the commander of the 5th Training Battalion in Georgia sent to Lieutenant Colonel Rachmeler, the Florida CO. And its problems, its shaky unit cohesion, were to play their role in the events of February 15.

“C’mon, are we ready or are we ready?” Laney snapped at ranger Curt Sansoucie, a second lieutenant who was the student platoon leader. Dark-haired, square-jawed, muscled like a middleweight wrestler, a top cadet at West Point, Sansoucie prodded his acting squad leaders and sergeants. One of them was Norman Tillman, the “real world” sergeant from the 82nd Airborne. Then Laney noticed the machine gunner asleep in one of the rafts, cradling his M-60.

“Who the hell is that?”

“That’s Dodge, Sergeant,” someone answered. “He’s always sleeping.”

“Well, wake him up.”

The ranger shook Second Lieutenant Spencer Dodge by the shoulders.

“I wasn’t asleep,” he protested angrily.

“Ah, you’re always sleeping,” the other man said. “Quit your bitching.”

Laney was unaware at the time that the zoned ranger with the M-60 had been president of his class at West Point, that he had won a reputation up there on the Hudson as one of the most poised, confident, energetic, and enthusiastic cadets in the entire corps. Dean’s list for three of his eight semesters. Guard on the under-five-ten basketball team. (Dodge was five feet eight.) Member of the winning team in West Point’s Sandhurst competition, a rigorous Olympics of military skills and endurance named for the British military academy.

“He wasn’t tall, but he was wiry and in shape,” recalls Major Charles Scarboro, Dodge’s tactical officer (a kind of mentor and faculty adviser) at the Point. “He could run the Sandhurst in full rucksack, and it’s a six-mile course. His endurance was great.”

The contrast between that Dodge and the Dodge stealing a few minutes of illicit sleep was not surprising. Ranger school was supposed to test a man’s limits, and Dodge was coming up against his.

He was one of eight brothers, an auto mechanic’s son from Stanley, New York, a small town near Rochester. He was an upbeat, hardworking kid who stocked shelves in a local supermarket after school. But he was also someone who found that modem life offered very little to a young man with a sense of adventure and a desire to test his courage and strength, to find out what he could do and what kind of man he was. As the poet James Dickey once remarked, even in the late twentieth century, it’s important for a man to know if he’s brave or not. You don’t make such discoveries as a lawyer or marketing manager or advertising executive.

Spencer Dodge enlisted in the Army out of high school, drawn by its promise that in its ranks you could “be all that you can be.” One of the things he wanted to be was an infantry officer. His hero was General Norman Schwarzkopf. In 1990, he won an appointment to a school at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, that prepares qualified enlisted men for the U.S. Military Academy.

A younger brother, Jason, who is now serving as a combat engineer at Fort Knox, Kentucky, joked about Spencer’s appointment to West Point. He was always running, always on the go, always striving to meet physical challenges. He could never be an officer, because all officers ever did was sit at desks and push pencils.

The portrait that West Point cadets and faculty members paint of him is almost too idealized to be believable. A cadet’s normal schedule—drill, academics, and athletics from predawn reveille to lights-out at midnight—is so grueling it’s scary. To it, Dodge added a number of extracurricular activities. His largely social duties as class president were very time-consuming. He presided over Ring Weekend, when the graduating class receives its graduation rings, and tooth Night, celebrated when the class has one hundred days until graduation. Major Scarboro recalls how well he handled that ceremony: “He had to preside over the banquet, make toasts, and escort and introduce the main guest and speaker, who that night was General McCaffrey, commander of the Southern Command. It’s a job that requires a lot of poise and confidence, speaking in front of your classmates, your officers, and a four-star general. Spencer had a nervousness in his voice, a tremble, and you could hear that quirk in his voice, but he didn’t make one mistake.”

Owen J. Mullen, the Catholic cadet chaplain at West Point (40 percent of the cadet corps are Roman Catholic), also remembers Dodge as indefatigable. Though he’d been baptized a Catholic, Dodge had not been raised as one. (His parents were divorced.) In his plebe year, he decided to explore the faith of his birth, received catechism, and then volunteered to lead the plebe retreat and to teach Sunday school to the children of faculty members. That required him to rise at 6:00 A.M. on Sundays, the one day when cadets get to sleep in late. By his senior year, he was in charge of all Catholic cadets and also volunteered to head the Special Olympics at the academy.

And everyone recalls that he kept up this crowded schedule cheerfully. His presence brightened any room he walked into, and he was the one to whom his classmates went when they were feeling down or had a problem.

“He was the kind of guy who was always positive and never complained. He always saw the light in any situation, was always smiling,” says Scarboro.

After graduating and receiving the mark of his chosen branch—the pale-blue fourragère of the infantry—Dodge went off to the infantry-officers basic course at Fort Benning, then returned home on leave in December. Jason came back that month, also on leave. Spencer opened the door, pushed Jason back outside, and made his younger brother salute him. Then he hugged Jason. When he mentioned that he had volunteered for ranger school, Jason said, “Well, that’ll be a challenge for you.”

And it was. In some ways, Dodge’s fortunes in ranger training mirrored those of B Company. He sailed through the first two phases, but about midway through the mountain phase, in the bitter cold of Georgia’s Appalachians, some of his classmates noticed a profound change in him. The indefatigable Dodge crashed into fatigue, physical and mental. He slept every chance he got. The selfless, cheerful Dodge, his energy spent, began to withdraw into himself and become isolated from his comrades. As instructor Laney recalls, the Dodge who came to Florida had gone into what RIs call “survival mode”—a mental state in which the student’s sole objective is to get himself through the day, or, for that matter, through the next ten minutes, without collapsing. There was no shame or disgrace in this. Dodge was simply discovering that he was human after all. Perhaps the one thing he did not know how to do was pace himself. At any rate, he was running on empty as he sat behind the machine gun at the bow of his raft, setting off downriver for Crane Lake.

“We were all looking at each other with looks that said, ‘What’s going to happen next?’”

Captain Bradfield, the principal instructor, watched the Bravo Company men depart. They and Charlie Company were better than halfway to their drop sites when he received a report from a sergeant in charge of the boat-safety teams that the water at Pine Bluff, between the launch point and the landing sites, was nearly overflowing the banks. Bradfield left and linked up with Boyden. The two men checked the level at Pine Bluff—it was about four inches below the banks. Although Boyden and several other instructors said they had conducted training safely when the river was as high or higher, Bradfield thought it prudent to send Boyden to measure the depth against go/no-go lines painted on an abutment alongside Broxson Bridge, some eleven miles downstream. When Boyden got there, he observed that the river was twelve to fifteen inches beneath the no-go marker. There were no floating tree branches or flotsam to indicate a flood, but he remained for a quarter of an hour, watching the river. It didn’t rise an inch, and the water temperature by this time had gone up to 54 degrees. He radioed Bradfield: The mission was still a go.

But on the river, one RI was having doubts about that. Alpha Company’s platoon-leader walker, Sergeant First Class Jeffrey Dietz,* found the landing site at Pine Bluff underwater. The river was lapping high up on the trunks of the tupelo and sweet-gum trees.

“There was water everywhere. Everyone got quiet because we knew we were going to get wet if we got off,” recalls ranger Griswold, the lieutenant who had been recycled from the previous class. “We were all looking at each other with looks that said, ‘What’s going to happen next?’”

The PLW stuck his six-foot walking stick into what had been dry riverbank a little more than a day earlier. It went under without touching bottom.

“That’s when it got real quiet,” Griswold says. “You’re on student status, so the instructors override your rank. But we knew they weren’t going to make us do anything they wouldn’t do.”

The A Company men turned the rafts around and tried to paddle to an alternate drop site upstream, but they made little headway against the powerful current. Dietz and the three other instructors conferred and decided to forgo the swamp-march portion of the mission and cruise with the current to Mason’s Landing, where a dirt road came down to the river’s edge. The company would move by road, over high, dry ground, to its ambush site. The students breathed a collective sigh of relief and paddled on to Mason’s Landing.

As they filed up the road, they noticed that the water in the swamps alongside was deeper than they had been told to expect. The PLW had not seen it that deep since last year, when Hurricane Alberto had brought the Yellow River to full-flood stage, but for some reason, he did not pass this information on to the commanders of the exercise. It was 4:00 in the afternoon.

More than a mile downriver, B and C companies also couldn’t find dry landing sites. About an hour and a half earlier, something fateful had happened. The C Company student platoon leader had missed the landmark for the company’s drop site at Sweet Gum Landing, and the rafts floated past. Sergeant Owens, who was supervising C Company’s exercises, did not call attention to the navigational error, because it’s the philosophy of ranger school to allow students to make their own decisions and their own mistakes—unless the mistakes pose an immediate safety hazard or make accomplishing the mission impossible.

There was no safety risk at the moment, but as the company went farther and farther downriver, it became apparent to Owens that Charlie would end up too far from its objective to accomplish its mission. He pointed out the student’s mistake and told him to find the nearest dry ground and put in there. Like A Company, Charlie attempted to paddle upstream, and it met with the same results. Finally, the men found a high, sandy bank “as dry as a carpet,” Owens was later to recall. The students disembarked, shouldered their rucksacks, slung their weapons, and plunged into the swamp. Owens wasn’t aware of the seriousness of his decision to allow the student platoon leader to make the navigational error and the company to drift a mile downstream before beaching the rafts. As a result, they were entering Crane Branch swamp, which is more treacherous than the one at Sweet Gum Landing: a nightmarish labyrinth of sloughs, back channels, and small creeks. The Yellow River’s high waters were spilling through these channels into the swamp, flooding it. Owens did not know that—a gap in his knowledge soon to be filled. It was now 4:07 P.M.

The Army Ranger Training Tragedy That Never Should Have Happened (5)

A hard lesson was about to be earned...

Upstream, Sergeant Don Laney’s Bravo Company had found that its planned landing site, near the mouth of a wide side channel called Crane Lake, was submerged. Ranger Sansoucie, B Company’s student platoon leader, came up with an alternate plan: Move the rafts into Crane Lake and thereby shorten the distance the company would have to walk through the swamp. Laney approved. The four rafts went single file into the lake, an eerie corridor of dark brown water shadowed by tall, twisted trees. The company tried to disembark, but the water was still too deep. So the rangers turned around, paddled back into the Yellow River, and tried to go upstream and give the original drop site another try. It took more than fifteen minutes to move less than a hundred yards against the current. Sansoucie stopped the movement and took a breather to reassess the situation.

“Sergeant, can’t we put in at Mason’s Landing and go overland?” he asked Laney.

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Laney mulled over the suggestion for a moment. He is a stockily built man of five ten from Youngstown, Ohio, who might have followed his father into the steel mills if most of them hadn’t been shut down by the time he graduated from high school in 1979. He joined the Army instead and found that he liked it. Now, at thirty-four, his hairline is beginning to recede, and sixteen years of soldiering have not given him the profane, snarling manner usually associated with career noncoms. He is one of the new army sergeants, educated (he holds an associate’s degree from a junior college) and articulate. Yet he is a “ranger’s ranger,” who served with a ranger battalion at Fort Lewis, Washington, and as a forward scout for the 1st Armored Division in Desert Storm. Though he’d been an RI at Camp Rudder for only six months, he had done a tour as an instructor in the Fort Benning phase from 1985 to 1988. He knew students and their weaknesses and suspected that Sansoucie was looking for a way to stay dry, which was understandable but not the point of swamp training. Besides, Mason’s Landing was a mile upstream and too far from B Company’s planned objective. Even if they made it there against the current, the company, in all likelihood, would be unable to accomplish its mission. Plus, it was getting late, and the winter light was fading. For all those reasons, he spoke to Sansoucie words that would later haunt him.

“Sure, you can try to make Mason’s Landing—you’re the patrol leader—but that’s nowhere near your objective,” he said, “so I’ll see you here again next cycle,” meaning that he would give Sansoucie a failing grade for the patrol.

But Laney came up with a suggestion of his own: He and his three RIs had overheard Sergeant Owens, the supervisor of C Company, radio the exercise commanders that Charlie Company had found a dry landing site a short distance downstream. Why not try that? And that is what Bravo Company did.

For all those reasons, he spoke to Sansoucie words that would later haunt him.

It was 4:30 P.M. when nap-prone Dodge, revived after the relatively easy trip, hopped off the raft with the twenty-three-pound machine gun on his shoulder. He was smiling and made a wisecrack when he overheard Laney and another RI, Staff Sergeant Scott Jenkins,* mention his name.

“Hey, rangers, listen. These instructors already know who I am,” Dodge quipped.

“What do you mean?” Laney asked.

“Aren’t you talking about me?”

“No. We’re talking about an instructor named Dodge,” Laney answered. “He’s a real funny guy, and we were talking about what a joy this swamp walk would be if he were around.”

This was the last time anyone would see a smile on Dodge’s face.

After Norman Tillman’s squad, the last one in B Company, disembarked, patrol leader Sansoucie put out his point men. B Company trudged into the tangled brush and trees, paralleling Charlie Company’s route.

Curt Sansoucie is remembered as fondly at West Point as Dodge.

“He was a real can-do kind of guy, a STRAC cadet,” says his former tactical officer, Major Mike Lerario. STRAC, an acronym for “straight, tough, ready around the clock,” is army slang for any top soldier. “He was a model cadet, a dream cadet who didn’t do things just for himself but got others to do it.”

Sansoucie was like Milton Palmer, who was now trudging a quarter mile ahead: He never let his friends slide at inspections. As a cadet training sergeant and, later, as a training officer for his company, D (Delta) Company, 3rd Regiment, he was a stickler who insisted on high performance from his classmates. D-3 had scored the worst in the regiment in room inspections and at drill and ceremonies, but after Sansoucie took over in his junior and senior years, marching the company over and over on the parade ground near the cadet barracks, Delta won the drill streamer as the best in the regiment.

Sansoucie wanted to be a general. Like the rangers’ founding father, Major Rogers, he was from New Hampshire. He grew up in Rochester, near the Maine border, the son of Gary and Theresa Sansoucie. The elder Sansoucie is a Vietnam combat veteran and owns a furniture store in Rochester, and he and his wife raised a son who was the antithesis of the enervated, ennui-ridden Generation-X brat popularized in the press. Sansoucie had been a varsity football player and honor student at Somersworth High School. His face appeared on the front page of his graduation yearbook, beside an American flag and over a caption that said he had “brought pride to his high school by being elected one of fifty governors in the nationwide American Legion Boys State Program.”

A military-history buff, he had the names of the most important American generals memorized by the age of twelve—first names as well as last—the dates of their births and deaths, and the battles in which they had won renown.

That interest continued on through West Point, where he would engage Major Lerario in informal colloquiums on wars and leadership.

“He would ask me, ‘What do you do as a leader in those situations? How do you accomplish your mission and bring your men back alive?’ In his heart, Curt was an infantryman. He wanted to be a paratrooper. During the summer before his junior year, he went to jump school and got his wings. The ranger tab was something else he wanted. I told Curt that the tab establishes your reputation, but that you may lose it the second you open your mouth in front of your first platoon,” Lerario remarks in his West Point office. On the wall hangs a certificate bearing the likeness of the buckskin-clad Major Rogers. It attests that Lerario was an honors graduate of ranger school, and above it, on a wooden plaque, is a bowie knife and the words HARD TIMES DON’T LAST—HARD MEN DO.

The Army Ranger Training Tragedy That Never Should Have Happened (6)

Inspirational stuff, that, but sometimes the cruel truth is that hard men don’t last.

B and C companies, moving on parallel tracks about 150 yards apart, with B Company slightly behind, tramped over dry ground for only twenty-five or thirty yards before they hit water. It was the color of dull brass, knee-deep at first, then thigh-deep. When it reached above the rangers’ waists, it sent a physical and moral shock through them; in the perpetual twilight of the swamp, it was chillier than the river, which by this time had warmed to 59 degrees. Even on the best days, Crane Branch swamp resembles something out of a gothic folktale: swamp lilies throwing out white, spiked blossoms that look beautiful and evil at the same time; cedar and cypress towering more than a hundred feet; tupelo saplings kneed and bent like limbs racked in some excruciating torture. The sixty-eight rangers and their eight instructors pushed on, cursing when they struck “dammit stumps”—submerged tree stumps that fiendishly bashed knees, jabbed groins. The rangers stood in ankle-deep water on what they thought was solid ground, only to discover that they were actually standing on matted leaves and branches, which gave way under their weight and plunged them into water up to their necks. They tripped over sunken roots and deadfall, reached out to grasp bushes to steady themselves, and suppressed cries of pain as quarter-inch thorns, sharp as barbed wire, stabbed their palms.

For ranger instructors like Laney and Owens, this was pretty standard stuff: Ranger training was supposed to be miserable, even downright awful. But after they had been in the swamp about an hour, things started to deviate seriously from standard. The instructors had expected that as they moved toward high ground, the water would get shallower; instead, it got deeper. In some places, it was over their heads. They and the rangers were swimming from tree to tree. Earlier, Laney’s number two, Staff Sergeant Jenkins, had suggested that the students put on their life vests. Laney gave the okay. “The best suggestion anyone made that day,” Laney would later say. “It saved people from drowning.”

His company and Owens’s C Company began to converge as both sought to avoid Crane Branch slough, a major water obstacle. In normal conditions, the slough dried up a few hundred yards into the swamp. Owens hoped to skirt the deepest part of it and cross its tip, but when the Charlie Company rangers reached it, they discovered that the slough’s bed had been flooded for its entire length.

Soon both companies were standing on the north bank of the slough, in only waist-deep water. The air warmed their upper bodies. The 11.85-foot crest recorded upstream had now reached this stretch of the Yellow River. It was getting dark. The two companies had been in the water about an hour and had moved a little more than three hundred yards from the river. They had approximately five hundred to go. It was 5:20 P.M.

Palmer and another ranger, Damon Bowers, began to shiver. They were in first-stage hypothermia.

“Oh, is it cold? Yeah, it’s cold…. Are you shivering? Oh, yeah, I’m shivering…. It’s cold. Yeah, it’s cold….”

Laney and Owens had reached what an army investigation would later call a “critical decision point.” They could push on toward the high ground or turn around and return to the river. It is in the nature of official investigations to impose a mechanical, narrative order on the disorderly flow of events in real life. In light of what was to happen, the two men should have returned to the river, but to them, going back seemed worse than going on. Ranger instructors are taught to avoid changing directions in the swamps, especially in gathering darkness, because that risks getting someone lost. And there were two other reasons why Owens and Laney made the decision they did: First, they reasoned that the swamp water on the far side of the slough had to get shallower as the swamp rose toward the high ground; second, there was nothing to return to—the boat-safety teams had picked up the rafts and hauled them back to Metts Bluff. Even the investigation concluded that although the two NCOs’ decision was open to criticism in hindsight, “it was logical given the factors available at the time” and given “the difficulty in turning back, the anticipation of dry land, and unknown rising water conditions.” (My italics.)

Both sergeants ordered their companies to revert from a tactical to an administrative status, meaning that the exercise was temporarily called off and the RIs were in control. Laney and Owens told the rangers to begin constructing rope bridges to cross the slough. That was when things started to unravel, first for Laney and B Company.

Because no stream crossings had been planned, the 120-foot bridging rope was in the bottom of a ranger’s rucksack. It took several minutes to get it out. The rest of the rangers took even longer to prepare their safety lines. More than half an hour had gone by, with bodies cooling every minute as the men stood motionlessly, before a ranger volunteer leapt into the slough and tied one end of the rope to a tree on the far side. Another volunteered to be bridge-team commander and the last man in the column. His job was to fasten the rope on the near side, help the rangers hook up their safety lines, and after all were across, untie the rope and be pulled across. The team commander would be stationary for the longest period and so the most likely to get chilled.

The ranger who volunteered for the job was Sergeant Norman Tillman, who was a student squad leader for the mission.

“You don’t have to,” Laney said.

“But I want to,” answered Tillman, only five feet eight but powerfully built.

Laney and the others could hear him talking to himself in a kind of one-man call-and-response as he secured the line to a cypress tree.

“Oh, is it cold? Yeah, it’s cold…. Are you shivering? Oh, yeah, I’m shivering…. It’s cold. Yeah, it’s cold….”

Did he have intimations of what was going to happen to him? Did he know what was happening to his body as, shuddering in the damp twilight, he helped his brother rangers cross Crane Branch slough? We don’t know. We do know that he was concerned about hypothermia. At a lecture on the condition a few days earlier, he’d repeatedly asked the instructor about it. The instructor had told the class that blacks are more prone to cold-weather injuries than whites because their skin gives off heat faster and that lean or muscular men are more vulnerable to hypothermia because they have less body fat to burn. Tillman, at twenty-eight the oldest of ranger class 3-95, was both black and muscular, and if he had any body fat left after sixty days of ranger training, it was too little to be measured. A wife and child waited for him back at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where he was stationed with the 82nd Airborne. Why he volunteered to be the team commander, the one who would have to wait the longest to cross, is a mystery. Possibly he thought he could overcome his dread by confronting it head-on.

Or possibly that’s the kind of man he was, the stuff a Medal of Honor winner is made of, the kind of guy who would fall on a grenade to save his buddies’ lives. He wasn’t middle-class black like Palmer; there were no visions of Citadels and West Points in his future when he was growing up in Grenada, Mississippi, one of five fatherless children raised by a woman who scrubbed hospital floors to keep a roof over their heads. But he did share something with Palmer and Dodge and Sansoucie: He was tough, self-disciplined, and determined to be the best at whatever he did. Despite his stature, he had been a defensive lineman on his high school football team, a little guy “who played big,” in the words of his coach, Jack Holliday. Too small for a football scholarship, he ran track, and that paid his tuition at tiny Mississippi Valley State. On weekends, he worked as a cook at a Best Western motel in Grenada, often putting in double shifts.

The Army Ranger Training Tragedy That Never Should Have Happened (7)

After college, he returned to live in Grenada, but by that time, drugs and gangs had invaded even that small rural community. There was nothing for him there. He wanted out, so he enlisted in the Army in the fall of 1989, and now he was shivering in a Florida swamp, helping his comrades cross a rope bridge.

But one of them wasn’t going to make it across: Scott Littlejohn, a Bravo Company ranger, had gone down with second-stage hypothermia.

By this time, Laney, Sansoucie, and about half of B Company were on the far side of the slough, in waist-deep water. Laney was shouting to one of the RIs to call for a medevac; he was out of radio contact with his RIs. His Motorola, a handheld FM radio that instructors use to communicate with one another, had gotten wet when he’d gone in over his head while crossing the slough. This was not catastrophic, since the other instructors had their Motorolas and the company’s student radio operator had his tactical radios.

The medevac call went out at 5:27 P.M. to Sergeant Boyden, the second in command of the mission, as he was waiting by his vehicle on high ground. Boy den relayed it to Camp Rudder. The helicopter, a Vietnam-era UH-1, called a Huey, took off shortly afterward to the wail of the camp’s siren and was over Bravo Company thirteen minutes later. Hovering, it lowered a jungle penetrator through the canopy. A jungle penetrator, a stretcher attached to a steel cable that is weighted with a three-hundred-pound ball, is used to evacuate casualties from dense woods or jungles.

By this time, most of the company had crossed the slough. Tillman, Jenkins, and a handful of other rangers were still on the other side, assisting with the medevac. It was crowded on Laney and Sansoucie’s side. Laney ordered the company to form buddy teams and begin moving toward the high ground, but to his disbelief, the water went over their heads as soon as they stepped off the slough’s bank. The rangers were again swimming from tree to tree, kept afloat under their heavy burdens by their life vests. Sansoucie said something about going to help a couple of foundering rangers. As student platoon leader, he was supposed to do that, supposed to show initiative.

“At that point, Sansoucie was fine, functioning normally, like a leader,” Laney would later recall.

Though it was still twilight outside the swamp, the darkness in it was more like midnight. Laney passed the word for everyone to switch on their flashlights to keep track of one another as the chopper took off with the stricken Littlejohn. It was still within earshot when two more rangers, Joshua Pentz and Geof Voorhees, collapsed. Worse, two of the three functioning Motorolas had gone out of commission. Laney yelled to Jenkins, who now had the only operational radio left, to re-call the medevac chopper. Then he told another of his RIs, Staff Sergeant Jim Hunter,* to take eight men and the PRC-77 tactical radio, get to high ground, and build a bonfire that the rest of Bravo Company could guide on.

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As Hunter and his squad went on, the chopper beat the air overhead. Laney, treading water and leaning his neck against the frame of his rucksack to stay afloat, pushed and pulled Pentz with the help of some students and his walking stick. Pentz had been stripped of all his gear except his life vest. Holding on to him with one hand, Laney switched on his strobe light, using his other hand to guide the pilot in. But now it was as if everything—nature, human judgment, and machines—conspired to turn a difficult situation into a desperate one, and, finally, a disastrous one. The Huey’s rotor wash was making the tree branches shudder and sway, which caused the flashlights to appear like pulsing strobes to the pilot. He couldn’t tell where he was supposed to pick up the casualties. Strobes seemed to be flashing everywhere. Eventually, he lowered a medic on the jungle penetrator, but it was in the wrong place. The medic took one look at the nearest ranger and realized he wasn’t one of the casualties.

All the while, the rotor wash, whipping up winds of ninety miles an hour, was further chilling the men below. Worse, its force was pushing some of them underwater.

Laney felt it pushing down on his head like a malicious, invisible hand as he held fast to the unconscious Pentz.

“It was hell. That’s when I said to myself, ‘Oh, God, we’re in the shit.’ I thought I was going to drown,” Laney said later. “It was the one time I feared for my own life.”

Battling to save himself as well as Pentz and Voorhees, he didn’t notice that the rest of Bravo Company was beginning to disintegrate as a unit. He had split the company to get as many men as possible to dry ground as quickly as possible, but by dividing it he had inadvertently widened the fissures in its cohesiveness. It wasn’t functioning as a team any longer but as groups of two or three or four, struggling only to survive. Some rangers had climbed into trees to escape the cold water and the typhoon of the rotor blades.

Owens had no choice—somehow he had to keep Palmer and Bowers on their feet and moving. And somehow he did.

All in all, it took forty-five minutes to evacuate Pentz and Voorhees. As the Huey flew off, Laney and the other RIs began to reorganize the twenty-three men who were still in the swamp. There was good news from Sergeant Hunter and the other eight: They had reached high ground after an hour’s walk and would light a bonfire as a homing beacon. But getting the company back into shape was not easy. Some students refused to come down from the trees. They clung to the greasy trunks like frightened koala bears. A few were crying out, “I can’t take it anymore. I’m not going any farther.”

“You’ve got to,” Laney called. “You’ve got to keep moving.”

“I’m not going back into the water,” one ranger sobbed. “I’m not going any farther.”

Laney reached up and pulled him from the tree, then dragged another down.

Their legs were cramped, and they said they couldn’t move another yard. Both were lieutenants, but this was no time for civilities. Laney shook them by their collars, and one shouted in his face, “Go ahead, slap me around! I don’t give a damn! I’m not going!”

And Laney slapped him.

“Yes, you are, goddammit! We have got to keep moving.” At last, Bravo Company began to coalesce again, Laney slogging and swimming down the column of men, accounting for everyone. For a few minutes, it appeared that all was under control, but then Dodge began to show symptoms of hypothermia. He was conscious and coherent, but his eyes were glazed, and he was staggering under the weight of his rucksack and machine gun.

“Where you at, ranger?” an RI asked him.

“Sergeant?” said Dodge.

“I said, ‘Where you at?’”

“Uh, I’m in ranger school, Sergeant.”

“Watch him,” the RI said to another ranger, then took Dodge’s M-60 to relieve him of the heavy weapon, but it slipped from his grasp and into four feet of water. The RI dived to retrieve it, but Laney yelled, “Forget the goddamned ’sixty for now—mark where you dropped it with your stick—we’ve got to get these people out of here!”

Laney half walked, half swam toward the rear of the column, where Sergeant Jenkins had just called out that his situation was critical: Ranger Tillman was in severe hypothermia. He was, in fact, dying.

It was 6:45 P.M.

A hundred yards away, Owens and C Company were staggering through the blackness, men stumbling over knobby buttress roots that clung to the palmetto-festooned mire like saurian claws in some Jurassic marsh. They plunged into potholes where the water was so deep that after the flood receded the following day, clothes and gear discarded by panicked rangers were found hanging from tree branches ten to twelve feet above the ground. Palmer and Bowers, meanwhile, had gone into early stages of hypothermia and were getting worse by the second. They were still on their feet, but soon Palmer stopped shivering, grew incoherent, and began singing tunelessly to himself. Within fifteen minutes, someone shouted, “Palmer’s going down and fast!” Owens ran back to check, then called for a medevac.

He heard the worst possible news: The Huey had wasted precious fuel while evacuating Littlejohn, Voorhees, and Pentz; there wasn’t enough in its tanks to make it to Eglin Air Force Base hospital. It had made an emergency landing at Camp Rudder, where the three casualties were recovering. But there was no refuel supply at Camp Rudder. The crew was waiting for a fuel truck that had been dispatched from Eglin, twenty-six miles away. It wasn’t expected to arrive for another forty-five minutes.

Owens had no choice—somehow he had to keep Palmer and Bowers on their feet and moving. And somehow he did. At B Company’s position, Tillman was getting worse, in the irrational stage of hypothermia, flailing at the water. Staff Sergeant Jenkins wanted to radio for a medevac, but he had monitored Owens’s call and had heard that the chopper was grounded for lack of fuel. He also had no choice but to get his casualty through the swamp on foot.

The lack of a refueling capacity at Camp Rudder was another thing that would raise disturbing questions later on. After the two rangers died of hypothermia in the 1977 accident, an investigation recommended that an aviation-fuel tanker be permanently stationed at Camp Rudder. For reasons that army officials cannot or will not disclose, one never was. There is one today, because the investigation into the 1995 accident made the same recommendation.

It was now 7:00 P.M., and Charlie Company was crossing another slough, a smaller one than at Crane Branch. Seventy-five yards beyond it, they found deliverance at last: solid ground. They were still in the swamp, but it was dry. Dry!

Owens ordered a couple of students to walk Bowers around to revive him while the rest of Charlie Company began to stagger in. Bowers was coming out of his stupor, and Owens was about to check on Palmer’s condition when he heard someone scream from deeper in the swamp.

“Help me! Help! My buddy is going to die! Somebody help or my buddy will die!”

He and a few students ran toward the sound. The stricken man was Sansoucie, lying flat on his back between two high trees, unconscious and turning blue. With him was ranger Patrick West, who had found him clinging to a log and had dragged him along. Owens and his Charlie Company rangers pulled the fallen Sansoucie to the higher ground and began CPR.

And then a fog set in. No fog warnings had been issued, so its arrival was as surprising, as seemingly deliberate and malevolent, as the flooding of the swamp. Sergeant Boyden, at his post near a road, had been trying to organize a rescue effort, putting in emergency calls for evacuation helicopters. He called Eglin, Hurlburt Field in Fort Whalton Beach, the Pensacola Naval Air Station, even Fort Rucker in Alabama.

“Once we realized how bad things were, we would have called for the starship Enterprise to come and beam everyone out of that swamp,” Boyden told me weeks after the event. “But all we had was one Huey and no refueling capacity at Camp Rudder. And none of the other places would let their aircraft up. All those supposed all-weather aircraft couldn’t fly because of the fog.”

Nevertheless, Owens put in a call for the Camp Rudder Huey. The truck had arrived; the bird was refueled. It was overhead around 9:00 P.M. A medic tried to drop down through the trees on the jungle penetrator, but he couldn’t get through the canopy safely. At the same time, a field ambulance from Camp Rudder arrived on the road above the swamp. It was carrying an army doctor, who hiked down from the road, bulling his way through the dense underbrush to begin triaging the casualties.

Boyden was meanwhile firing flares to guide Laney and Jenkins as they carried Tillman. They had no radio. Earlier, in the final stage of hypothermia, Tillman had gone berserk, struck Jenkins, and knocked the radio into the water. It sunk out of sight. The chopper had been refueled by this time, but now there was no way to call for it.

Jenkins and Laney then began emergency CPR. Three quick breaths of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, drag him a few yards, three more quick breaths, drag him again, on and on, yard by yard, following the flares that glimmered distantly through the fog like shrouded stars. All the time, Laney was thinking, We’re going to get him to high ground. We’ll get him in dry clothes, we’ll get something warm in him, we’ll build afire, and he’ll come around.

But then he looked at Jenkins and saw a million things in his eyes, none of them good.

Jenkins said, “Don, I think he’s dead.”

Salmon’s pulse and heart responded, but whatever power decrees life and death pronounced a different sentence on Curt Sansoucie.

Laney shined his flashlight on Tillman’s face. He’ll always remember the sight, though it isn’t one he wants to remember. “I was looking into the face of a Black man, and he was gray, so gray he almost looked white.”

Finally, they reached Owens and the evacuation point, where another ranger had gone down with hypothermia. He was foaming at the mouth, but he had a heartbeat, so the medics decided he should be evacuated. After the ranger was loaded aboard, Laney and Owens, hoping rather than thinking that Tillman could be revived, asked for a litter to be lowered for him. He was strapped in, the hoist started to winch him up, and then the stretcher began to spin out of control in midair. The hoist operator lowered it to stop the spinning, but it swung violently under a big tree limb. Twenty feet below, Laney, Owens, and the medics watched as the stretcher tipped to the vertical and crashed to the ground. Tillman hit the ground feetfirst, and for one bizarre fraction of a second, he seemed to have come to, seemed to be standing. In the next instant, he fell. An autopsy would later disclose that he died of hypothermia, not the fall. Probably, he had been dead for almost an hour before he was put on the stretcher, but the gruesomeness of the incident seemed to the survivors emblematic of the entire night’s horror.

Which wasn’t over.

CPR was being administered continuously on Sansoucie and another stricken ranger, Paul Salmon. Medics and rangers alike were working in relays. “I need a mouth!” someone shouted, meaning someone was needed to give mouth-to-mouth. “Need another pair of hands!” yelled someone else, meaning someone to push on the rangers’ chests to get their hearts going. “Live, soldier! C’mon, help us here! Breathe! Breathe! Live!”

Salmon’s pulse and heart responded, but whatever power decrees life and death pronounced a different sentence on Curt Sansoucie. No breath came from his blue lips; his heart remained still. The medics made the only decision they could. Salmon would be evacuated by helicopter, and Sansoucie would be taken overland by field ambulance.

Only seconds after the helicopter had left, Palmer, in second-stage hypothermia, was carried in by two rangers who had led him by the hand through the swamp, then dragged him after he collapsed. Owens and Laney asked for the helicopter to return but were told that it was loaded to capacity and again low on fuel.

Sansoucie and Palmer were then carried toward the road, through the thorny fringes of the swamp, through the oak and pine woods that rose beyond, with medics and rangers constantly applying CPR. Sansoucie was loaded into the first ambulance. Laney stayed with him, but he was riding with a man beyond all resurrection. Palmer was put in the next ambulance and rushed to Fort Whalton Beach.

It was now 11:43 P.M. And still it wasn’t over.

Spencer Dodge was missing.

Ranger Terrance Garrison* was the last man to see him. He and Dodge were about three hundred yards from high ground when he noticed that Dodge was staggering, falling behind. “Stay right behind me,” Garrison called over his shoulder. “When I call, answer me.”

“All right,” Dodge said.

They slogged on, the claustrophobic effect of the dense trees heightened by darkness and fog, Garrison’s legs cramping, as in those nightmares of helpless flight from some terror conjured by the subconscious.

“Dodge, you there?”

(Video) Joe Rogan Cries after hearing this story from Diamond Dallas Page about war veteran recovering


They slogged on.


Dodge answered again.

And then: “Dodge?”


“Dodge? Dodge!”

And still silence.

Garrison looked back and saw no one. He started to go back for Dodge, but he was totally exhausted, his leg muscles were seizing up, and he could barely move. He could save only himself. Survival mode.

In a delirium, Dodge had wandered off alone.

When you lose a nineteen-year-old private in basic training, you don’t know if you are losing someone destined for greater things. But these men were destined. They already were the elite, by virtue of being in this [ranger] training.

Owens, Boyden, and the other RIs organized a search party. They thrashed through the rank and cloistering undergrowth until 2:30 A.M., when some of them began to fall into hypothermia. The rescue effort was called off by Lieutenant Colonel Rachmeler, the battalion commander, who feared that some of his instructors would become casualties.

The search resumed before dawn, after the RIs had changed into dry clothes, warmed up, and regrouped. At 7:30 A.M., the president of the West Point class of 1994, the young officer whose hero was General Norman Schwarzkopf, was found floating facedown in a muddy pothole, only seventy-five yards from high ground.

Sergeant Norman Tillman was pronounced dead at Eglin Air Force Base hospital at 12:43 A.M. on February 16.

Second Lieutenant Curtis Sansoucie was pronounced dead at 1:55 A.M. at Eglin Air Force Base hospital.

Captain Milton Palmer was pronounced dead at 2:01 A.M. at Fort Whalton Beach Medical Center.

Second Lieutenant Spencer Dodge was pronounced dead at 8:53 A.M. at Eglin Air Force Base hospital.

Gold on black, two inches long by half an inch wide: RANGER.

There is a kind of open-ended epilogue to this story. The day after the accident, the worst in the forty-four-year history of ranger school, training at Camp Rudder was suspended. Major General John Hendrix, commander of Fort Benning, flew down to the training base and called the instructors to a meeting so he could hear firsthand what had happened. Laney recalls that gathering. “Some of us broke down into tears in the middle of our stories. We told him, ‘General, we did all we could to save those men. We gave it 110 percent.’”

The Army Ranger Training Tragedy That Never Should Have Happened (8)

There is an open-ended epilogue to this story...

Soon afterward, Hendrix assigned his deputy commander, Brigadier General John Maher, to conduct an investigation. The Army was anxious to avoid the disgrace the Navy had suffered because of its botched investigation of the Tailhook scandal. Athletically built and six feet four inches, Maher cuts an imposing figure, but he assured everyone that his inquiry would be fair and impartial and not a witch-hunt.

Maher’s inquiry took nearly six weeks. The result—165 statements from 86 witnesses, 66 supporting documents, 69 pieces of other evidence—was big enough to fill a small trunk. It was Hendrix’s task to sift through that mass of facts and impressions and make judgments, which he disclosed at a press conference at Fort Benning on March 29. Hendrix is in his early fifties, but, dark-haired and trim, he looks ten years younger. Wearing a field uniform and bloused paratrooper boots, he stood before a slide screen and a large board papered with maps and charts and announced that the four rangers had died because they had been “immersed in water that was too deep and too cold for too long.” And the men had died not because the instructors had been criminally negligent but because they had made serious errors in judgment throughout the mission. There would be no court-martial, but nine officers and noncommissioned officers were to receive what the military calls “nonjudicial punishment.”

Lieutenant Colonel Rachmeler and Captain Bradfield were given official letters of reprimand, as were Laney, Owens, Boyden, and three other sergeants. The commanding officer of the ranger-training brigade, Colonel Galen Jackman, was also reprimanded.

Though a letter of reprimand sounds like a mild form of discipline to a civilian unfamiliar with the military, it is in fact a very serious punishment for a career soldier. For all practical purposes, it spells the end of his career. In all likelihood, he will not be promoted and will be faced with a choice between resigning or being forced out of service. For those who have already served twenty years, or nearly that long, retirement is not the end of the world—they will leave with full pensions. But for soldiers like Laney, Boyden, and Owens, the prospects are bleak. For example, if Boyden, with only fourteen years in, is forced out in the next year or so, his pension will be only about $600 a month. He will then find himself job hunting, at age thirty-five or thirty-six, in an information-age economy that doesn’t have much room for someone whose skills are those of a warrior.

And the three men are angry, for, like Rachmeler, they were not only reprimanded but relieved of their duties and commands and reassigned—Owens and Boyden to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and Laney to Korea. They allege that they and the others have been scapegoats for systemic problems within the ranger-training command, problems that they say had been called to the attention of higher officials but not acted on.

“My letter of reprimand makes it sound as if I were standing on the edge of that swamp, throwing cold water on the rangers,” Boyden told me when I interviewed him and Laney in Laney’s home in Crestview, Florida. “This was a terrible accident, not reckless or willful conduct on our part. We should have seen that someone was going to take the fall for what amounts to acts of God. We were supposed to foresee rising water, a freak high tide, and fog occurring at the same time. Basically, we’re being hammered not for what we did but for failing to be clairvoyant.”

However the deaths of the four rangers are characterized, whether as tragic or absurd, whether as the result of human error, a flawed system, or a little of both, the magnitude of their loss cannot be shrugged off as the price of preparedness.

Well-informed but confidential sources within the ranger command have told me and Jean Heller, an investigative reporter for the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, that there are several exonerating factors. The Army has made public the difficulties in refueling the helicopter. The Army’s failure to heed the 1977 recommendation to provide an on-site refueling capacity at Camp Rudder has been mentioned. In the 1995 investigation, General Hendrix concluded that the lack of on-site refueling was not a cause of death, even though his own investigating officer recommended that refueling facilities be installed. Also, the investigation’s timeline clearly shows that rangers Tillman and Palmer were still alive during the hour and forty minutes that the helicopter was grounded while waiting for fuel. Palmer was still alive when it left him behind, full to capacity and again low on fuel.

The 1977 report also recommended the installation of permanent, gauged water-measuring devices in the swamps and river to take the guesswork out of determining whether a mission is a go or no-go. The most that was done on this recommendation was the installation of the scale at Broxson Bridge, miles downstream from where the rangers were. The flaw with this is that floodwaters might be rising in the training areas but not register at the bridge until hours later. The only other system of determining depth was markers painted on trees, but it turned out that some of those markers had nothing to do with measuring river level: They had been put on the trees by environmental groups to indicate which trees were used as nesting sites for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. The 1995 report repeated the call for more efficient, gauged depth markers.

Finally, the Defense-appropriations bill for 1996 notes that the dearth of officers in the ranger-training brigade contributed to the accident. The brigade is authorized 122 officers, but it had only 45. At Camp Rudder, the assigned complement of 26 officers was down to a mere 8.

Meanwhile, Laney, Owens, and Boyden have asked that the investigation be reopened and the reprimands removed from their records.

Young men and women die serving their country in peacetime as well as on the field of battle. Military-training deaths occur more frequently than the public realizes—there were seventy-nine last year alone—and it’s all too easy to grow callous about them. However the deaths of the four rangers are characterized, whether as tragic or absurd, whether as the result of human error, a flawed system, or a little of both, the magnitude of their loss cannot be shrugged off as the price of preparedness. Their deaths will be a wound to their families for a very long time, but retired General Samuel V. Wilson Sr., the colonel emeritus of the rangers, suggests that we have all lost something precious.

“The loss of human life is always tragic,” the seventy-two-year-old Wilson reflected in his study at Virginia’s Hampden-Sydney College, of which he is president. “But when you lose a nineteen-year-old private in basic training, you don’t know if you are losing someone destined for greater things. But these men were destined. They already were the elite, by virtue of being in this [ranger] training. These were young men of great promise and patriots of the first order. Their loss is devastating to the nation. We lost in them a potential Grant or Lee or any of their lieutenants.”

The Army Ranger Training Tragedy That Never Should Have Happened (9)

Laney at the on-site memorial. The stump is sawed to the height the water reached that night.

Palmer, Tillman, Sansoucie, and Dodge were buried with full military honors, Dodge in the cemetery at his beloved West Point. His grave, etched with his name, rank, and class, lies between Lieutenant Colonel Edwin Hightower, class of 1947, and Brigadier General Durward Breakefield, class of 1935.

But there is another memorial, far from the great stone halls where Grant and Lee studied the arts of war, far from the statues of Patton and MacArthur, far from the parade ground where the long, gray line still musters daily, far from the bronze cannons and ranks of heroes’ headstones. This memorial was fashioned by two ranger instructors at Camp Rudder. It is a cross made of varnished cypress, and it stands on the bank of Crane Branch slough, near the tree that still bears the burns of the rope Sergeant Tillman tied around it to make a bridge for his brothers. The cross has been bolted into the stump of a sweet gum sawed to the depth the water reached that winter night. The names of the ninety-eight rangers who survived the ordeal, under the words 3-95 CLASS, are carved into the upright. On the left arm are the names PALMER, CPT. and TILLMAN, SGT. On the right, DODGE, 2LT. and SANSOUCIE, 2LT.

And over each of the names is a painted black tab, two inches long by half an inch wide, with gold letters: RANGER.

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What is the failure rate of Ranger School? ›

Historically, the graduation rate has been around 50%, but this has fluctuated. In the period prior to 1980, the Ranger School attrition rate was over 65%. 64% of Ranger School class 10–80 graduated.

What percentage of Army Rangers die? ›

Since 2001, the Rangers have suffered 419 combat casualties, with eight percent of these soldiers dying as a result. That's not statically different from the death rates of U.S. military ground troops in general.

What are the three phases of Ranger training? ›

The Ranger course has changed little since its inception. Until recently, it was an eight-week course divided into three phases: "crawl," "walk," and "run." The course is now 61 days in duration and remains divided into three phases: "benning," "mountain," and "florida."

What is the hardest phase of Ranger School? ›

The Mountain Phase of Ranger School, overseen by the 5th Ranger Training Battalion in Dahlonega, Ga., is often regarded as the most difficult phase of Ranger School. Students in the Mountain Phase build upon the squad-level skills developed at Camp Darby and learn the skills required to succeed at the platoon level.

How much does Army Rangers get paid? ›

Average Salary for an Army Ranger

Army Rangers in America make an average salary of $43,087 per year or $21 per hour. The top 10 percent makes over $74,000 per year, while the bottom 10 percent under $25,000 per year.

Are Rangers elite? ›

Each branch of the U.S. Armed Forces has its own elite forces in addition to their regular enlisted units. The Army's Special Operations units include the Rangers, the Green Berets and the Night Stalkers.

Are US Army Rangers tough? ›

Army Rangers Lead the Way, No Matter the Mission

To become a Ranger is no easy task. You have to go through grueling training to ensure you have the mental toughness, physical fitness, moral character, and motivation to endure the challenges you'll face in the field.

Which branch of the military dies the most? ›

The Marine Corps experienced the highest fatality rates per 100,000 for all causes (122.5), unintentional injury (77.1), suicide (14.0), and homicide (7.4) of all the services. The Army had the highest disease and illness-related fatality rate (20.2 per 100,000) of all the services.

What skills are important for a Ranger? ›

What are the most important Park Ranger job skills to have on my resume? The most common important skills required by employers are Documentation, Law Enforcement, Reservation Management, Patrolling, Technical, Collaboration and Communication Skills.

Who is the youngest Army Ranger? ›

Shaye Lynne Haver
Born1990 (age 31–32)
AllegianceUnited States of America
Service/branchUnited States Army Infantry
Years of service2012–present
4 more rows

What is the average age of a Ranger? ›

Army Ranger Age Breakdown

Interestingly enough, the average age of army rangers is 20-30 years old, which represents 70% of the population.

Which Ranger battalion deployed the most? ›

The 75th Ranger Regiment is one of the U.S. military's most extensively used units. On December 17, 2021, it marked 7,000 consecutive days of combat operations.

Which is harder SEAL training or Ranger training? ›

While the route to SEALs training is more direct than for the Rangers, each training is more intensive. To be considered for SEALs training, candidates must meet a series of strict physical criteria and pass several tests.

What Ranger units served in Vietnam? ›

The 75th Infantry Regiment (Ranger) (officially 75th Infantry Regiment or 75th Infantry) was initially a parent regiment for all the US Army Ranger units during the Vietnam War and the early 1980s and then the headquarters for the Ranger battalions.

Are Army Rangers snipers? ›

Every branch of the military uses snipers in some capacity. The SEALs, CCT, and Army Rangers all have sniper elements in their units. And although they all have their respective sniper schools, there is one school that stands out -- the United States Marine Corps Scout Sniper School.

How tall is the average Army Ranger? ›

According to the Army's Special Operations Command, the average height and weight of an Army Ranger are 69 inches and 174 pounds.

Are Rangers tougher than Marines? ›

Army Rangers go through much more of an in depth and grueling training process than that of your average Marine, such as SERE, Pathfinder, Air Assault, Airborne, and so forth. In order to join this elite fighting force, you must volunteer for the Rangers and complete airborne training.

What are Rangers called now? ›

Sevco Scotland Ltd later changed its name to The Rangers Football Club Ltd.
Rangers International Football Club plc.
Company SecretaryJames Blair
6 more rows

Can a Ranger become a SEAL? ›

You can apply to become a Navy SEAL as a civilian, a Navy sailor or even as a service member from another military branch. Both new recruits and active-duty military candidates must pass a battery of physical, technical and psychological exams.

Is Ranger School harder than Green Beret? ›

While both of these units are highly elite in their own right, the amount of specialized training it takes to be a Ranger is less than what it takes to be a Green Beret.

Do Rangers see a lot of combat? ›

Expect to see combat and see it often, but also expect the unexpected.

Who in the US military has the most kills? ›

However, subsequent research showed that U.S. Army sniper Adelbert Waldron actually held the record, with 109 confirmed kills. Mawhinney's documented total was found to be 103 confirmed kills, with an additional 216 "probable kills". A third Marine Corps sniper, Eric R. England, had 98 confirmed kills.

Which military branch has the lowest death rate? ›

Now that you have briefed through the missions of the branches and have looked at the stats of accidents and casualties, it's easier to pinpoint the least dangerous military branch. So the safest military branch in terms of man-to-man combat and machine-to-machine accidents is the Space Force.

How long does the average person stay in the military? ›

How long is an average term of service? While total length of service commitment varies based on Service branch need and occupational specialty, a first term is generally four years of active duty followed by four years in a Reserve unit or Individual Ready Reserve (IRR).

Do Rangers do HALO jumps? ›

But instead of jumping in large groups from aircraft at 1,300 feet, Rangers specialize in small surprise attacks. They make jumps in small groups of three or four, from high altitude and touch down silently in the night, undetected. These soldiers are known as HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) jumpers.

What armor should a Ranger wear? ›

Rangers can wear light or medium armor. But half-plate, scale mail, or padded leather will give a disadvantage to stealth, so stay away from these. If your Dex is above 19, wear studded leather.

What weapon should a Ranger use? ›

Rangers are most likely to stick to one-handed melee weapons, and the rapier is just as good as any one-handed weapon which you would use with Strength.

Whats the oldest you can be a Ranger? ›

Who Is Eligible to Apply? Army Ranger candidates must be U.S. citizens who are 17 to 34 years old. They must be Army volunteers who pass written tests with a minimum required score and who qualify for airborne training.

How much does it cost to train an army ranger? ›

It costs between $55,000 to $74,000 to send a recruit through training, depending on if they attend one-station unit training or a combination of basic combat training and advanced individual training. McGurk said his center uses $50,000 as a general figure for a trainee who fails to complete the training.

How long are Rangers deployed? ›

Conventional Army units deploy for 12 months at a time before returning home for another year or so, but the Rangers' rotations tend to last only 3–6 months, with far less stateside time between deployments. My old college buddy was in Fort Lewis, back from his last deployment.

How many Soldiers are in a Ranger unit? ›

The result of this demanding selection and training process is a Ranger who can lead effectively despite enormous mental and physical odds. Each Ranger Rifle battalion is authorized approximately 800 personnel, who are assigned to one of four rifle companies, a support company and a headquarters company.

What is the most deployed unit in the Army? ›

Since 2002, the 10th Mountain Division has been the most deployed regular Army unit. Its combat brigades have seen over 20 deployments, to both Iraq and Afghanistan, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

How much sleep do you get in Ranger School? ›

Sleep During Training

U.S. Military Academy cadets sleep fewer than five hours during the week and are woken up several times during the night for training. Even on the weekends, when they're encouraged to sleep more, they still get fewer than seven hours. Those in Ranger School only get around three hours per night.

What is Ranger attrition rate? ›

With an attrition rate of more than 60 percent, not everyone who strives to earn the tab has what it takes. When asked why she chose to complete Ranger school, the African American captain and executive officer with 1st Battalion, 1st SFG (A) simply responded with, “Why not?”

Can you get kicked out of Ranger School? ›

Whether the spotlight is on or not, if your words and actions consistently support the team and its goals, you are not likely to get kicked out any time soon! Lead on! Note: Less than 1% of students annually are kicked out of Ranger School due to Peer Evaluations.

How hard is it to become an army Ranger? ›

To become a Ranger is no easy task. You have to go through grueling training to ensure you have the mental toughness, physical fitness, moral character, and motivation to endure the challenges you'll face in the field.

Why do most people fail Ranger School? ›

Students are graded against Army standards. Students fail because they have never been held to these standards. I've seen many eager soldiers that reported to Ranger School having scored 90 or 100 pushups at their unit or last school clearly shocked when they fail to achieve less than the required 49 push-ups.

How many miles do you walk in Ranger School? ›

Based on Ranger student feedback, there are two main causes for foot march failure. The first, and most prevalent, is a lack of preparation. Students are not completing the weekly scheduled 6, 8, 10, or 12-mile foot march with a 47-pound rucksack for at least eight weeks prior to their arrival at Fort Benning.

What is the Ranger code? ›

Never shall I fail my comrades. I will always keep myself mentally alert, physically strong and morally straight and I will shoulder more than my share of the task whatever it may be, one-hundred-percent and then some. Gallantly will I show the world that I am a specially selected and well-trained Soldier.

How can you tell if someone was an Army Ranger? ›

Verification of Military Service

Please use the Defense Manpower Data Center's (DMDC) Military Verification service to verify if someone is in the military. The website will tell you if the person is currently serving in the military. The site is available 24-hours a day.

Is Army Ranger a special? ›

Each branch of the U.S. Armed Forces has its own elite forces in addition to their regular enlisted units. The Army's Special Operations units include the Rangers, the Green Berets and the Night Stalkers.


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