Ranger School: My Experience Through The Toughest Leadership School in the World
Updated: Jun 27, 2022
Author: Daniel Burnett
“Ranger School Graduation” Daniel Burnett, Fort Benning, GA. February 2014. Photo.
A Tough Grade in Leadership
The rain beat down on us angrily. I had been there for what felt like years and had begun to forget what life was like outside of the gruesome training they had put us under. “Pack your trash and get your rucks on!” I called to the platoon. I was a transformed version of myself after months of this course. I had grown up a shy kid, now I was calling out confidently to 40 plus people who had all ears on me. “We are on a strict timeline, let’s move,” I waved to the 4 squad leaders to come to me. When they approached, I further instructed, “Resupply was way behind schedule, trash pickup did not come, so these guys are going to be suffering from carrying this extra weight. You need to keep these guys motivated and moving, you have 5 minutes to get them packed and in formation to move.” Resupply had indeed come in late, and the men were operating off very little sleep. Our 'grade' depended on our ability to move the platoon to mobilize and hit an objective, and the day was off to a rough start.
Ranger School consists of 3 phases: Darby, Mountains, and Florida phase. Each phase consists of 1 to 3 leadership attempts. During each attempt, a Ranger candidate is graded by a Ranger Instructor who shadows the candidates called out for leadership positions that day. All leadership positions are conducted under physical and environmental pressure that is intended to replicate a Vietnam like warzone. Men are sleep deprived and given minimal food. They must ruck anywhere from 20-40km per day and attack one or multiple objectives. The objectives are mostly conducted in raids or ambushes of an opposing force in simulated combat. The grade given is either a ‘Go,’ or a ‘No Go.’ If you receive a ‘Go,’ for that leadership position, then there is a good chance you will progress to the next phase. If you receive a ‘No Go,’ you will either repeat the phase, repeat the school, or get dropped completely. On top of this, even if a ‘Go’ is received, you are still subject to a peer evaluation given to each member of your squad at the end of each phase. If you receive a ‘Go’ but get peered out, then you will either repeat the phase, repeat the school, or get dropped completely.
I was the platoon sergeant for the day mentioned. My objective in that position was to aid the Platoon Leader in keeping motivation and accountability of the platoon and ensuring that the squad leaders were diligent in their duties. Motivation was a struggle; the rain and sleet had been beating down on us for 6 days straight with no rest. Sleep had been more difficult than usual due to the brutal weather and the men were disgruntled about trash pickup not occurring, meaning they were carrying an extra 5-10lbs of bulky trash on top of the existing 80-100lbs of their rucksack and equipment. Our objective for the day was to walk 8km to a boat loading zone, row the zodiac boats approximately 5km to an offloading zone, and push through 8 km of swamp, on foot, infested with difficult tree root systems that made each step, confusing, difficult, and painful. There would be a brief stop before the objective to check supplies and coordinate final plans. We would then dismount our rucks and move a small distance to raid a village of enemy combatants.
The Path to Ranger School
I grew up in Waxahachie, TX in a middle-class neighborhood. My life had not been without challenges, but overall, I had a good upbringing with a healthy childhood. I enlisted in the US Army at the age of 17 with written permission from my parents. I went through basic training, AIT, airborne school, and the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program by the age of 19. I conducted a training cycle with 1st Battalion 75th Ranger Regiment out of Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, GA . I then spent a 4-month deployment at the Forward Operating Base Salerno, in Afghanistan. Upon returning I attended Joint Fires Observer School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and further proved my readiness to be a Ranger School Candidate. At the rank of private first class (e-3) and only 20 years old, I was sent to compete against a group of 100 privates in a physical fitness test and was selected among 9 other candidates to be sent to Ranger School. Up to this point, I had been through some real challenges, but I had not reached my full potential. Physically I was in shape, but mentally I needed to grow. I still lacked maturity in many areas mentally and had struggled with the concept of stepping up in a leadership role. Most of my training up to this point was carried by my physical capabilities, I had not yet been truly forced to lead a group of people in a stressful environment. I had a habit of being what we called a ‘grey man,’ or a person that blends in with the crowd. I learned very quickly that no one is a grey man in Ranger School.
Progressing Through Ranger School
Rangers are sent to a specialized pre-Ranger School course directly before attending the school. This course is a great introduction of what to expect at Ranger School and is intended to build up 75th Ranger Regiment, Ranger School Candidates for success. This is not a selection process; rather, it is challenging but helpful training for Ranger School. After this pre-Ranger course, I felt more prepared and arrived to Ranger School with confidence. I made it through the hell week known as RAP week fairly easily. It was very challenging, but I was very prepared for the initial criteria. I was good, in fact, I was very good at land navigation and physical fitness. I watched as only 40% of the people that arrived progressed past the week and into Darby Phase. However, I found Darby Phase to be much harder than RAP Week or anything that I thought I was prepared for.
"Army Ranger School." CNN. (n.d). Web.
I was no longer relying on well nourished physical performance. Rather, we were starting to feel the effects of sleep and food deprivation. To top it off, we had to perform in leadership under these conditions. This was a true challenge to my social and leadership abilities. I was young, scatter brained, and socially reserved. A lack of focus and leadership does not earn a Ranger tab, and I found out that I would need to pop out of my shell very quickly. I managed to fake it well enough to pass Darby, but I felt far out of my comfort zone. Darby phase introduced the initial challenges of Ranger School to come, we would operate on little food and little sleep while being challenged in leadership positions. Darby was a challenging phase, but the field problem is relatively short. Ranger School does a great job of progressing through the phases adding more challenges as you go. Darby phase in comparison to the rest of the course, is easier. The movements are smaller, the objectives are easier, there is greater sleep parameters, and the enemy is not as aggressive as other phases. Ranger School is structured like a crawl, walk, and run progression. Darby was challenging, but Mountains and Florida would be much more demanding.
"Ranger School." Sofrep. Last edited 17 September 2018. Web.
I found mountains very physically difficult. We climbed up and down beautiful but difficult mountain terrain. However, the training leading up to the field exercise was very interesting. We learned many cool and useful mountaineering skills like knot tying, climbing, and rappelling techniques. To add to the great lessons learned, the scenery was always amazing.
"Rappelling during the Mountain Phase of Ranger School." Last edited 5 January 2022. Web.
However, the field problem begins and we quickly learned that the mountain field exercise was very tough to navigate. Climbing both up and down was physically brutal and draining. We absolutely roughed it out there, drinking from rivers, moving great distances through the mountains and thick vegetation. We were dealing with more and more simulated ambushes and artillery fire from the enemy.
Luckily, I managed to get an leadership ‘Go’ as a platoon sergeant during what was comparative to most circumstances, a fairly easy look. In the leadership position for that day, all I had to do was rally the troops from their morning patrol base activities and ensure nobody fell out of the movement. The movement was tough, but I was able to rely on my physical attributes to move with motivation and round up stragglers. Admittedly, my role in leadership for this scenario was not mentally challenging. Others were not so fortunate. The same leadership position may warrant very difficult decision making, sometimes it’s luck of the draw. For example, after this movement, my leadership role was passed to a new candidate in a routine swap before the objective was to be attacked. This same position was much more decisively challenging when attacking the objective. I would say while the physical challenges of Mountain Phase was tough for me, I was able to get off fairly easy in my leadership grade for this phase.
"Mountain Phase of Ranger School." Wikipedia. Last edited 5 January 2022. Web.
Florida phase was a different story. Again, the Ranger Instructors shadowed along as we conducted our missions, we were watched and graded as we conducted each daily mission. This time, I was put in a position that would truly challenge me. I was assigned to be the Platoon Leader and my mission was to conduct a high-level raid. Believe me when I say I felt overwhelmed. My head was completely spun that day, I felt lost and stumbled my way through the day. A raid did happen that night, but I do not know how. Though the raid was conducted successfully, my Ranger Instructor could see that I was complete in my ability to lead that day. I leaned way too hard on subordinate leaders to make decisions for the platoon and did not look confident as a leader. I was issued a ‘No Go' and did not get another look during this phase. After the long and grueling field problem, I watched as my original class loaded a buss from Camp Rudder and went on to graduate and recieve their Ranger tab. That was it, I had completed the whole school, the only thing between me, the tab, and the bus ride home, was my performance. Watching that graduating bus drive off and leave me behind was one of the hardest things I had ever endured. I wasn’t alone. A platoon of ‘recycles’ always await a new phase to insert into after each cycle. While approximately 40% of people who get sent to Ranger School pass, a much smaller chunk of that mix makes it through the entire school without recycling. I once heard a Ranger Instructor tell us that only 14% of the initial body makes it straight through. Not entirely sure if that is an accurate metric, but after my experience, I believe it.
Recycling Into the Next Florida Phase
I waited for the new class to roll through and got reinserted into the next Florida phase cycle. I went through the grueling phase again, and received a ‘Go,’ for my patrol as a squad leader; however, being issued with a new group at the end of Ranger School is not without its social challenges. I did not mingle well with the group. I got angry with people and did not mesh well. Truth be told, I was peered out and failed Florida phase again. At the end of that 2nd Florida Phase, I had to appear before a board of high-ranking Florida Phase Cadre. Among these personnel, were high ranking military NCOs and commissioned officers. I had to explain before the board why I believed I was peered out, and why I deserved to stay. This was a nerve-racking experience, because my performance with the board would dictate whether I would have another opportunity to try Florida phase again and earn my Ranger tab. I went before the board and argued my case. I was berated, verbally scorned, and humiliated. However, I managed to make a good enough impression to recycle into the next cycle once more. I again watched as the second group of candidates loaded the bus to graduate, recieve their Ranger tab, and go home. It was hard to endure, but I was there to stay. I was once again reinserted into the Florida field problem with a new group.
Third Time is the Charm
Let's jump back to where I began this story, at my 3rd and likely final attempt at Florida phase. I was being graded as a platoon sergeant. This was my first, and possibly only look in a leadership position. A 2nd or 3rd look is possible, but never guaranteed. To add more weight, if I failed this phase again, at best I would recycle to the beginning of the entire school. Worst case, I would be dropped from the course completely. In Ranger Regiment, those dropped from Ranger School are kicked out of the special operations unit, failure is not an option in the 75th Ranger Regiment. Again, resupply had come in late, and trash pickup did not come at all. The men were cold, wet, hungry, and now even more demotivated. My shot at graduating Ranger School depended on my ability to motivate these men to move a harsh distance, using immense amounts of energy, and ultimately attack a target. We were not off to a good start. I managed to get them moving and to the boat loading zone; however, motivation was already low and hard to work with. Keep in mind, we moved 8 km to the boat loading zone with some now carrying over 100 lbs. The truth is, if you are not the one being graded in a leadership position for the day, you are less inclined to care. With the conditions and bad start of the day, the men were very demotivated and sluggish. I did what I could to motivate them and speed the process, but I found it very challenging to get them loaded in a timely manner.
"Army Ranger Training the Next Generation." ABC3 Wear-TV News. Last edited 29 September 2019. Web.
The boats were eventually loaded, and the rowing began, I stared at my map trying to keep track of where the boats were in relation to the drop off zone. Mind you, we had been receiving anywhere from 3 hrs... at best... to no designated sleep for the past 6 days. This particular day was actually not terrible for the average day, having had about 2 hours of sleep.
"Florida Phase of Ranger School." Defense Visual Information Distribution Services. Last edited 7 July 2016. Web.
That said, it was very common for people to fall asleep at any point, to include walking, due to sleep deprivation. We referred to this phenomenon as droning. Droning was not a controllable function, sometimes you would fall asleep without any control. Hallucinations were also common, I had experienced them myself. What's even more fun is watching others have hallucinations, during one particular movement, I saw a guy veer off from our walking path and start talking to a tree. I noticed something was wrong and called out to him and asked him what he was doing. He snapped back awake and said "Oh shit, I thought I was buying ice cream," we both got a good laugh from that.
During this day though, I was not droning or hallucinating, but I found myself absent of all thought while looking at the map on the boat ride. I had first looked at it with the intention of following along and keeping track of our location as we moved through the river, but had fallen into a state of hypnosis. I have no recollection of how long I was under this twilight consciousness, all I know is that the Ranger Instructor caught on and asked me, “Where are we at Ranger?” A jolt of electricity shot through me as I jumped back to consciousness. ‘Shit!’ I thought, I looked around in hopes to recognize a bend in the river or an identifiable terrain feature. Ultimately, I did not know our exact location. A sense of dread overcame me, and a lump formed in my throat. I pointed to an area of the river, a complete guess, he smirked and said, “Okay.” The way he reacted confirmed I was wrong. I quickly reassessed terrain features and curves of the river, I went back over to him and said, “Correction Sergeant, we are here,” and pointed to our correct location. He looked at me and said, “Much better.” I felt relieved but I knew the damage was done. I felt overcome with dread about my mistake.
"Waterborne Training Mission." Wikipedia. Last edited 5 January 2022. Web.
We made it to the offloading zone on the river bank and men began to step into the murky swamp. Across the river was an alligator who watched us eerily. The men fixated on it as we stepped off, they mumbled to each other nervous jokes and obscenities. To my benefit… they moved much faster.
"Alligator in Florida." Camp Live Oak. (n.d.) Web.