The chest-deep waters of the Florida swamps stand as an unsettling endorsement for the worldview that the planet can be neatly divided into two camps: predators and prey.
Lurking beneath the Yellow River running through these parts are venomous cottonmouths and alligators roughly the length of a VW bus. That’s not to mention palm snakes with razor-sharp teeth, coral snakes and, for good measure, biting flies and ravenous quicksand.
Equally perilous, these environs breed the sort of lingering damp that can work nefarious wonders on feet and wear down hearts and minds with considerable haste.
It is here in this final phase of Army Ranger School that students must prove once-and-for-all that they have what it takes to lead dog-tired soldiers in the toughest of conditions, as they trudge along sandy boot-swallowing banks with as little food and sleep as most of them have ever been forced to endure, prepared to hunt or be hunted.
Jungle training is not for the faint of heart. Two-dozen Ranger students have died in the Florida swamps since the school’s inception in 1951. It is also telling that this is the sole post in the Army with certified, bonded reptile handlers on hand – who qualify for the job only after they have volunteered to be bitten themselves by the nonvenomous snake of their choice.
The inherent hazards of the school have long been a point of pride here. What is new are the two female soldiers within the student ranks, part of the Pentagon’s current experiment involving whether women can – and should – inhabit this predacious world.
Their performance to date is inspiring many Ranger School instructors, who admit that they had their doubts in the beginning, to come to what they see as an ineluctable conclusion: that their female compatriots can – and should – be here.
“Seeing is believing on this one,” says Sgt. 1st Class Jeremy Lemma, an instructor and one half of the two-man team that won the Army’s annual Best Ranger competition in April. “They’re tough – mentally I’d put them up against the toughest men. And they’re doing it. That’s courage, strength,” he says. “It’s impressive.”
“Physically, they’re in the top of the class,” says Sgt. Brian Thomas, one of the camp’s certified reptile handlers, who was so calm after he was accidentally bitten by a cottonmouth that he recorded a video cataloging details of his condition for emergency room workers awaiting his arrival with antivenom.
This opinion of the female students here is one he says he shares with Ranger instructor friends who have observed them in earlier phases of the school. “Honestly, we’ve all been thoroughly impressed.”
The standards, the instructors here stress in what has become their unremitting mantra, remain unchanged.
The women here are giving battle orders, air assaulting into “enemy” territory, shepherding their soldiers, and – like their fellow Ranger students – learning what it takes to motivate their troops to go to grim places they would rather not go.
Of the 19 women who started Ranger School in late April, a captain and a first lieutenant – both West Point graduates – remain. They have been highly-rated among their peers, for their mental and physical strength, and for their proven ability to do what Rangers are explicitly tasked to do: “Close with and destroy the enemy in direct-fire battle.”
Make it through one more week of swamp training, and they will become the first women ever to wear a Ranger tab.
While this tab tends to garner considerable respect among fellow soldiers – less than 3 percent of the Army wears one – women who have earned it will not, however, be permitted to serve in Ranger Regiment, the special operations branch of the force. This may change after January, when services must either open all combat jobs to women, or come up with a marked reason, based on scientific research, why they recommend against it. For this reason, this class is being closely watched by top Pentagon brass.
That makes it notable, but the students here will experience the same trials and tribulations as the Rangers who came before them – Rangers who recall this school as the place where they experienced some of the best, and the worst, moments of their lives.
Under the canopy of long-leaf pines and shrub oak, the students rehearse building one-rope bridges knotted so they will disassemble with a single decisive pull when Rangers must fade into the jungle canopy without enemy detection, leaving no trace of their equipment behind.
“Look at me, Ranger,” an instructor says to a student uncomfortably making his way across the river using said rope bridge, head precariously pulled back by the weight of his 80-pound pack caught in a current. As the student wills his head forward, the instructor responds encouragingly, “Now, there’s a cold, steely-eyed killer.”
There is a marked lack of the yelling that characterizes the earlier phases of Ranger School, a point of pride among the instructors here. Ranger school is divided into three “phases” – woodlands, mountains, and swamp, or, as the instructors here like to say, “crawl, walk, run.” Their time here in the swamps is the “run.”
“There’s hardly anyone getting smoked anymore,” by the time they arrive for jungle training, says Capt. Jackson Wittkamper, an instructor. “We expect them to basically know what they’re doing at this point.
The soldiers who remain should be able to lead ambushes, repel them, and keep track of their troops, all at the same time. Even as their missions are growing in complexity, however, the students are physically “pretty beat up” by the time they arrive to the swamps, says Lt. Col. Bart Hensler, commander of the 6th Ranger Training Battalion, which runs the Florida phase of the school.
At this point, he notes, “They are probably in the worst shape of their lives.” Students are averaging between zero and four hours of sleep a night, expected to perform at their highest level yet when their reserves are at their lowest. Among their most important jobs here is perfecting their “movement to contact,” as it’s known in military parlance.
“That’s hunting,” says Lt. Colonel Hensler. “You’re hunting the enemy.”
To aid in that process today, students have donned face camouflage in a wide array of motifs. “There’s always a little flair going into it, but some guys get ridiculous,” Captain Wittkamper says, shaking his head as he surveys the students. There is a right way to apply it – dark on the nose, cheekbones, and other high points of the face – and students who fail to adhere to these basic rules of thumb are marked down.
War paint on, it is even harder to tell the women apart as one female student makes her way to the shore, holding the line as her fellow Ranger students pile into a zodiac boat for a river crossing. She will serve as coxswain on this mission, rowing and giving orders to help her team navigate the boat through some tricky currents.
As the zodiacs arrive ashore, students are told to set their oars down “nicely and quietly” to avoid making noise. They pull security for their Ranger buddies in order to “remain tactical” as they take off their life vests, pointing their weapons in an outward-facing perimeter.
Instructors watch all this transpire holding wooden staffs ringed with glow-in-the-dark duct tape to gauge knee, waist, and chest-deep water. After a November 1995 swamp phase in which four students died after contracting hypothermia in the chest-deep waters, instructors also test air and water temperature. Too low, and students don’t get in the water. “It’s not a ‘wink, wink’ thing,” Hensler says.
Even with the safety measures and without the yelling, there are many ways the RI’s here can make student life unpleasant to discourage complacence. Some they deploy when platoons make major mistakes, like accidentally leaving a soldier – who’s been silently tapped out by instructors – behind and not realizing until miles later that he’s gone. “That’s really unforgivable,” says Capt. George Calhoun, an instructor here.
As punishment, instructors playing enemy forces might deliberately “kill” a platoon’s largest soldier during an ambush, so it can no longer use him to carry the big guns. “You’d be surprised how much that can hurt” a unit’s performance for a mission, Captain Calhoun says.
This is particularly true since, as the platoons have gotten smaller with student attrition throughout the course, the loads they’re each carrying have gotten larger.
In outdoor classroom complete with bleachers, Ranger students are being instructed in the fine art of the ambush.
They are tired, and with each minute into the lecture, a student or two stands up, to avoid falling asleep. This serves two purposes: They will not be marked down, known here as receiving a “spot report,” for unauthorized sleeping, which tends to be the single largest cause of spot reports at this point in the course. It will also ensure that their entire class is not asked to stand during the lecture as punishment for their own personal exhaustion.
“We’re predators by nature – we notice movement,” the instructor says, as he urges them not to become easy targets. “I need you to cloverleaf your movement –you’re creeping, you’re melting,” he says. “You’re doing a low-crawl. I know it sucks. I know you guys are tired. But the enemy knows the terrain – you don’t.”
Students have spent an afternoon preparing battle plans, which are expected to contain a considerable amount of detail. Just presenting them will take 40 minutes. They will outline how the enemy might use any avenues of approach, choose specific targets, and tell their troops where their machine gun emplacements should be – and how quickly they should be firing their weapons – while attacking the enemy.
They will also give their troops left and right limits of fire, as in “You will not shoot left of the water tower,” Calhoun explains. This reduces the risk of fratricide, and also ensures that troops properly saturate the area with bullets. Should Rangers fail to do that, he adds, “The enemy won’t have his head down.”
As she prepares orders for her unit, one of the female students is standing, writing on the bleachers while other soldiers are sitting, measuring angles with protractors. It is the outdoor planning cell – what troops here call the “tower of power – replete with whiteboards, markers, and tables. It is the very last time students will have such luxurious resources before they begin missions in the swamps.
Nearby, students are plucking bud-sized leaves from branches they have gathered, to use as markers on the sand table, a waist-high sandbox that soldiers will use to chart 3D troop movements and terrain. Ranger students have been known to carry colored golf tees and toy soldiers in their packs, to use as markers to enhance their sand tables, since particularly good ones garner extra credit in the course.
As they work, nearly all of the students are chewing gum. Years ago, they used chewing tobacco, but it was banned for being addictive, instructors say. Now, the students here brag that they actually have it harder at Ranger School than the old-timers, since they do it without stimulants.
In their choice of chewing gum, students tend to eschew mint in favor of fruit and dessert flavors. Before they buy it, they check calorie counts--the higher, the better in a place where food is tightly controlled and gum is a precious commodity. Ranger students break it into bits to use as motivation for their soldiers when it’s their turn to lead, or to offer consolation to their buddies in times of need.
“When I got a ‘no go’ it lifted me up,” Calhoun fondly recalls of the gift of gum he received as a student from one of his sympathetic Ranger buddies.
“No go’s” are failures to complete a mission or task, and they are ubiquitous here. The majority of those who have ultimately made it through Ranger School have failed at least one phase of the program – only 30 percent make it straight through the first time – and been forced to repeat it.
The women are no exception. The two who remain repeated, known here as “recycling,” the first phase of Ranger School at Camp Darby three times before being given the green light. One more woman is currently in the process of repeating the Mountain phase.
Wittkamper says he recalls failing the Darby phase – when he accidentally left behind a fellow Ranger student under his command who fell asleep in the woods –as “an emotionally low period in my life.” He then had to help load successful Ranger students on to the bus where they were moving on to the next phase of Ranger school. “You have to stay and they get to go,” he says. “They’re painful memories.”
For this reason, the instructors here have particular empathy – and respect – for the female students who repeated Darby three times.
The swamp phase has its highlights, too. Staff Sgt. Coty Burns, an instructor, recalls with particular fondness the “chow birds” that have become a tradition here. According to Ranger school lore, a military helicopter flown by Army student-pilots crashed and a platoon of Ranger students came to their aid. As a way of showing their thanks, the pilots carry coolers filled with illicit fast food and sugary drinks when they’re transporting the always-famished Ranger students here.
Staff Sergeant Burns recalls his chow bird experience as one of the best days of his life.
“If there’s one extra sandwich, we would each take a bite and pass it around, until it’s gone.” He and his fellow students stuffed themselves with as much food as they could before the bird landed, wiping sandwich sauce off each others’ faces so their instructors would be none-the-wiser.
It is lifelong gratitude for these small acts of kindness in the face of great trial and deprivation that help forge the intense bonds among Rangers.
It was a similar gesture of kindness, too, that helped to convince Timothy Spayd, a former active duty sergeant who graduated from Ranger School in 1980, that maybe women do belong here after all.
Initially opposed to women becoming Rangers, Mr. Spayd was convinced that they would “water down the tab.” Then he ran a hardcore 10-mile obstacle race with some female Army soldiers serving as observer-advisors for the Ranger School. Spayd, who has been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, was struggling physically.
“They stayed with me,” he says, recalling that there was one female soldier on each side of him as they helped him along. “That really touched me,” he adds, noting that they embraced “the whole ‘no-man-left-behind’ thing.”
Through this experience, he became open to the possibility of female Rangers, he says. As a frequent visitor to the school, he has watched the two female Ranger students come through the Florida swamps, and what he has seen has caused him to reconsider his initial opposition to their presence.
“They’ve impressed me,” he says. “They’re really manning up.”