Rough road to Ranger

Training: In 61 grueling days, the Army produces its top fighters -- those most likely to go to Afghanistan.

War On Terrorism

November 04, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FORT BENNING, Ga. -- The young soldier clings to the rope, looking miserable. His face is one big contortion, and his shaved head glistens with sweat in the chill morning air. The Tough One -- one of 26 obstacles on a grueling course in the middle of nowhere -- has lived up to its name.

The sleep-deprived and hungry soldier is gamely trying for a third time to inch up the rope. "Go, Ranger!" the instructor yells. "What are you waiting for? Christmas?" Another instructor chides the GI in a mocking falsetto: "I ain't gonna make it, Sarge."

The soldier doesn't make it, letting go and thudding to the ground. Frustrated, he trudges off to the next obstacle, not yet halfway through the nearly mile-long test of strength, stamina and will.

Deep in the Georgia woods, 141 soldiers are being pushed like never before on an odyssey that will take them from forest to mountain to swamp -- a 61-day ordeal that one former Ranger calls "two months of pure, unadulterated hell."

The reward for survival is a coveted Ranger patch -- and quite possibly a trip to Afghanistan. This is Army Ranger school, where graduation can mean full-fledged status with the 75th Ranger Regiment, an elite, quick-strike force that has staged at least one parachute raid on Taliban turf near the southern Afghanistan city of Kandahar.

The prospect that some trainees could soon see combat, with all the attendant risks, is not lost on anyone. The two Rangers who died in a helicopter crash last month in Pakistan were from Fort Benning, a sprawling base in western Georgia more than three times the size of Baltimore.

"I just want to make sure each and every one of you knows they continue to say this [military campaign] is over the long haul," Lt. Col. Greg Hager, the training commander at Benning, tells the class. "The best training you can get is here at Ranger school."

"Hooah!" the men roar back in unison.

Later, Pfc. Kwesi Ramsey, a 28-year-old husband, father and one of those destined for the Ranger regiment after graduation, says he is neither eager nor reluctant to fight: "We knew the hazards of our profession, that we would be one of the leading forces."

"It's just part of the job," says Erik Hamard, a 24-year-old sergeant.

Military experts say the Rangers, whose roots date to Colonial times when men "ranged" along the frontier, will become even more valuable in this post-Cold War era. In a place like Afghanistan, a nimble yet fierce light-infantry force can do more than an armored division.

"If anything, we may need more units like the Ranger regiment," says David R. Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland. "We're not going to be confronting the Soviet Union with tanks on the plains of Europe."

Rangers form one branch of the all-male Special Operations tree. Others include the Navy SEALs, the supposedly secret Army Delta Force and the Army Green Berets, who tend to operate in small groups and are as likely to train friendly rebels such as the Northern Alliance as engage in combat.

Ready for anywhere, any time

Rangers are specially trained to enter hostile territory, seize control and open the door for other units. There are only 2,300 Rangers in the regiment, which is based here. (Thousands of other soldiers have completed Ranger school but are spread among units throughout the Army.) They train year-round in all climates and can deploy anywhere worldwide in 18 hours.

Although Rangers make up a small minority of the 27,000 active-duty men and women at Fort Benning, local pride in the unit is evident next door in Columbus, Ga., where the best-known military supply store is Ranger Joe's.

A local radio station has been airing the Ranger Creed, which ends with the line: "Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission, though I be the lone survivor."

"I'd take their place if I could," says Diane Odom, who works behind the counter at Ranger Joe's on Victory Drive. She has sewn patches on uniforms for Rangers, prayed with some and even played matchmaker. She noticed when some Rangers stopped coming by soon after Sept. 11, and she worries.

"They know exactly what to do," she says, "but I'm a mom."

The Army has not said how many Rangers are in Afghanistan or given news outlets access to regiment training exercises at Benning and two other U.S. bases. The Sun was allowed, however, to observe Ranger school.

`Not for the weak or fainthearted'

One popular misconception is that prospective Rangers are Rambo-esque hulks. In fact many are short or lanky. Factor in the shaved heads and glasses that many wear (contact lenses are forbidden), and some look downright bookish.

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