A Girl in Ranger School
by Don Gomez
“Wake the fuck up!”
I open my eyes and slowly turn to face Charles. “Huh? I wasn’t sleeping.”
“Whatever. We’re moving.” Charles stands up and turns to walk away, easily handling the weight of the rucksack on his back.
What was this, I think, day three of patrols? Yes, day three of patrols. And already I was falling asleep whenever we stopped. The hunger didn’t bother me, but I was a sleepy Ranger, apparently.
I let out a deep breath and used the buttstock of my rifle as a cane to help myself up off of the ground, the weight of my ruck settling down hard on my shoulders as I straighten out. The sun is bright and hot. Back on my feet I feel tiny beads of sweat already forming again on my face. The heat feels trapped in my hair under my cap, cooking my head. Some of the other girls shaved their heads. They said it would keep them cooler and it would be easier to manage in the filth. Not to mention it would stave off some of the criticism from the boys, since they have to shave theirs. Fuck that, I think. It looks terrible on girls. None of us look like Demi Moore.
The squad is already moving and I hobble over to my place in formation. This is the worst. Lumbering through the woods with this stupid, heavy ruck with the hot sun beating down on us. It is slow and painful. So far as I can tell, I’m not suffering any more than the others. Everyone looks miserable, but one of our guys was constantly on the verge of tears. It’s pretty pathetic. You would think that with a female in the squad everyone would be trying just a little bit harder to put on a show, but when it sucks this bad, no one gives a shit.
I shift under the weight of my ruck, adjusting the straps every so often to try to make it a little more comfortable. The relief is always temporary. Periodically, I’d stop and thrust the ruck up on my back as high as I could to get the blood flowing down through my shoulders. Whenever I did it, the guys around me did it too.
I can already feel myself losing weight. I trained hard for this and went on an eating binge the whole month prior to coming to Fort Benning to put on some extra weight since I figured I’d be losing it over the coming months.
Charles, the team leader (who was being graded today) turns and makes eye contact with me and signals with his fingers to his eyes to pay attention. I nod back that I understand, trying to seem cheerful, but pretty sure it comes off dismissively. I didn’t really like Charles. He’s strong and knows his job, but he isn’t very friendly and he made it clear when we first met that he didn’t think I would make it, that this whole “experiment” was a terrible mistake. “I think it’s great that you are here, good on you, but you’re probably not gonna make it. It’s biology.”
We are moving up a slight incline coming out of some thicker brush into a sparsely vegetated dry grass field. The RI stops and waits for our formation to pass him. I keep glancing back at him and I see him turn and mumble something into his radio.
Everyone starts looking around, we know we’re about to be hit. It always happens this way. The whole situation is awkward, because we have to pretend like we don’t know it’s coming and keep marching forward, waiting to be pounced.
We start taking “fire” (we all use blank rounds) from the front. I get down behind a small tree and lean on my rucksack, looking towards Charles. The react to contact sounds pretty good. I loosen the left strap of my rucksack so that if we were called to flank, I can quickly get it off.
I shift around to try to see what was going on up front, but from this low on the ground I can’t see anything. Charles and I make eye contact. I shrug my shoulders, signaling that I have no idea what’s going on (and don’t care really). His face tightens, frustrated, and looks back to the front, searching for the squad leader and some instructions.
“ASSAULT THROUGH!” screams the squad leader, Colton, who was an engineer officer.
“What the fuck?” Charles says in frustration.
Colton decids to have the lead team just bum rush the enemy with a frontal attack. Not doctrinally wrong, but probably not the best thing to do in this situation. I don’t really care. I wasn’t getting graded and it meant I wouldn’t have to do any “bold flanking maneuvers” today, which can be a real smoker.
Since alpha team was doing a frontal attack, essentially firing and inching closer to the enemy until they’re dead, bravo team (my team) would just sit here until alpha finished and we are called forward. The RI moves up with alpha team, which leaves us unsupervised.
“That was fucking stupid,” Charles says looking at me.
“Yeah,” I reply, disinterested.
Charles takes a deep breath and starts playing with a piece of grass. I tighten my rucksack strap back down and try to stay awake.
“LOA! LOA!” we hear from the front and we all push up to take a knee. LOA. “Limit of advance.” It means that alpha team has fought through the enemy and has established a hasty security perimeter. Now, we would push forward and link in with them.
Charles is by the book and wouldn’t start moving forward until Colton called us forward. Colton doesn’t know that he was supposed to call us forward. He probably figures – like a lot of guys do – that we should just move up automatically after the LOA is reached.
An uncomfortable thirty seconds elapses before Colton screams out “LOA, move the fuck up alpha team!”
Charles looks at me and smirks, delighted with doing the “right” thing while sticking it to Colton. “Alright alpha team let’s move!” he shouts as we all stand up and get on line with him.
With our weapons raised, we move swiftly forward, passing over the two ‘dead’ OPFOR. One of the guys who passes directly over them pretends to shoot them again, standard procedure, make sure they’re dead. “Bang bang,” he says. He bends over and pulls their weapons away from them before jumping back into our advancing line.
As we approach the LOA, Colton is pointing frantically at us to push over to the right to form a right angle with alpha team. I notice this but don’t say anything to Charles. We practically walk right on top of bravo team before Charles realizes his error and pushes us over to the right. He sets us in individually. Seeing this, I take a knee where I am and wait for him to place me, even though there’s a tree a few meters to my left. I know he’ll move me to the tree, but fuck him.
“Crist, get behind that fucking tree” he whisper-yells as he approaches me.
“Which tree?” I ask, faux-confused.
“Mother fucker.” He grabs the back of my FLC and tugs on it to move me to the left, behind the tree.
He starts to ask about my status and I cut him off “two, up up,” as in, I have two magazines and I’m not injured and all of my equipment is fine. He makes a mental note of it and scurries down the line to set in the other guys in the team.
I make myself comfortable behind the tree and rest the magazine of my M4 on the ground. I scan my sector in front of me and let out a great deal of air, feeling pretty miserable now that I’ve stopped running and I can feel the sweat forming into drops under my hair and beginning to flow down my face. I always sweat more once we stop moving.
A few minutes go by as security is emplaced and Colton fumbles through actions on the objective – a laundry list of things that need to be accomplished after the enemy is destroyed.
Things are moving pretty slowly. No one is calling out the current time. The RTO (the radio guy) is supposed to start calling out time updates by the minute from the time we make contact with the enemy. This is to let us know how much time we have before the enemy can get reinforcements here. Usually, we want to be out of here in twelve minutes or less. Ten is best.
I’m not far from Colton when the RI walks up to him and says in his Ranger monotone voice, “Ranger, what are you doing?”
Colton, who still hasn’t figured out that these types of inquiries are not a challenge, but a confirmation, asks, “Uh, actions on, sergeant?”
“I know that, Ranger. But what should you be doing right now?”
“Oh, a radio update,” Colton says, thinking he remembers what he’s missing.
“No, Ranger. How long have you been on the objective?”
Colton looks down briefly and then turns to his RTO and then back up at the RI, who is standing firm, hovering. “About 8 minutes, sergeant.”
“No. It’s been more like 15 minutes. Hurry up.” The RI turns and walks away.
Colton yells, “EPW team, hurry the fuck up!” When all else fells, yell and curse more.
I took in a deep breath, fully knowing that nothing good would come out of this. I watched the RI walk behind us, his hand fishing into one of his pouches.
A high pitched whistle. My heart sinks into my belly and I yell “INCOMING!” I’m already in the prone so I just put my head down into the dirt.
We were moving too slowly, so the RI decided to ‘help us out’ by throwing an artillery simulator, a small explosive that whistles and blows up.
Colton yells “12 o’clock, 300 meters!” giving us a distance and direction to head off to.
Charles to Colton: “What about alpha’s fucking rucks?”
Colton, confused: “…yeah, go get your rucks, then 12 o’clock, 300 meters.”
In a terribly disorganized manner, alpha team and headquarters head back to find their rucks. We take incoming fire twice in the time it takes for them to find their rucks, ruck up, and get back to us. Not too bad for us in bravo, since we just had to stay here in the prone while alpha runs all over the place.
Finally, alpha team makes their way back to us and starts to push in front, Colton whisper-yelling “Okay, 12 o’clock, 300 meters, let’s go.”
The RI says, “Bravo team leader, you’re dead.” The RI decided we took too long here and has assessed a casualty. This is both a training intensifier and a punishment. It meant we would have to carry him and his equipment while running out of the kill zone for an unspecified amount of time. It could be for the next five minutes, or until the mission is over, hours from now. Either way, it would be painful for us.
Colton, in full panic mode looks at me, who is just to the right of the new dead Charles and says “Crist, carry Charles.”
I look over to Colton and give him a ‘what the fuck’ face.
“Fucking carry Charles” Colton screams.
Everyone is watching. This is the moment, I guess. We had talked about what would happen if we took a casualty in the squad and it was decided that we would have one of the bigger guys carry the body, while the smaller guys carried the gear and pulled security. It made sense and we all agreed it would work best. But now, here we were, standing around 180lb Charles, his 70lb rucksack and his 25lbs of gear, and everyone was watching me ready to see if I could do it. I have carried guys before. It was something they focused on in the train up before we got here. It always sucked, but I could do it. Charles was heavy, but I’ve carried heavier. I never did it in Ranger School though. I was tired and felt like shit, just like everyone else. And now every woman in this school – in this Army – would be judged on whether I could carry stupid fucking fake dead Charles.
I mov to Charles and take a knee and start to try to pick him up. Normally, the casualty would try to help the carrier out by assisting a little bit. Charles was going to play this legit. Dead dead.
“Rangers, are you going to watch this, or are your going to pull security?” the RI asks, the question sending the squad into hasty security positions. The RI keeps his eyes firmly locked on me.
Seeing that Charles wasn’t going to be helping me out, I get behind him and place my hands underneath his armpits and prop him up against my knee with a grunt. Then, I drag him backwards and then push him forward so his boots catch in the dirt which gives me some leverage to stand him up. Charles is being a total dick and trying to collapse himself. My muscles strain just holding him up.
Completely pissed off now, I grab his left wrist with my right hand and then swoop my left arm sharply in-between his legs, grabbing around his thigh. Charles lets out a painful grunt. Angry, I thrust him up over my shoulders and rest his body onto the top of my rucksack.
The weight is incredible. I can’t see because Charles’ body forced my head down to the ground. I pull my rifle off of the ground with the parachute cord that was tied down to my FLC and carry it in my right hand like a suitcase. Someone placed Charles’ weapon on top of him (and me) and I feel the extra weight added to the terrible total.
There’s no fucking way, I think.
For what seems like an eternity we just stand there. “Let’s fucking go,” I say, my voice cracking a bit, sounding more female than I would have liked.
I hear Colton say “Okay, let’s go” and I hear the squad start to scurry forward.
I can barely move. The squad is half-heartedly running while I am barely getting one foot in front of the other. I can hardly move my legs. I’m taking huge gulps of air and trying my best not to tumble over. After a minute, I actually find a terrible, painful rhythm which consists of me falling forward and catching myself, using the weight as momentum to move. My shoulders feel like they are being torn into by the fabric of the rucksack straps. Charles mumbles something about me not being so bouncy.
I keep stumbling forward, determined not to fail. I can’t see what’s going on. We must’ve gone 300 meters by now, I think. I keep moving forward and I hear someone in front of me yelling back “Hurry the fuck up!” The ground below me begins sloping upwards, we’re moving up a fucking hill now. I can feel the quit entering my brain, moving down my nerves into my arms, my back, and especially my legs. I want to quit. This sucks. I can just drop Charles and someone else will carry him. There’s nothing wrong with that, right? I feel tears forming in my eyes and I catch myself. I bite hard on the inside of my lower lip to try to pull myself out of this funk. It works. Don’t quit, I think to myself. This will end. My heart is beating like crazy as my legs slowly pump up this hill – why are we going up a hill?
After a minute or two, the earth flattens out and this sucks just slightly less than it did a second ago. I force my head up against Charles’ body to catch a glimpse of what’s ahead and I can barely see the rest of the squad some 50 meters ahead of me, in the woods. Fuck this, I think as quitting re-enters my mind. My breathing becomes frantic and panicky. I try biting my lip again but it doesn’t work. This is it. I keep falling forward and my head starts to involuntarily shake. I’m looking for sympathy but no one sees it.
“Put him down here,” I hear Colton say.
I lean forward and Charles’ body tumbles over my head and he lands on the ground with a thud.
“What the fuck, Crist!?” Charles looks up at me, not dead anymore, I guess.
I take a knee and hold my weapon by the barrel, using it as a cane to keep balance. I look down at the ground and pant, sweat dripping off my face forming a muddy puddle in the dirt below me.
“Good job, Crist,” I hear someone in the squad say.
I feel good, but also shitty. I was right about to quit.
Don Gomez is an old enlisted infantryman and new infantry officer in the United States Army. He blogs at Carrying the Gun.