FORT STEWART, Ga., - A hum hangs in the air. All of the sudden the dull drone intensifies to an acute, high-pitch whine, and you swat the would-be vampire from your ear.
Unabashedly you smear a plant all over your body, because you've been told it is a natural repellent. You grind the plant into your skin, hoping it helps. You've been up for so long you've lost count of the hours. You're in the middle of a Georgia swamp, with all your gear, and nothing but a compass, a map and a protractor to tell you where you are, and how to get where you're going.
Everything looks the same in the swamp, and every footstep is a mental and physical challenge. Every step brings a multitude of questions. Are you going the right way? Are you where you are supposed to be? According to your calculations you should be at the old cemetery on the map, but where is it? Did you veer to the left while you were trying to go straight? Am I going the right way - will I succeed?
You're being timed and you are being tested. The pressure is on. You have to keep moving.
This is what it would have felt like if you were one of the four Ranger candidates still participating in the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division's new Pre-Ranger assessment course, on the second day of a three-day field training exercise out in a training area here, April 25.
This FTX was the culmination of more than a month of training and testing; with each candidate's goal to be granted a slot to go to the U.S. Army Ranger School.
This new program was put together and ran by a group of Spartan volunteers. The group consisted of a few of Rangers within the brigade that are Sgt. 1st Class and below, and was established for very specific reasons.
Capt. Grant Wyffels, a native of Geneseo, Ill. and the assistant operations officer of the 2nd ABCT, just recently was assigned to the Spartan Brigade from the Rangers Training Brigade. With his experience he completely understands the opportunity we have due to the draw down and the decline of deployment time.
"With this added time, it gives us as a unit time to renew our focus on leadership development," Wyffels said.
However there are other reasons and benefits to start the Pre-Ranger course other than developing leaders within the unit.
"The numbers dealing with Rangers don't paint a very pretty picture, not only are we well below the number of Rangers allocated within the brigade, but the Army's numbers as a whole are going down as well," said Wyffels.
"Rangers are getting out of the Army faster than new ones are coming in," Wyffels added.
Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Tardio, a native of Banks, Ore., and a platoon sergeant within Company A, 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment "Battle Boars", 2nd ABCT, is also aware of these figures, and was charged to develop this program to fix the problem.
The biggest stumbling blocks for would-be Rangers is getting through the first portion of school, which has a high attrition rate.
"Over 50% of candidates drop out in the Ranger Assessment Phase week," said Tardio.
RAP week, which has actually been shortened to three days, is an immensely grueling period, in which Ranger candidates' physical and mental fitness, aptitude, ability and determination are all put to the test more so than they have probably ever had before, explained Tardio.
"So in order for these guys to have a fighting chance at passing RAP we needed to ensure our FTX was as close to the real thing as possible with the resources available," Tardio said.
The program had a great turn out, considering that it was the first one of its kind in recent history for the Spartan Brigade. Sixteen would-be Rangers showed up. Over the course of a few weeks of training and testing, slowly that number decreased. Whether due to injury, illness, or some other reason, by the time the candidates got to the FTX there were only four left.
On the first night, one had to drop out due to a muscular/skeletal injury. On the second night, the remaining three succumbed to the daunting ruck march, explained Tardio.
"Ranger School is physically and mentally difficult. It will push you to the breaking point," said Tardio. "It requires extreme intestinal fortitude to push beyond your self-imposed physical and mental barriers in order to succeed."
Despite the fact that no one made it through, the results of the 2nd ABCT's first Pre-Ranger course are nothing but positive.
"I consider this a success. The path to graduating Ranger School and earning your Ranger Tab is not an easy one. Everybody recycles at some point," Tardio explained.
"I fully believe that every one of the candidates out here on this FTX will one day graduate and earn their tab as long as they continue with it," he added.
Only time will tell if the program will continue to build on its successes, however the very real need for Rangers in the Army and the unit continues.
"I don't care what your rank is, what your background is, what your military occupational specialty is, we need ranger leaders on the ground," Tardio said. "Hopefully this catches like wild fire."
So will you be the one to step up and find out what you limits are? Do you want to push past those limits and become a member of an elite brotherhood? If your answer to these questions is 'yes', maybe is time to take that first challenging step - maybe its time for you to lead the way - maybe its time for you to earn your Ranger Tab.
If you are a Spartan and think you have what it takes, email Staff Sgt. Pedro Ortiz for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.