FORT BENNING, Ga. -- "This is it. Number one on my list of worst days at Ranger School," 1st Lt. Anna Hodge thought as it started to rain again during day eight of Mountain Phase patrols. The blisters on her feet, the chaffing on her legs, and the prickly heat stung with the rain. She stuffed more pieces of MRE gum in her mouth, biting down hard to keep her mind off the pain.
"Your complaint has been duly noted and will be answered within 24 to 48 hours," she mentally responded to the pain, imitating an answering machine. "Now back to counting steps, 1,344, 1,345...
"Our Mountain Phase experienced record-high rainfall, and I felt bad for my platoon mates who had chafed in some pretty uncomfortable places," says Hodge. "My legs looked like road rash; the blood and pus was sticking to my uniform. Shivering at night was the norm; yes, it was cold, but even more because of the pain."
But Hodge had one advantage some of her friends didn't. She decided to go to Ranger School without feeling pressured; the pain described above was something she had chosen, all simply to become a better intelligence officer.
"I wanted to focus on tactical intelligence," says Hodge. "It is impossible to know where the enemy will move, nor how to advise the commander if you don't know Infantry tactics." Military Intelligence is an Operations Support branch. If Soldiers don't understand what they are supporting, mission success is unlikely.
"I've always had a soft spot for the Infantry, and I learned so much about Infantry tactics at Ranger School," says Hodge. "After graduating, that respect grew even more."
Hodge wanted to attend Ranger School dating back to 2010 when she first joined ROTC. "I loved patrolling, working as part of a squad and the challenge of pushing myself to perform on minimal food and sleep. I remember cleaning weapons one day and someone joked that I should shave my head and go to Ranger School. I thought it was funny, and secretly I really wanted to go. But it wasn't open to females at the time."
That all changed in 2015 when, for the first time, a female graduated Ranger School.
The following year Hodge attended the Basic Officer Leadership Course for Military Intelligence. She listened to an instructor who recruited Military Intelligence, or MI, officers for the new 75th Regiment MI Battalion. "The hardest part of Ranger School is deciding to go," the instructor said.
Hodge remembers thinking, "I've always been a religious person and when I heard the instructor, it was like God telling me, 'you better start preparing because you're going to go.'"
It wasn't until she went to 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, "The Rock," part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Italy, that she got her opportunity.
"Slowly I expressed a desire to attend Ranger School and my chain of command believed in me," explains Hodge. "They encouraged me and other lieutenants to go; they did an excellent job creating a command climate where mistakes and failure are accepted as long as you try. Leaders can have a profound impact on a unit's culture and I'm so grateful to serve in 'The Rock.' The unit is full of great leaders, past and present, serving as examples for the type of leader I strive to be."
"There are a lot of things that get you through Ranger School, but two of the most important are 'wanting to attend' and 'not quitting,'" says Hodge's battalion commander, Lt. Col. Jim Keirsey. "1st Lt. Hodge wanted to go and earned her spot on the order of merit list. Once there, she didn't quit. Now she is a Ranger qualified 'Rock' Paratrooper."
Hodge trained for Ranger School by herself, facing the difficulty of balancing work and training. Many times she wished she could have trained more, but battalion priorities came first. She was motivated to work out twice a day, doing countless ruck marches. Sometimes she carried a sledge hammer, simulating the weight of machine gun.
"I really thought I would struggle with the physical aspect, so I trained hard prior to school," Hodge explains. "But instead, it was the Infantry stuff that was difficult for me. Coming from a Military Intelligence background, I didn't know the tactics very well, nor how the instructors wanted me to conduct patrols."
At Ranger School, a student can repeat a phase for patrols, peer ratings or an observation report; this is referred to as "recycling." If a candidate fails the same thing again, they will be dropped from the course. Her first time through, Hodge was dropped during patrols.
"I was devastated. I didn't know why I worked so hard only to fail," shares Hodge. "But ironically, I'm really glad I failed Ranger School my first time. Dealing with failure is one of the most important lessons you can learn."
Being recycled is not uncommon. According to Ft. Benning, 61.2 percent of graduating Rangers were recycled at least once in 2017. This means less than 39 percent made it through without having to start any of the phases over again. No surprise here: Ranger School is tough.
"I definitely thought about heading home after I failed," says Hodge. "To start again, it would have been colder, and mentally I was spent." Despite those thoughts, she stayed.
"I wasn't ready to give up just yet," says Hodge.
"I was able to sign up for a Master Resiliency Trainer course in between Ranger classes and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Thank goodness for resiliency because my second Ranger Assessment Phase week was one of the hardest of my life. It was so cold and miserable that I wanted to quit every day, but I told myself to just quit tomorrow. Before long I made it through the week."
"The same work ethic and 'never quit' attitude that got her through Ranger School is what makes 1st Lt. Hodge an asset to the unit," adds Keirsey.
In Hodge's case, it was also helpful to have other female Ranger graduates to follow. She became the fifteenth female throughout the Armed Services to graduate Ranger School and the first Ranger qualified female Sky Soldier. However, this also proved to be challenging.
"I never wanted to be the first female graduate," says Hodge. "I knew those who went first would deal with criticism and scrutiny. I am very grateful for the 71 females who attended Ranger School before me, the pioneers who overcame prejudice as they pursued their goals. They helped positively change opinions about female Rangers."
Hodge shares, "I remember reading negative comments about other female graduates, wondering if I would be judged, too. Would they question whether I truly earned my Ranger tab?"
But the length of ruck marches has not changed, nor does the rain fall only on male candidates. Everyone carries their own weight.
"At Ranger School, everyone is held to the same standard," asserts Hodge.
During one of the phases, she was assigned to carry the machine gun or the radio, the two heaviest items, on a regular basis. The frequent assignments to carry heavy equipment ultimately made her grateful.
"It showed me and others that I could carry the heaviest items and keep up," says Hodge.
"I was an equal member of the squad, working together with my classmates to accomplish the mission. I formed friendships that will last a lifetime. I am especially grateful to the friends I made in my platoons, my unit and from Ranger Battalion. They taught me so much about the Army and the Infantry."
"My husband was also very supportive the whole time. He even helped shave my hair and showed me how to do it myself," shares Hodge.
When asked if she has any doubts of the results, Hodge responds, "After persevering through school, I know, without a doubt, I earned my Ranger tab. It took patience and determination. I put in the effort. I met the standards."
She also offers the following advice to anyone thinking of attending Ranger School: "Appreciate the little things. You better learn to love patrols. Volunteer for the small, simple tasks that no one wants to do and make them your hobby, like emplacing claymores and camouflaging them. I loved that."
She adds, "Don't let little things get to you. Try to see the good. Yes, there were annoying bugs like mosquitos and spiders, but there were also fireflies which were super cool. Yes, it rained, and everyone's skin was chafed. But the rain also cooled us down."
The first Ranger qualified female Sky Soldier concludes, "Whatever your goal, take it one step at a time and continue in patience."