FORT BENNING, Ga. -- The Army Ranger School here is known as one of the military's toughest schools to get through, and those who seek admission typically have at least a few years of service under their belt.
The elite Ranger Regiment is the Army's premier direct-action raiding force, geared to close combat and direct-fire battles. It can carry out commando-like missions such as seizing airfields, destroying key facilities, and capturing high-value enemies, and can strike by parachute, helicopter or other means.
The most recent Ranger School graduating class started with 283 candidates but after 62 days of the arduous all-weather training in woods, mountains and muddy swamps, only 122 made it through to the graduation ceremony, standing in a cold drizzle here Dec. 13 and pinning on the coveted black-and-yellow Ranger shoulder tab.
Six of those graduates were in an unusual category: enlisted Soldiers new to the Army and fresh out of entry-level training. And they happened to be members of various Army National Guard units.
The fact that Soldiers so new to the Army had volunteered for Ranger School reflects a recent push by the Army National Guard to intensify its ongoing efforts at bringing Ranger-qualified leaders into its ranks.
"The Ranger course is the Army's premier leadership school," said Capt. James Sturges, commander of Alpha Company, Army National Guard Warrior Training Center, at Fort Benning.
"So in sending young Guard Soldiers we are developing the future of the National Guard," he said. "When they go back to their units you have the young, competent leaders who can influence things at their level."
In the Army, some Ranger-qualified Soldiers serve with the 75th Ranger Regiment, headquartered at Fort Benning. But many others serve in non-Ranger combat and other units throughout the Army. Most of the job slots the Guard wants to fill with Ranger-qualified Soldiers are in light Infantry, mechanized Infantry, and Armor units.
The Army National Guard has had Ranger-qualified Soldiers in its units for decades.
But in summer 2017, it stepped up the effort by scouting Fort Benning's entry-level training centers for Army National Guard Soldiers who might be good candidates for Ranger School.
The six who graduated last week had only recently completed Fort Benning's entry-level Infantry One-Station Unit Training (OSUT). Infantry OSUT has two parts: Basic Combat Training, followed by Advanced Individual Training that qualifies the graduates as basic Infantrymen.
They were among a total of 14 National Guard graduates in the class, one from the Wisconsin Air National Guard, the others from Army National Guard units. The six were the only ones to come to Ranger School from OSUT.
"It is not a commonplace thing when a Soldier goes straight from initial entry training in the military straight into Ranger School," said Col. Michael A. Scarpulla, commander of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade here. The brigade trains Rangers, Paratroopers, Jumpmasters, Pathfinders and Reconnaissance Leaders.
It's part of Fort Benning's Maneuver Center of Excellence, which is home to the Army's maneuver force branches, the Infantry and Armor.
"Normally Soldiers that graduate from their initial entry training spend about a year or two at their unit, and get practical experience as a member of a fire team and such," Scarpulla said.
Only then do they take on Ranger School, if ever.
Ranger School focuses on small-unit tactics and leadership and candidates learn how to carry out ambush and scouting missions, among many other skills taught.
To help best prepare Army National Guard Soldiers to make it through Ranger School's rigors, the Army National Guard Bureau maintains the Army National Guard Warrior Training Center at Fort Benning.
Since 1994, the Army National Guard has run a "pre-Ranger" course called the Ranger Training Assessment Course, better known as RTAC.
RTAC lasts 17 days and all Army National Guard members must complete it before heading to Ranger School. Most other Army Infantry divisions run their own Pre-Ranger course.
"RTAC is the Army National Guard's pre-Ranger," said Thomas G. Siter, director of the Warrior Training Center.
But when Army National Guard leaders decided to scout Fort Benning's entry-level training centers for Ranger School candidates, it took a further step and set up the Ranger Team Leader Initiative, or RTLI.
It's aimed at finding Ranger School candidates among National Guard Soldiers in Fort Benning's OSUT units.
RTLI is a 30-day course exclusively for enlisted Guard members in OSUT and a prerequisite for their getting into RTAC.
"We stood up the RTLI two years ago to increase the amount of opportunities that the Guard enlisted Soldiers would have at attending Ranger School," said Siter. "Upon successful completion they attend RTAC and then on to Ranger School."
The emphasis on getting more Ranger-qualified Soldiers into the National Guard has two aims. One is to foster "readiness across the force" by bringing Ranger skills, knowledge and outlook into Guard units, said 1st Lt. Gabriel Musser, RTLI's officer-in-charge.
The Guard leadership, said Musser, believes "that by having more Ranger-qualified leaders in the junior ranks, especially junior -- primarily team leaders and squad leaders -- can increase unit readiness at the company and battalion levels."
A second reason is to help retain Guard members by "allowing each Soldier to reach their potential," Musser said.
A chance to accomplish Ranger qualification at an early stage of military service can strengthen the Soldier's prospects for advancement, create heightened satisfaction with their National Guard service, and lead to their choosing to re-enlist, thus helping the Guard retain exceptional NCOs, he said.
Not unlike college football coaches scouting good talent, RTLI cadre make a series of visits to Fort Benning's Infantry and Armor OSUT training centers, starting with the day trainees arrive for basic training, said Musser.
"I treat it like a college coach," said Musser. "I have to go out and recruit, I have to go out and look them in the face, figure out who is the best kid. I offer them the opportunity. We show up when they show up at basic training."
They give the trainees a briefing about Ranger School.
At a later point they also consult the drill sergeants and other OSUT cadre and ask who among the National Guard members may be good candidates for Ranger School.
"We go in there and say 'This is what we're looking for, specifically,'" said Musser. "Once we narrow that down, we'd like to talk to those 10 or 15 kids."
About three weeks before graduation from basic training, they'll go again to the basic training companies and follow-up, asking a final time for a "yes or no" on who wants to go to Ranger School, Musser said.
Pvt. Jason Chun, 19, of Ridgewood, New Jersey, is one of the six National Guard Soldiers who became a Ranger earlier this month after Infantry OSUT. He's an Infantryman assigned to the New York Army National Guard's 2nd Battalion, 108th Infantry Regiment, out of Ithaca, New York, part of the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
Chun is also majoring in psychology at Syracuse University.
"I've been wanting to go to Ranger School since I was in high school" said Chun. "It was the challenge. It was the ability to find out who you really were and what you're really made of."
Those things drew him to the Rangers, as well as the "tight-knit" comradeship of Ranger culture, he said.
"I understood that you wouldn't get sleep and you wouldn't get food, and I wanted to put myself into that situation just to see who I really was. And I got a lotta lessons, a lotta lessons learned."
RTLI played a key role for Chun, he said.
"RTLI was one of the steps to get me to a level where I could successfully complete Ranger School. It was a building block. It was the basis, a foundation. Because I learned the basic Soldier skills and all that in basic training and OSUT, to be a real Infantryman.
"And then when I got to RTLI it taught me how to be a Ranger," he said. "How to do Ranger pushups. How to do an OPORD the Ranger way," said Chun, using a term for a written plan for a military operation. "How to do everything the correct way. So it was a great help.
Another of the six was Pfc. Reagan Abbey, 19, of the Wisconsin Army National Guard's Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team. Abbey, who grew up in Greeneville, Tennessee, is a humanities major at Maranatha Baptist University in Watertown, Wisconsin.
He's a cadet in the Reserve Officer Training Program and hopes to become an Infantry officer.
Being offered a chance to attend Ranger School right out of OSUT struck him as the right thing at the right time.
"Having the opportunity straight out of basic, when I had really no major life responsibilities to worry about or deal with, I decided to just take this semester off from school and try my best to get the Ranger tab now, in this block of time before Christmas, and it paid off," Abbey said.
Like Chun, Abbey said he too benefited from RTLI.
"It greatly helped me, just building on what I learned in basic, learning to become an Infantryman, now the RTLI was trying to build that Ranger mindset, as well as preparing me for the physical tests that were going to come," he said.
Abbey said his Ranger training will help him back in his unit.
"In Ranger School we preach discipline and standards, and I want to bring that back to my unit, as well as just any knowledge that I've learned here, whether it's about just OPORDS or planning or running missions, and anything related to that that I can bring back," he said.
"Even though I'm private first class," said Abbey, "I want to be able to share with my peers and then also learn from the sergeants and the officers above me and just be a good team member in my unit."