FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Ranger School is one of the toughest courses that a Soldier can volunteer for. It is the Army’s premier small unit tactics and leadership school, and completing this grueling three-month course is the goal of every infantryman. For many across the Army, successful graduation of Ranger School is a right-of-passage before they can enter positions of leadership in their infantry platoons, demonstrating the high-respect that the course commands as an institution for infantry-based knowledge. Through three distinct phases, and several months, each Ranger-hopeful strives to make it to the graduation ceremony at Victory Pond, Fort Benning, Georgia. But many don’t make it that far, and almost half don’t pass the first phase. Earning the privilege that few attain, twelve Soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, with five from the 1st Brigade Combat Team’s Chosin Battalion, pinned the RANGER tab on their sleeves March 6, 2020.
But the journey to Ranger School begins long before Soldiers ever report to the schoolhouse. For these Chosin Soldiers, it began in 2019 at the 10th Mountain Division’s Light Fighter School’s Pre-Ranger Course. With Army Physical Fitness Test scores averaging 292 out of 300, these Soldiers departed for Fort Benning ready for a challenge.
1st Lt. Thomas Bond, of 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, acknowledged that finding something to motivate him through the course was essential.
For him, his motivation was his dad.
“He passed Ranger School in November of 1990.”
“Since he was in the Army, I wanted to join, and once I got in my main goal was to go to Ranger School and pass as that was something he had done.”
For 1st Lt. Sydney Dossett, a rifle platoon leader in Battle Company, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, the importance of having good motivation was similar.
“I wanted to prove to my Soldiers that I have what it takes to lead them in combat.”
The purpose of the first phase is to test each Soldier’s physical stamina, mental toughness, and get a baseline on the tactical fundamentals they will utilize throughout the course. Though it may be the first phase, it is the beginning of a challenge that won’t let up until either dismissal or graduation. The course cadre expect the best of their students, both physically and mentally, because the reputation of Rangers is to lead from the front, and anything less than the Ranger standard is cause for dismissal. There is no second place for those who want the privilege of wearing the RANGER tab.
“I knew it was going to be challenging,” said Dossett.
“People had been telling me stories about Ranger School since I was a cadet, and it was just as I expected. This was what I wanted to do since I found out what the Infantry was.”
With many mornings beginning as early as 0330, Soldiers have to pass water survival training, day and night navigation, and a 12-mile foot march with 47-pound rucksacks. Pushed to near-exhaustion, Ranger-hopefuls must pass a series of graded assessments as they lead patrols through dense forests, before moving on to the second phase of the course.
“Reception was really fast-paced but I felt pretty confident,” said 1st Lt. John O’Donnell, of the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment when reflecting back on the course.
“Pre Ranger Course had set the bar pretty high with physical training and land navigation.”
At Camp Merrill, Georgia, the Chosin Soldiers began Mountain Phase, receiving training on military mountaineering techniques before beginning a week of patrols through rugged terrain, conducting operations against a well-equipped opposition force.
“Going into Mountain, I knew the terrain was going to be more difficult,” said Bond. “When you get to Mountain phase, and you’re doing the train-up you see the mountains you’re going to be walking up, and you think how are we going to be walking up this? My expectation was that it was going to be the hardest phase physically, and that was the reality of it.”
With the difficulty of maneuver magnified in the rugged terrain, the Soldiers shared their thoughts on the challenge of planning and conducting missions through these mountains, while pushing their endurance to the limit.
“Mountain phase was very physically demanding,” said 1st Lt. Steven Tucker of 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment.
“I had injured myself prior, so going through Mountain was very difficult. I was working off two sprained ankles and carrying 90-115 pounds going up and down mountains in addition to doing the patrolling. It was a struggle each day to push through.”
After roughly one and a half months, they entered the third and final phase of Ranger School, Swamp Phase. Located at Camp Rudder, on Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, the shift in climate and geography is intentionally designed to increase the challenge for the Soldiers.
“When we first were leaving Mountain and heading to Florida we thought it was going to be great,” said 1st Lt. Bryon Mingo, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment.
“Then the first day it rained for 36 hours and it got down to 50 something degrees. This is no better than Mountain phase,” he said half-laughing at the thought.
“It’s more mentally demanding. You’re just worn down at that point and they start ramping up the difficulty. It became a knuckle down and get it done thing for me,” said Tucker.
With extended platoon-level operations in the coastal swamp environment, they continued to conduct patrols against opposition forces through coordinated airborne and small boat operations.
"There are two swamp movements that you do that go from ankle deep to neck deep,” said Bond. “The first movement there's a river that goes through both of the swamps that we had to cross. One of the teams had to swim across with a rope, and the other clips in and makes their way across. The second movement you paddle boats in and you are right in the swamp. In that second movement the swamp was muddy so as you step in your feet sink.”
After overcoming the challenges from the mountains of Georgia to the swamps of Florida, the final mission of Ranger School is assaulting an objective on a small island off the coast of Florida called Santa Rosa. The platoons must maneuver out to the island which is covered in white sand and provides little cover.
“For me personally, it was nerve-wracking. It was probably one of the coolest missions I had ever done in a training environment. It was on the water. It was in the boat so it was pretty exciting. It was a surreal moment cause we were about to graduate,” said O'Donnell.
Echoing his battle buddy, Tucker described the mission as crazy.
”It was chaos, but it was also perfection. It was very satisfying for me that we worked so hard and well on that.”
The hard work of many months was finally over.
On March 6, 2020, they were once again back at Victory Pond, though this time not to conduct water survival training. The five Chosin Soldiers were ready to receive what they had worked so hard for over the previous three months, through many long and exhausting days.
"It was super surreal,” said Mingo on the moment he received the RANGER tab.
“I remember my sister telling me you can't fail, it's not an option. She flew over from Germany to pin me. Soon as you get it pinned on it becomes even more surreal. It’s absolutely over now. It felt really good to accomplish."
Experiencing similar emotions, Dossett shared that this was the moment she had been thinking about since the first two women had graduated from Ranger School.
“It was really emotional. It was definitely validating to finally earn that tab after putting in all that hard work. I'm proud to be one of the few. My company just received its first female infantry Soldier and I hope to be a mentor to them."
The U.S. Army Ranger School is a demanding course, and the five Soldiers from Chosin earned their place to wear the tab through every moment of it. Of the twelve total from the 10th Mountain Division to graduate that day, the Chosin Soldiers represented the largest number from any single unit in the division, re-affirming their brigade’s motto of finding a way through any adversity.
"There's a lot of people who hit limits and say they can't succeed or that it's too hard,” said Tucker. “I've gone too far, and Ranger School strips away all those barriers.”
“You are more tired than you've ever been. You are more hungry than you've ever been. You are more frustrated on so many levels. You just push it away and you realize you can do so much more than you think you can do."
As these five Rangers return to Fort Drum to take positions of leadership in their platoons and deploy to Afghanistan, they will undoubtedly recall the lessons and training they learned from their time at Ranger School. Regardless of gender, these graduates from the Army’s toughest course will continue their climb to glory as they lead the Soldiers of the U.S. Army’s most-deployed division.
For Dossett, there are no regrets.
As the first female to earn the privilege to wear the RANGER tab while in the 10th Mountain Division, she shared that it was exciting to be able to change people’s minds about females in the infantry.
“There were some who told me before they met me they didn't think women should be in combat arms.”