JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska – May 18, 2001, two infantry officers graduated Ranger School. Nearly twenty years later, they reunited and reflected on the path that led them to become Army chaplains serving in the same Alaskan airborne brigade.
Capt. (Chaplain) David Dyrenforth is the battalion chaplain for 1st Squadron, 40th Cavalry Regiment (Airborne). Maj. (Chaplain) John McDougall is the brigade chaplain for 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, “Spartan Brigade.”
Twenty years ago, in the spring of 2001, they were freshly minted infantry lieutenants preparing to begin their Army careers.
“We began our experience at Ranger School from March to May, 2001,” said Dyrenforth. “Although, the four years prior, we’d been at West Point and had one class together. That was a lifetime sports class where we learned to bike from the Hudson River all the way to the highest point at West Point.”
“We both commissioned infantry and went down to Georgia,” said McDougall. “We didn’t know when we showed up for our Ranger School Class that we would be in the same squad.”
“During the months leading up to Ranger School, we got to know each other very well,” said Dyrenforth. “And learned of each other’s faith and built the confidence we had in each other that our faith and character would get us through.”
“I was relieved at the beginning of my Ranger School experience to know that I had somebody in my squad that I already knew,” said Dyrenforth. “There was enough unfamiliarity with the shaving of my head, the first time really experiencing it bald, and just the removal of a lot of identifying marks off my uniform. I really felt alone and isolated. And it felt reassuring to know that there was at least one familiar face there and that I could count on at least one person.”
“So, we went through zero week together and experienced Darby phase, which is early on in the Ranger School experience,” said Dyrenforth. “And then the team really formed around us and dwindled down from a large number to a very small core and then stayed together.”
“Yeah, I think we had a good mix,” said McDougall. “We had a good number of lieutenants that all went to West Point together, David and I being two of them. We had just gone through infantry basic course.”
“Our whole train up to that point had been academic and then here's this physical test,” said McDougall. “When it came time to brief an order, we said, ‘Oh, yeah, we've done this,’ whereas, for some of the enlisted, that was brand new to them. And then when it came time to actually execute, that was new to us. We'd never really done it in the field. But these enlisted soldiers were like, ‘Yeah, we got this. We can do it!’ It was a wonderful symbiosis.”
That trust and cooperation would help their squad bond and successfully complete Ranger School together.
“I really come back to the team,” said McDougall. “The eight of us just leaned on each other, and I really think that was key – that none of us wanted to see anyone else fail.”
Even the tightknit band of soldiers faced moments of doubt.
“I wasn't confident in the last phase that I had passed my patrol,” said Dyrenforth. “I did our ruck march back to the final assembly area – and it was a lengthy march – wondering that whole time whether or not I was graduating the end of that week.”
“Most of us had just left the swamps and our clothes were heavy, and our rucks were heavy, and many of us had damp socks,” said Dyrenforth. “So, we had lots of opportunity to focus on the negatives in that closing moment. But as a team, we all made it. We all finished that ruck march.”
“For whatever reason, in the mountains, the cadre did not like our platoon,” said McDougall. “And we got more than our fair share of undesirable attention from them. We would drop our rucks and have to do extra PT. I remember doing duck walks up and down these hills.”
“That was a low part, not just because it was physically demanding, but we thought we weren’t cutting it,” said McDougall. “But our squad just kind of leaned into it and said, ‘That's what we got to do. Just stay with it.’”
After Ranger School, Dyrenforth and McDougall headed in different directions. Dyrenforth was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, Fort Richardson, Alaska, where he served as a platoon leader in Comanche Company. The 1-501st PIR has been active in Alaska for more than 30 years, and now falls directly under the Spartan Brigade.
McDougall’s first assignment was with the 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which fell under the 173rd Airborne Brigade in 2001.
Later that same year, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 occurred, throwing the entire country into war.
“That really defined our years as infantry officers,” said Dyrenforth. “It really cemented in me the sense of wanting to serve my country and wanting to give all I could. We both deployed during those years and it was during that time that I felt a call to ministry and sensed it very clearly to serve in a uniform as a chaplain if possible.”
“It was in Iraq when I heard God's call to the ministry as a chaplain,” said McDougall, who was part of the 173rd's airborne operation to secure Bashur Drop Zone in northern Iraq during 2003.
By the mid-2000s, both had left the infantry branch and the army to attend seminary school and become U.S. Army chaplains. Their experiences during seminary school gave them a unique perspective on what the chaplain corps offers the active force.
“I got a chance to go back to West Point and serve as a basic training chaplain for new cadets,” said Dyrenforth. “I also got a chance to do some training as hospital chaplain at Eisenhower Army Medical Center in Fort Gordon and had some opportunity to get exposure to what the Chaplain Corps was like in an active-duty capacity. It was a great opportunity to serve.”
“Typically, the seminary degree that we pursued – a Master's of divinity – is a three-year school,” said McDougall. “I stayed in the program a fourth year while I was getting some pastoral experience.”
From there, McDougall would go on to serve as a chaplain at Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Joint Base Lewis McChord, Washington; and Vicenza, Italy; before attending the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Meanwhile, Dyrenforth was serving at a local church in Fairbanks, Alaska. He returned to active duty in 2016 and served as a chaplain for three years at Fort Stewart, Georgia, before receiving orders to return to Alaska and join the Spartan Brigade.
While finishing school at Fort Leavenworth, McDougall received a message from a fellow chaplain that Capt. Dyrenforth was heading to join him at his next duty station at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
“A name from the past! You’re kidding me!” said McDougall. “How did God orchestrate this? That a couple of West Point cadets and Ranger School classmates would end up together.”
By 2020, nearly 20 years after beginning their infantry officer careers together, both McDougall and Dyrenforth were serving as chaplains in the Spartan Brigade, one with the cavalry squadron and one as the brigade chaplain.
“It took us a little bit of time to figure out how to work together,” said Dyrenforth. “The last time we were together, we were at different places in our lives, but we were peers. And we’ve both grown a great deal since that time and have had a lot of life experiences.”
“But we're still brothers in faith,” said Dyrenforth. “And I really feel that having somebody on the team that I know, and I can trust is a great asset.”
“I would say as a supervisor that chaplains come in so many shapes and sizes and experiences and backgrounds,” said McDougall. “But for David, I've never had to worry about his abilities. This is like coming home for him – to be back in Alaska, back in an airborne unit, back in familiar environments. It's comforting to know that his experience gives him an advantage.”
McDougall had a message for soldiers that are at the beginning of their career and can’t see 20 years down the road.
“It’s a faith conversation,” said McDougall. “There’s a verse in Proverbs 16:9 that’s been important to me: ‘In his heart, a man plans his course, but the Lord directs his steps.’ And that's been my story.”
“I thought I knew that infantry was what I was going to be doing for a long, long time. And God had other plans,” said McDougall. “The army has a lot of avenues. You might start in one MOS, you might start enlisted, you might go warrant, you might go officer, you might change branches, you might change services. There are guys I know that started in the Marine Corps or Air Force, and now they're here jumping out of airplanes with us.”
“You’ve got to be open to what path might come your way,” said McDougall.
Dyrenforth reminds soldiers to keep a sense of perspective when faced with the challenges life can throw their way.
“Whenever I experienced something that I thought was a daunting task, I thought that it wasn’t nearly as tough as Ranger School,” said Dyrenforth. “It’s the confidence of knowing that I have, and I can again, perform beyond what I expect.”
“My dad used to say something similar to me,” said McDougall. “He’d say, ‘What are they gonna do? Send you back to Ranger School?’”
“I tell this to every student I know that’s headed to Ranger School – when you’re hurting the most you want to look inward and only care for yourself,” said McDougall. “But you have to go care for somebody else.”
“When you’re hurting, tired, lonely, hungry, angry, scared, all those things, go find someone else who's hurting, and take care of them,” said McDougall. “Go take something from their rucksack, go offer some crackers because you know that they're hungry and so were you.”
“As soon as you go and take care of someone else's needs, you start to forget about your own,” said McDougall. “Or you start to realize that you’re not the only one suffering and you start to come together.”
Their careers as infantry officers, navigating Ranger School, serving in airborne units, and completing multiple deployments before becoming chaplains gives them a unique reputation among soldiers.
“Our background doesn't make us better chaplains, but it gives us avenues into the lives of soldiers,” said McDougall. “It opens doors because people see it and they understand that you’ve been there, you’ve suffered, you’ve walked those same mountains and crossed those same rivers.”
“It allows us to be more responsive and better able to walk alongside those who are hurting and those who are in need,” said Dyrenforth. “I haven't experienced everything, but thanks to the army and schools like Ranger School, I've been able to walk alongside this flock. It's been a really wonderful experience.”
“Empathy is easier when you can go, ‘I've been there, I've walked that,’” said McDougall. “’I've been through something similar to what you're going through.’ That certainly helps us.”