FORT SILL, Oklahoma (Jan. 10, 2022) – Col. Daniel Blackmon said there’s countless good reasons to join the Army, for him it was playing Division 1 golf at the United States Military Academy.
A multiple sport athlete growing up, Blackmon loved football, but his growth spurt peaked in junior high and with it his gridiron ambitions. Golf became his ticket to a high school letter, and as he continued into his senior year, his game received statewide and national attention. Blackmon began to entertain thoughts of playing collegiate golf, and even professionally.
Education came first though, and with plenty of outstanding Division 1 golf programs across the country, his game would likely fit whichever school he chose to attend. Ultimately, he set his sights on earning a scholarship to play for Texas A&M.
About the same time the golf coach at West Point came calling offering the opportunity to get a first-rate education while teeing off as a Black Knight.
“I’m not going to West Point; I’m not going to be in the Army,” said Blackmon, the 434th Field Artillery Brigade commander here, recalling how he felt at the time. “I’m going to play golf for a living.”
However, his father insisted Blackmon send a letter back to all schools that contacted him thanking them for their interest. That parental wisdom arrived just in time as Blackmon’s father died not long thereafter.
With his high school golf season nearing its end, Blackmon still had Aggie golf on his mind. But then, contact with the school suddenly and mysteriously ended. As the time to commit was at hand of where he would play, he reconsidered the Army seeing it as a good place to get an education.
“Leadership’s a big thing there, and I like being a leader,” he said. “That’s why I went to West Point.”
Later, he found out his high school coach said some things about Blackmon having an attitude problem, which may have led Texas A&M to withdraw their offer. Blackmon admitted a bit of adolescent arrogance caused him to say some less than respectful words about his high school coach.
The Army golf coach also received notice from his high school coach but replied with a different response. Blackmon said it was something like, “I hear you, but can he play golf?”
His high school coach said Blackmon was his best player, and unfazed, the Army coach said the Army could handle young men with attitude issues.
Blackmon went on to excel as a Black Knight golfer. High on his list of memories is the round he played at the highly respected Bethpage Black Course on Long Island, New York. That day he said his entire game was clicking, and though he'd posted a 64 on another course, that 69 on the par-72 Bethpage layout was the best of his life.
When the time came to decide which branch he would serve in, Blackmon said TV ads attracted him to the infantry. Despite that appearing to be the best path to get to Ranger School, as he talked with officers in the various branches, he found greater camaraderie with field artillery officers.
"The ones I respected the most were all Ranger qualified," he said.
Blackmon attended the Officer Basic Course here in 1997, and during a class an instructor called out for people who wanted to go to Ranger School. He and others stood, but then they were asked who was going to a heavy unit. Blackmon's assignment to the 1st Cavalry Division happened to be one of those units, and he was told that excluded them from Ranger School. Initially he was frustrated, even as instructors said he could apply once he got to his unit.
However, Blackmon said in the late 1990s money was tight, and opportunities to go to school were few at best. Once again, he was told Ranger School wouldn’t be an option.
So, he soldiered through his lieutenant years learning his artillery craft. He then made promotion to captain and was projected to start the field artillery Captains Career Course (CCC) in September 2000.
Oddly enough, this time the delay to go to school proved most beneficial. Right before he was to leave his battalion, he was sent to interview for the position of aide-de-camp to Maj. Gen. George Higgins, deputy commanding general of III Corps. Reviewing Blackmon's package, Higgins, an infantry officer, asked him why he didn’t go to Ranger School. Satisfied with Blackmon's answers to his questions, Higgins selected Blackmon as his aide and said they would see about getting him a slot to attend Ranger School.
Completing his aide duties, Blackmon balked at attending the field artillery CCC and asked if he could instead attend the infantry CCC as it and Ranger School were at Fort Benning, Georgia. Instead, he was told he could go to Fort Sill and that he could apply to Ranger School after. Blackmon didn’t hesitate stating firmly he wanted to go to the infantry course, and was promptly approved.
Signing in to attend the CCC at Fort Benning, Blackmon said it was about 8 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, when the first jet hit the World Trade Center. Working through the infantry CCC, he gained a deeper appreciation of the school as he most likely would lead Soldiers in combat soon.
Blackmon then attended Ranger School in July of 2002 in a class that included three privates first class who already had a combat jump but had to attend Ranger School to stay in the 75th Ranger Regiment.
The class consisted of about a dozen students, none wearing their military rank. "I liked that everyone was kind of on equal footing. It made it easy to develop bonds and friendships that you probably wouldn’t have in a normal environment," said Blackmon.
Humor played a role in Blackmon making it straight through in 63 days to graduate. Early on someone found a good size rock and classmates took turns carrying it.
"I don’t know why we ever decided this was a good idea," he said as the Ranger rucksack is heavy enough already.
Also at some point, classmates started complaining about the school and said they would quit tomorrow. But, each day they got up and always found a good excuse to carry on. Blackmon said of the 63 days, none were inherently hard other than they carried a lot of weight each day. Throughout, they didn't get much sleep or food, but he said, "If you’ve got a good crew, it’s just an experience you have to put yourself through."
Blackmon said the hardest part about Ranger School is deciding you want to go and meaning it. “It’s a whole different ball game to actually say, ‘I’m going to go to Ranger School,’ and then commit yourself to it. Once you commit yourself to it, you’re going to make it."
As for what it takes to get through the school, Blackmon said students must be physically fit enough to make it through the first week, then sufficiently mentally resilient to complete the rest.
"After the first week, it’s all about are you mentally tough enough to make it through the strain," he said. "I’ve had plenty of days in the Army that were tougher than any one day I had at Ranger School. The difference is I never had that many in a row."
Blackmon doesn't believe Ranger School changed him and he admitted there are plenty of exceptional Army leaders who never went to Ranger School.
Still, he said the experience gave him some common ground with other Soldiers. "Sometimes that’s all you need as I believe that’s an important thing for a lot of people."
Rather than weigh the pros and cons of a Ranger School attempt, Blackmon had a few simple words for those who believe they want to go.
"Quit thinking about it and just do it," he said. "Really there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. Do it and don’t give up. It’s all about not giving up."
Despite all the mental and physical challenges, all the individual and group achievements realized in 63 days of school, Blackmon said what he’s most proud of in being Ranger qualified is he helped other people achieve that qualification.
"I’ve really tried to push people to go to Ranger School and provide them the space to do it," he said. "If you want to go, I will find a way to get you there."
Looking back to why he chose to join the Army, Blackmon said the real question isn’t why you joined, but why did you stay?
"There's a thousand reasons to join the Army, but the reason you stay is the important one."