U.S. Army Sgt. Daniel Gerlach looked all around him. From left to right, a dysfunctional group of motivated yet exhausted service members all had to somehow work together for a chance to be a U.S. Army Golden Knight. Luckily for them, they were alongside a U.S. Army Ranger who is more than accustomed to stress and fatigue.
Born in Briarcliff, New Jersey, Daniel always had a dream to travel the world and experience all the thrills that life could offer. His family stayed closely tied with the joys of the military, regularly attending airshows featuring lightning-fast jets and U.S. Army parachutists. Inspired by various movies and video games, Gerlach knew he wanted to join the military. When he was 16, he went to a summer camp in Camp Merrill that simulated one week of Mountain Phase during Ranger School. He knew right then and there that he wanted to be a Ranger.
Next thing he knew, he was walking into a U.S. Army Recruiting Center. On August 16, 2011, he walked out with a full Option 40 contract that earned him a spot in Ranger Assessment and Selection Program (RASP). After completing Basic Training and Airborne School, his journey through RASP officially began in February 2012. The business of misery there came to a climax during Cole Range, a week-long field exercise often regarded as the most challenging time during Ranger Selection.
“They would say ‘Hit the wood line!’ and you would sprint back and forth across the field endlessly. Once you get cold and sweaty, you would just be standing in a formation for hours, cold and sweaty, and that’s all you were authorized to do,” recalled Gerlach. “That’s when I learned the body can fall asleep standing up.”
After getting selected, Gerlach was stationed in Fort Benning with 1st Platoon, Delta Company, 3rd Ranger Battalion. Gerlach went on to serve three deployments with the Regiment, as well as graduate Ranger School.
“Ranger School is a whole different ball game because it assesses your ability to lead people through some of the worst situations a Soldier can go through. It feels a lot like Groundhog Day, because you do the same mission over and over again until everyone has received their looks.”
Gerlach remembers specifically the time when he was sitting on a dryer examining the golf ball of a blister left on his heel. “I didn’t realize that moleskin had to be cut and placed around the blister. I stamped it on like a band-aid and the blister immediately swelled up and got worse the next morning. Every step felt like a broken ankle.”
Those challenges didn’t stop Gerlach though, as he managed to go through Ranger School straight through without a recycle. That takes the right amount of skill, preparation, determination as well as some luck along the way. Ranger School left not only an impression on his feet. The leadership experience and overall mental toughening was rewarding.
“The biggest thing Ranger School taught me was commitment and determination. Once I had the goal that I was going to be a Ranger, that I was going to earn that tab, I was not going to let anything stop me,” said Gerlach.
Despite all those accomplishments, he still had no intentions of staying in the Army long-term. Once his contract was out, his plan was to find a civilian job working at drop zones or something that would keep him around the aviation world. Everything changed during his third deployment in Korea when he learned from a fellow Ranger about the U.S. Army Golden Knights.
That’s when he remembered all the parachutists he used to watch as a kid. He was already skydiving on his own, because it was the easiest way to enjoy the thrills of the sky without a pilot’s license. That’s when the lightbulb went off in his head.
“I could essentially get paid to skydive,” he said, with an enthusiastic tone. “It doesn’t get any better than doing something you absolutely love on a weekly basis as part of your job.”
In January 2016, he was able to manage a spot into the Golden Knights Assessment and Selection (GKAS), the tryouts for the Golden Knights. He immediately noticed how similar the team-building and stressful environment was to his early days going through Ranger Selection. A key difference he immediately noticed was how proactive you had to be in order to stand out among the peers.
In Regiment and even Ranger School, the job was as simple as following orders and completing the set mission as best as possible. Very little is within your control in those training environments and the name of the game is embracing the suck and driving forward. Now, he needed to learn how to intentionally step out of his comfort zone on his own to lead a team of potentially dysfunctional people.
“GKAS really tests you on your ability to be a team player and take care of the mental state of the team around you,” Gerlach noted. “Can you take a team that is stressed, tired, fed up with each other and motivate them to continue working together to do the right thing?”
Upon completion, Daniel was added to the U.S. Army Parachute Team “Golden Knights.” As the Gold Team’s lone Ranger, he has been able to distinguish himself, earning the role as Assistant Team Leader. U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Jesse Robbins, the Team Leader of the Gold Demonstration Team, has gotten to see Gerlach blossom in his new leadership role.
“Staff Sgt. Gerlach has been my right-hand man for over a year now,” said Robbins, enthusiastically. “As the Assistant Team Leader, he is responsible for training the Team and making sure they are fit to jump for any show we have. I have seen Dan mold our Team to be amazing demonstration parachutists.”
One of the perks of being a Golden Knight has been the opportunity to travel. With the team, Daniel Gerlach has traveled all over the United States, jumping into all kinds of air shows and sporting events.
“It feels really good knowing that as I land in these shows, as I speak with the fans and kids that come to watch, there could be a young Daniel Gerlach somewhere in the crowd,” he said. “I am that representation of the glory and comradery of the U.S. Army to them, just as much as they were to me when I saw them as a kid.”
The Lone Ranger’s key advice for those interested in becoming a Golden Knight is being a team player. The Golden Knights are not just about landing in a crowd with a smile on your face. It represents the camaraderie and passion for the brotherhood in the U.S. Army.
Gerlach started his career on the ground going through the trenches with the Rangers, ruck sack weighing him down. Now, he is flying high with the U.S. Army Golden Knights, parachute lifting him up.
If you are interested in joining the Golden Knights, please reach out at www.goarmy.com/events/golden-knights.html