FORT HOOD, Texas - A group of 1st Cavalry Division troopers formed a circle around a terrain map as the patrol leader explained an operation order they were to execute later in the day. The men smelled foul and looked as though they were dragged through mud. Occasionally a head bobbed in exhaustion.

After three weeks of extensive training, these Army Ranger School hopefuls were about to carry out their final reconnaissance mission before completing the first pre-Ranger course 1st Cavalry Division had ever conducted.

When the division was recently authorized to send 21 Soldiers to Ranger school, a course was designed in order to prepare those Soldiers for the challenges they would face and to give them an idea of whether they had what it took to be an Army Ranger.

"The basis for our course outline was just a hard, physically and mentally challenging course that would prepare these Soldiers if they decide to go to Ranger school," said Sgt. 1st Class Jose Mortenson, the non-commissioned officer in charge of the course.

"At Ranger school, they are being graded to a standard, but here, we are simply preparing them for what's to come," said the former Army Ranger School instructor.

Forty two Soldiers signed up for the course, but many quickly realized that Ranger school is not for everyone. After enduring ten days of daily Ranger physical training, classroom lectures and a rucksack march nearly 20 miles long, only 16 Soldiers proved worthy for the field training exercises at the end of the course.

"Physically, the road march was pretty tough because the route was really muddy," said Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Roberts, an infantryman with 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team. "Seven miles of it was thick mud and you're sloshing through it with this heavy rucksack on and you're keeping a quick pace, so physically that was pretty challenging." Roberts was one of the final 16 Soldiers who made it through the course.

After successfully completing the first part of the course, the remaining Soldiers prepared for their final mission. Faced with orders to reconnoiter an "enemy" location, the tired men formed a tactical formation and started their journey.

Within 50 feet, loud simulation grenades exploded around the men who immediately dropped to the ground and yelled warnings to each other. Faster than the grenades had exploded, the squad was on its feet again and sprinting out of sight. It would be four hours before they would reach their destination.

"The course was a tremendous success," said Command Sgt. Maj. James Pippin, the command sergeant major for 3rd HBCT. "The Soldiers were pushed to their limits and beyond because the course put them in stressful combat situations."

"There are a lot of young leaders wanting to go to Ranger School, and we set them up for success with this pre-Ranger course."