Recycling 2 Phases of Ranger School: The Most Formative Experience of my 30-year Career

By Brian Reed, MTI Contributor

I graduated the Infantry Officer’s Basic Course on September 29, 1989.  I began Ranger School a week later, Friday, October 6, 1989, with Ranger Class 1-90.  I graduated with Ranger Class 3-90 on March 13, 1990…2 recycles and 159 days later.  As it turned out, recycling two phases of Ranger School was the most formative experience of my Army career, both as a leader and an Infantry officer.

When I went to Ranger School, there were 4 phases – the Darby Phase at Ft. Benning, GA; the Mountain Phase at Dahlonega, GA; the Florida Phase at Eglin AFB; and the Desert Phase at Dugway, Utah.  I also went to Ranger School in the winter, which added a whole other dimension to the experience.  

On my part, there was never a consideration that I would quit Ranger School, although there were several times I felt very, very sorry for myself.  

The Darby Phase was generally uneventful for me.  I did not have any issues with patrols, physical fitness, the foot marches, the obstacle courses, etc.  It was pretty much a smoke-fest where we did a lot of PT, learned the basics of patrolling and small unit tactics, and we Ranger students were graded on squad level patrols.

The Mountain Phase started off well.  The first part, mountaineering, was tough, but I had no issues – knots, basic and advanced mountaineering, rappelling.  The move into the second part of the Mountains, platoon operations, was when I ran into problems.  I did not pass a patrol as a Platoon Leader (PL) or a Platoon Sergeant (PSG), which was a requirement to advance.  I had 2 chances at this, and both were as a PL.  It was really no surprise that I did not pass either.  

The first opportunity was during the planning and initial movement of the patrol.  We had a problem in land navigation from the Patrol Base to the Objective Rally Point (ORP), and as a result we were late and behind schedule.  We got lost.  As the PL, this was my responsibility…no go.  

My second opportunity occurred when the entire chain of command was fired midway through an ambush mission.  My roster number was called (something every Ranger dreaded during a mission gone bad) and I was now the new PL.  I could never establish personnel accountability and we had to stop every few minutes of our movement to the ambush site to make sure we had all the Rangers.  In this “movement to daylight”, everyone was smoked and whenever we stopped, guys were falling asleep.  It was a mess.  The ambush eventually happened, way off schedule, and it was the end of a nightmare.  I earned my second no go.

During my recycle and extended stay (about 10-days) in Dahlonega, I performed KP duties, learned how to operate a buffer, and did a lot of police call as I waited with the other recycles for the next class.  It was a humbling experience and important in my development as an officer.  

After the next class showed up, the recycles integrated into their new companies with Ranger Class 2-90.  I was good-to-go the second time through.  I got one PL patrol.  That was all I needed.  Two things made the difference: (1) I was much more deliberate in attention to detail when it came to navigation.  I did not rely solely on the point man and pace man.  I stay dialed-in so I could course correct if necessary; (2) I was more hands-on…literally.  When a Ranger was not focused, falling asleep, or simply out of it, I would grab him by his LBE or his shoulders and make him look me right in the eyes as I spoke to him with purpose and directness.  Both lessons served me well throughout the rest of Ranger School.

The good news about the Florida Phase was that I only needed to do it once.  While very tough, it was a good phase for me.  Because of my Mountain recycle, I was now in Florida in December, which made for a very cold time during waterborne operations.  There was no cancellation or rescheduling of any of the missions…we went for it and executed to standard despite the cold water and air temperatures.  I learned some good lessons about mental toughness in Florida that I have never forgotten.  I dug deep into places within me that I did not know existed.  

Because my recycle rolled me from Class 1-90 to 2-90, I now had the Christmas Exodus and a break until we began the Desert Phase (it may have been 2 weeks, but I am not for certain).  I returned to Ft. Benning in early January 1990 to begin the last phase of Ranger School.  I arrived completely out of shape and paid for it with the rest of my class that first day.  All I did over the break was overeat.  After a thorough shake down and a smoke session that was completely miserable, we packed our gear, boarded a C-141, performed an inflight rig, and jumped into the cold and snow at Dugway, Utah.  

The Desert Phase was essentially 2-parts: force-on-force and live fire. 

Generally, it was widely considered among Ranger students that if you got to the Desert, you were going to graduate.  We believed that if you needed a go on a patrol, you were going to get it during the live fire phase.   

Basically, I had 2 patrols in a leadership position to get one go.  The first was as a PSG during the force-on-force phase.  While setting up in our planning patrol base, the platoon got “blown out of there” by enemy artillery.  It was a hasty and chaotic relocation that was about a 1 km movement at dusk.  When we conducted a sensitive items’ check at our new location, we were down one pair of Night Vision Goggles (NVGs).  In the chaos of our movement, one Ranger left his NVGs – a sensitive item – at the initial patrol base.  Even though we found the sensitive item, the Squad Leader (SL) and I each received a no go for the patrol.  

This was a bitter pill to swallow.  Even though I did not lose the NVGs, I was still responsible as the PSG.  From my earliest days as a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy, I was taught that the leader is responsible for everything that the unit does or fails to do.  Regardless, it did not make me feel any better.  I had no recourse.  I now needed get a go on my last patrol.

My final opportunity was literally on the last day of the Desert Phase.  It was a squad leader patrol during the live fire evolution.  

To this day, I do not know why I received a no go.  Perhaps I was too nonchalant or overconfident, and my leadership reflected that.  I knew I needed a go, so I had a sense of purpose and urgency, but I also knew that so much of the live fire phase was scripted for safety considerations.  Maybe this made me take things for granted.  As an example, the movements were not particularly onerous and where you placed your support by fire or assault force did not require much creativity.  These were generally regulated locations.  

Regardless, I failed this patrol.  This stung…and it hurt badly.  I tried to rationalize in my own mind what a Lack of Motivation (LOM) would look like if I just signed it and quit – and how would I explain that I quit Ranger School to family, friends, my new unit.  I did not think I could endure another recycle.  This was the lowest I ever felt in my young career.  

At the end of the day, I did not quit.  I just could not envision a scenario where I voluntary said “enough…I quit”.  Even though I felt I was the victim of a bad RI, I knew I had to keep going.  Not once during this process did I ever consider that the reason I failed my patrols was due to my own actions…or inactions.  It would not be until later in my career when I would accept responsibility.  Regardless, I stayed and sucked up the recycle.

As a handful of my classmates and I waited to see the 7th Ranger Training Battalion leadership for our official notification of a recycle, the rest of our class boarded aircraft for the trip back to Ft. Benning and the graduation jump into Fryer Drop Zone (DZ).  

Due to the scheduling around the Best Ranger Competition, the follow-on class was delayed, and I had to wait about 5 weeks at Dugway for the next class to arrive.  Again, I spent a lot of time doing police calls, operating a buffer, and picking up tumbleweeds…more development.  Once 3-90 rolled in, I linked up with the class, took nothing for granted, and finally earned my tab on March 13, 1990.

While I was incredibly proud to have earned the right to be called an Army Ranger, I was also embarrassed that I had recycled twice.  For many years, I tried to hide this by not talking about the details of my actual Ranger School experience.  

It was not until battalion command that I really let go of my embarrassment of being a two-time recycle.  I realized that my story was one of grit and resilience, and mental toughness.  

As I sent Soldiers off to Ranger School as a commander, I could truly tell them that they could do this if they did not quit.  I tried to send as many young Soldiers, NCOs, and Officers to Ranger School.  I believed that we were a better unit with more Rangers in our formation.  I tried use my story as one of inspiration and motivation.  

Later in my career had 2 unsuccessful selection attempts assessing for special units: one time each for the Ranger Regiment and a Special Missions Unit (SMU).  

Prior to 9/11, as someone looking to “get into the fight” as an Infantry Officer, I saw the Regiment and the SMU as an avenue to stay involved in real world operational assignments. 

I did not have the same sense of embarrassment for each of these unsuccessful selection attempts as I did for Ranger School.  Frankly, I put myself out there and gave it a shot.  It never was about not being satisfied with a career as a “conventional” Infantryman.  It was more about staying relevant and in the mix…and then 9/11 happened.

As it turns out, I commanded an Infantry Battalion and Brigade Combat Team, with multiple combat and operational deployments…so I was in the fight.  Also, along with my Officer and NCO leadership, I was able to build a culture of fitness, toughness, and standards-based excellence in each of these formations due in part to the lessons I learned during Ranger School, my selection opportunities, and that aligned with my reasons for going to selection in the first place…to be part of the best.

Brian Reed is a Soldier with 33+ years of active service as an Infantryman in the US Army.

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