Day 21: Sunday, 26 February
0400 wake up, rucks over to the rope corral by 0450, breakfast formation at 0500. Holy moly... THE GREATEST ARMY BREAKFAST. EVER. I would also wager those were the best blueberry pancakes I have EVER had. Oh wow. It was almost too much food, but nothing too serious. I had heard stories of the fabled blueberry pancakes, but the real things were just ridiculously good. Had an hour and then some after breakfast to clean the barracks and square away anything we needed. It turned into an hour of extra sleep. We formed up around 0700 and marched to the "Basic Military Mountaineering" site. We learned the basic knots, harnesses, etc. included with movement in the mountains and pretty much practiced that stuff over and over and over again. We did rappel down a 30 foot wall at one point, but then went right back to practicing knots. Our cadre is awesome. The actually care about teaching and they don't play stupid "Ranger Games" at all. Professionalism and a true learning environment is all around us and the morale is infinitely better than we expected. The temperature range is going to take some getting used to, but ANYTHING is better than Benning Phase. It's normally between 20 and 30 degrees in the morning, but it warms up to around 55 or 60 by 11 AM. When the sun goes down, it plummets back down to 30 degrees, but we don't stay outside that much longer after that. Anyway, we got back to the barracks around 2100, verified everyone's packing list, and I was asleep by 2230.
Day 22: Monday, 27 February
0400 wake up, company formation with rucks at 0430, Battalion formation for breakfast at 0450, and then the feast began. God, this food is GOOD. On top of that, my buddy Phil Lukens couldn't finish one of his pancakes so he gave it to me as we were being forced to leave. I split it with Will Fowler and Chuck Labuda. I haven't been that full in over a month. Good Lord, that food is good. Another hour and then some after breakfast for "squaring away equipment", but we all slept. Hey, it's about time we got a chance to recover from Benning. Moved to the Basic Military Mountaineering site with our rucks and learned how to emplace simple and complex ropes on hillsides to aid in climbing. Also learned how to package a casualty in a "SKEDCO". Kind of like a thick sheet of plastic you can drag or carry somebody in. After MRE lunch we learned how to move the SKEDCO up and down a mountain and then how to emplace a 1 rope bridge. It's extremely similar to how we did it on the Sandhurst team last year, but a bit more complex. We practiced over a stream next to the BMM site and it looked like a scene from an outdoor movie. Mountains in the background, cold babbling stream, open meadow, blue sky, and just beautiful, if you ask me. After our mermite dinner we practiced knots and belays for another few hours and finally got back to the barracks around 2200. Took a shower, wrote some letters, and lights out was at 2300. I really miss Erika. She sure looked great in her pilot's flight suit on Friday.
Day 23: Tuesday, 28 February
0400 wake up, 0430 CO Formation with rucks, 0455 BN formation for chow. Once again, a TON of AWESOME food and once again Phil Lukens hooked me up with an extra pancake. It really was painful how full I was walking out of the Camp Merrill DFAC, but that's the best pain I've experienced since I started down this road. Another hour nap during "equipment management" time and then we moved to the BMM site for knots and belays testing. We did belays first and I got a GO. My buddy Georgi Kalandadze, the Georgian Army kid, tried his best, but all the help I had given him earlier wasn't enough. He did, however, get a second time GO. Whatever works, right? Then we got tested on knots. I got a 9/10 so I didn't get a major plus, but I'm not TOO worried about it. Chuck Labuda got one, though. The one that got me was the "Double Handed Safety Line". It's a hasty safety harness that's tied around your mid-section with a square knot and two stopper/safety knots and then a figure-8 on a bight coming off each of those safety knots. I had a small twist in one of the figure-8's, but that's all it took. We only had 1:45 to tie it. It's all good. 60' rappel came after that. A few guys got gigged for dropping equipment over the side and a few others for improper safety procedures, but everyone made it. We did 3 rappels. 1 with the body harness, 1 with the body harness and rucksack, and 1 with a left-handed swiss seat. After our MRE lunch we did some pretty cool and somewhat advanced mountaineering where we built a suspended traverse using an A-frame and a vertical haul using an A-frame. (These are actual pictures Tom drew out and asked me to scan in here so you could get a better idea of what they're doing)
It reminded me so much of Boy Scout camp today it was almost eerie. I mean, we were actually learning legit stuff and having fun while doing it. Minus the weapons and uniforms, I felt like I was working at the "Pioneering Site" at Philmont Scout Ranch. Very cool.
While all this was going on, the knots and belays re-testers were being given their second chance at earning a GO. My Ranger Buddy, Jeremy Murphy, failed the knots retest and is being dropped from our class. It sucks because he already recycled Darby phase once prior to joining our squad and now, at the very least, he'll be recycling Mountain Phase while we (hopefully) go on to Florida. He had the highest peer rating of anyone in the squad in Darby and would do anything for you. Now he's either heading to the beginning of Ranger School or back to the 82nd without his tab. Not cool.
Day 24: Wednesday, 01 March
0330 wake up. MRE for breakfast so no painfully excellent blueberry pancakes. Loaded up on trucks with our rucks and rode for almost an hour to Mt. Yonah. Like an idiot I volunteered to carry one of the platoon's radios. No big deal, normally, but today we had to footmarch to the top of this hilltop with our rucks. The pacesetter and another guy had rather small rucks and comfortable boots, but they expected us to keep up. My 75 lb ruck with radio and my Matterhorn boots did a number on me, but I made it. Once we got to the top I looked around and realized that despite the ridiculous walk up it was a really nice place. It's actually a state park the Army borrows a portion of to conduct mountaineering training. From about 0800-1600 we practiced moving a "downed pilot" up a hillside using all the techniques we had learned in the previous days. Of course, the RIs found the steepest chunk of terrain the could and told us to get to work. After a lot of climbing and hauling using ropes and pulleys we finally got the "pilot" to the top. It wasn't the fastest operation ever conducted, but we learned a lot about our capabilities as a platoon. We practiced movement as a platoon for a while after that up until sunset when the RI's told us to eat an MRE and put on some "snivel gear" to stay warm. A chaplain came up from Ft. Benning to give Ash Wednesday chapel and I went. I asked my buddy Will Fowler, the FO from 1st Ranger BN, if he had time to talk about some stuff on my mind and we had a little heart-to-heart. Almost every day since we've started this course the RI's have told us that nobody ever graduated Ranger School on their own and now I completely see why and how. I don't know what it was about today that just sucked the motivation out of me, but something sure did and I wanted to talk to Will about it before it started to affect my performance. Maybe it's the type of terrain reminding me of all those awesome Boy Scout campouts or maybe it's the picture of me and Erika in my hat reminding me of how she's waiting on me. Maybe it's that I haven't gotten any mail in a while or maybe it's something so simple as having to carry the radio up the mountain this morning. Either way, I was hurting pretty bad tonight and church services and the talk with Will helped a lot. Gotta stay focused so my girl can pin that tab on me April 7th. It sure is beautiful up here in the mountains. At night you can see every single star in the sky.
Day 25: Thursday, 02 March
0400 wake up. They let us rack out last night around 2130 so 6 1/2 hours of straight sleep was AWESOME. We had hot chow brought out to us, but by the time we sat down to eat the high winds on the mountaintop had already made it cold. I'm feeling better about life in general this morning than I did last night. That talk with Will helped a lot. Today we did rappelling and climbing all morning. Instead of a wooden wall or a rock face we got to rappel off a 75+ foot cliff with a huge overhang. That meant the last 40+ feet of rope was just hanging and away from the rock face. Pretty cool stuff. Quote of the morning: "Where did the F@*#ING sun go?!?" The RI 1SG told us this morning it was supposed to be 72 degrees and sunny today. Yeah, not so much. Right now it's 1000 and I'm sitting on a hillside INSIDE a cloud. "Cold and wet" must be what he meant by "72 and sunny". Later on we started some pretty legit climbing. The first one was what's called a "balance climb" and you just get up anyway you can. Footholds, hand holds, mantles, chimneys, fist jams, finger jams, etc. Anything goes and everything is required to make it to the top. The second climb was a "buddy climb" where the lead climber goes up the rock, attaching himself to anchors as he goes and when he runs out of rope for the belayman to use he anchors off and then belays his buddy up to that point. As the trail climber goes up he follows the path of anchor points the lead climber emplaced and when he gets up to his buddy they repeat the steps until they reach the top. Speaking of... by this point in the day our good friend "Bob" had come out to play. He got rid of the clouds and we could see for miles in every direction. It was a pretty incredible view from the top of Mt. Yonah and I'm extremely glad we were able to come up. Sometimes Ranger School really isn't all that bad. We footmarched back down the mountain around 1600 and loaded up on trucks again for the hour and half ride back to Camp Merrill. I got an AWESOME seat, too. We had to fit "2 tons of oats in a 1 ton truck" so a few people didn't have actual seats to put their butt in. That meant a few of us were "forced" to "endure" the ride back while laying on top of the pile of rucks. I got to stretch out and get comfortable and get a pretty solid nap on the ride back, but I earned it carrying that damn radio up and back down Mt. Yonah. I had one of the best MREs in the world for dinner tonight. Chicken Tetrazzini. Oh man, is that good! And it comes with a mint chocolate cookie AND a vanilla dairy shake! I'm just glad today was a lot better for me than last night. As the good Cap'n once said to Cool Hand Luke, "You've got to get your mind right." We start learning platoon operations techniques tomorrow. "Playtime" is over. After finishing up tiedowns I finally got to sleep at 0130.
Day 26: Friday, 03 March
0400 wake up. 0430 formation with rucks and 0500 breakfast. I volunteered to help recite the creed and had to do the 3rd stanza. "Never shall I fail my comrades. I will always keep myself mentally alert, physically strong, and morally straight and I will shoulder more than my share of the task, whatever it may be, one hundred percent, and then some." It's kinda cool how part of that sounds exactly like the Boy Scout Oath. "I will always keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight." Coincidence??? Maybe. After another spectacular blueberry pancake breakfast we moved to the "classroom" bays to start our classes on platoon operations. The RIs covered platoon attack, patrol base, recon, and react to contact. We did practical exercises the rest of the day and without the sun keeping the cold from being unbearable it would have been a not so great experience. On the plus side, anything is better than Camp Darby. We did rehearsal after rehearsal after rehearsal until dark and then we practiced setting up a patrol base at night. Normally that's no big deal, but the RIs decided to add to the situation by making us do it on a steep hillside. Sweet. Thank you, sergeant. We screwed around and tried to come up with some platoon SOPs after that but it was a waste of time because everyone was falling asleep and no one cared to think much about our "standard way" of conducting water resupply, for example. Finally got to bed after moving equipment within the squad and racked out about 2340. I'm starting to get that feeling of almost constant weariness again. 35 days to go. It'd be nice to get some mail soon.
Day 27: Saturday, 04 March
0400 wake up. Same formations as before. Classes on how to do a platoon ambush all morning and then we did practical exercises all day again. We practiced the ambush, tactical loading of trucks for transpo to an objective, and I can't wait for all this to be over. Everyone's motivation level is dropping at an exponential rate and we've been having relatively perfect weather! What's going to happen when we're on patrol in the Chattahoochee National Forest climbing some unGodly steep hill and it's 33 degrees and raining? I'm starting to get extremely scared about this phase. There are some extremely squared away guys I went to WP with that are in my class now because they recycled from the last one. Not very many of them can give solid reasons for why they recycled. God, I miss Erika. I can't stop thinking about her and I'm worried it could affect me more than a little. I feel like a scared kid sometimes, actually most times of the day, but during others I have all the confidence in the world about moving on to Florida. I don't know what I would do if I somehow got recycled. Something needs to happen soon or I'm gonna go crazy. It's always all good, but it could definitely be better right now. On a more upbeat note, when we came out of the woods last night after our night occupation of the patrol base the night sky was incredible. Being in the middle of nowhere has it's perks. I sure do miss normal life. I REALLY miss my girl.
Day 28: Sunday, 05 March
Once again, 0400 wake up, 0430 formation with rucks, 0500 breakfast. Our company was first in the chow hall from the BN so we had about 30 minutes of "free time" after the pancakes before classes started. I used it to write a letter, but 90% of the rest of the company racked out. Big mistake on all our parts. About 20 minutes into it an RI walked in and wasn't happy AT ALL that we were just chilling out in the heated barracks. Instead of flipping out and losing his mind he just called the student platoon sergeants together and said this was our freebie. Very cool. That situation could have gotten UGLY and PAINFUL, but we were given a reprieve. We had a class in the morning on how to conduct a platoon raid and did practical exercises and rehearsals the rest of the day. Our squad was in a MUCH better mood this morning than we all were yesterday. I think a big part of it is that Will and I decided enough was enough. I think the exact words were, "Dude, this place is sucking the life out of me." "Yeah, me too. We gotta do something about this." "You know what? The hell with it. Yeah, this sucks, but it'll just be another story for your grandkids. Let's do this." Bob was out all day today and for a little while this afternoon it was almost too warm outside. I don't know how much longer this weather can hold, but it sure would be sweet if it stayed like this for the two FTX's coming up. From what I've heard of past classes, that's asking the impossible. We'll see. For the final exercise or rehearsal of the day I was tasked out to be the platoon sergeant. I'll just say that it was a "learning experience". Half of the comments from the RIs, in the discussion about the PLT's performance during the mission, were directed at me, but I'm honestly not too worried. 20-something years from now I'll look back and smile, but for now? It's all good. I know how good I am. We're almost halfway to graduation. 33 days and we're out of here. I wonder what Erika is doing right now?
Day 29: Monday, 06 March
0400 wake up. I went to sick call again this morning because the poison ivy I got in Darby is still not gone. Well, almost. It's died off my arms and right thigh, but now it's spread to the back and palms of my hands and since I ran out of meds to kill it 2 days ago, I decided to pay the docs a visit. I got hooked up with some meds and went back to where my platoon was. We moved to the classroom bay and had a class on WARNOs and OPORDs at the platoon level for a few hours. I skipped something that happened before that was worthy of mention. Before our class we had a briefing in the gym where we got an "intel dump" concerning the information pertinent to our upcoming field exercise. After that we had a briefing on IEDs and while most of it was outdated stuff we had already seen, he showed more than a few propaganda videos captured in Iraq of insurgents detonating explosives. The videos weren't edited at all and really started to get to me after a while. I mean, to think that within 6-8 months or so I'll be in that environment is spooky. No, it's scary as hell and all I can do is expect to make it home. I know I'm getting way ahead of myself, I mean I haven't even graduated Ranger School yet, but to be in an environment like that where absolute chance is the governing factor? Wow. That's an attention-getter. Anyway, the last video he showed us was one of different clips of high-speed units in the Army doing their thing and with the Last Of The Mohicans soundtrack playing in the background. It was a definite pick-me-up. This school is crazy like that: how it manages to force you from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other every single day. Everyone is pretty much bipolar now and we all just have to deal with everyone's mood swings. One minute we're sitting around laughing our butts off at the dumbest stuff you could imagine and the next we're all pissed off and hating life and usually taking it out on each other. Another day, another dollar. One step closer to that tab. I really hope I get some mail tonight. None has come my way since I left Darby and got here to Camp Merrill. I wonder if my family realizes that my address changes every time I move to the next phase. Oh well. Life goes on and I've got my boys in the squad to get me from day to day. Just before dinner in the Mess Hall we did "static load training" on the helicopter landing pad here at Merrill. Getting on and off those Blackhawks made me wonder what Erika is up to. Probably doing something with helicopters, too, I suppose. After dinner the first chain of command for graded patrols was appointed and it's now officially game time here in the Mountain Phase of Ranger School. My boy Chuck Labuda, the E-5 11B from the 82nd, is our first platoon sergeant and my boy Tom Moxley, the 11B from 2nd Ranger Battalion, is my squad leader. I'm sure they'll do a fine job. During a lull in the "action" tonight I was talking to George Kalandadze and apparently he thinks pretty highly of me and my abilities. He said that once he gets back to Georgia he'll be promoted rather quickly and that sometime in the future he would want me to come to his country and help modernize his Army. No, really. Ha, I was offered a job tonight to be an advisor to another country's army. Still don't know what to think of that, but for now I just need to concentrate on the next 10 days and then the next 20 and BAM!!! April 7th, here we come.
Day 30: Tuesday, 07 March
"Whooooa we're halfway there...
WhooOOAA! Living on a prayer!!"
Wow. Day 30. How 'bout that??? 0400 wake up this morning. I got a ton of mail last night. 3 from Erika, 1 from Sarah, and 1 from my mother, The Desert Chief. Everyone is doing well and had great things to say to put a smile on my face. Definitely needed that. Today is our first of 9 days of graded patrols. Our PL is a bit shaky, but we're behind him and hopefully it's good enough to get him a GO. My boy Chuck Labuda has been doing well thus far as the PSG, but we haven't gone anywhere yet. The planning phase is a helluva lot different than the execution part, but it'll be all good. I want to get my GO out of the way so I can worry about bigger and better things. During the movement part of our patrol some rather comedic and potentially catastrophic things happened. The PL this morning got us lost and when he tried a U-turn he ended up taking the most bizarre route I've ever seen. A little while later one of the RIs threw an Artillery simulator and started about 150 square feet of forest on fire. 20 minutes later we finally got that mostly contained and we went on our merry way. We found out later it flared back up, as I forecasted it would, and burned up a considerable amount of National Forest. At a stream crossing, we had to walk across a log and everyone made it except for our medic walking with us. He almost saved it by grabbing a vine, but ended up falling in and wasn't happy AT ALL. Hilarious. We kept walking for awhile and yeah, I'm in Ranger School, but this is the way to do it. I mean walking through the Chattahoochee National Forest. It's an ass-kicker at times with the hills and mountains, but it sure is nice up here. Almost worth the climb with rucks and weapons and special equipment just to enjoy the view over a random valley. Of course, I'm laying in the prone position pulling security in the ORP, but you gotta take what you can get, no? I think so. On a sadder note, my good buddy George from Georgia (the country), might be in some trouble. We had a full layout of our rucks today and an RI fround a few MRE coffee packets stashed in his Camelbak. They had told us on day one that anyone caught hording food from phase to phase or within a phase might be kicked out for an SOR (Serious Observation Report) offense. We'll see what happens. He's too good of a guy to go back home tabless for something this stupid. Our ambush didn't go all that well and we got compromised because people just walked into their positions instead of being sneaky and low-crawling. We got an ass-chewing from the RIs and then we did it again. Our patrol base turned into a ridiculous gong show and the PL in charge at the time screwed around and wasted FIVE FRIGGIN HOURS trying to get things set up the way they're supposed to be. Of course, this meant we only got about an hour of sleep each. Totally uncool.
Day 31: Wednesday, 08 March
0400 wake up. I know I'll be able to do anything required of me today, but I haven't felt this exhausted in... I dunno, a few weeks, ha. Today's new chain of command took over and received their mission and then got started on their planning. The incoming RIs for the day went nuts on a few kids in the patrol base when they found them either not wearing their gear, eating on the line, sleeping, or a combo of any of the above. They made us take all our snivel gear off and we laid there on the ground pulling security and freezing our butts off for another 3 hours while the student leadership planned for the mission. We had to clear 3 Named Areas of Interest (NAIs) and then move to our patrol base for the night. The cool part about that is it meant we weren't going to be wearing rucksacks because it was a movement to contact. The point man made up for that little bonus by taking us on the most jacked up and out-of-the-way route possible. No problem because at least it was relatively flat. At all 3 NAIs we made contact with 2 enemy dismounts and after a brief firefight we would move on. Overall not a bad day. At some point during our movement to the 2nd NAI I suddenly got a huge boost of motivation and confidence about making it out of this phase, but I can't explain why. Maybe it was remembering all the great things my family had to say in their letters the other night. Or maybe it was the MRE orange gatorade powder I had just eaten. I dunno, but I liked it. Our mission took us within a few hundred meters of The Appalachian Trail and I decided that one day I'm going to do the entire thing. Maybe. We did an "admin move" to our patrol base for the night and the new chain of command took over. The new PL did really well and got us into a rest plan by 0030. Good stuff. I had eaten part of my dinner MRE throughout the day, but I saved the Chili Mac main meal, a packet of cheese, and the chocolate chip cookie and that was an awesome way to end the day. Bundled up in my bivy sac eating hot and tasty food? Hell yeah. I just wish it was Chicken Tetrazzini with a vanilla dairy shake, but I'll take what I can get. Once again, the stars were doing their part to make life better up here at 3000 feet on the Tennessee Valley Divide.
Day 32: Thursday, 09 March
Once again, 0400 first call. Just over 2 hours of sleep last night including guard shifts. After the new RIs came in, Will Fowler was named squad leader of weapons squad which meant it was our turn to rotate onto "the guns". I volunteered to carry one of the M240Bs and Phil Lukens and Georgi Kalandadze were appointed my assistant gunner and ammo bearer. After a few hours of planning we got moving and I discovered the joys of tactical movement up a mountainside with a machine gun hanging from a sling over my shoulders. Rucksack included, of course. We walked a few kilometers, made contact with some enemy dismounts, walked some more, and just prior to reaching our objective the RIs suddenly halted the platoon. They said a truck had flipped over somewhere, started on fire, and a bunch of people were hurt. They had us drop our rucks and grab the rescue equipment we carry for training purposes, but this was going to be a "real-world" mission. My squad, the heavy weapons squad, was told to stay in place and guard the rucks and the rest of the platoon moved up to the LZ a few hundred meters away that was supposed to be our objective. Some time passed and a UH-1 Huey Medevac helicopter flew overhead and landed at the LZ. He took off and then 5 minutes later a civilian hospital's "life flight" chopper landed. We all looked at each other like, "Whoa, dude. A LOT of people got hurt. This is gonna be bad." 2 more Medevac helicopters flew in a little while later and we started to think they might cancel training for the day because of such a serious accident. The RIs and other squads from the platoon came back and that's when we found out it was all a drill. There weren't any casualties at all. It was all an evaluation to see how the RIs performed in a situation like that and from our perspective they were on top of things. So we, as Ranger students, have that going for us, which is nice. We got back into the swing of things and the student PL took over once more. His raid mission went pretty well and our position with the machine guns as a "support by fire" did well. We didn't get to shoot off as much ammo as we would have liked, but we took care of that. Anything that goes with you, for any reason, in Ranger School is carried in your pockets or on your back so that means the ammo bearer is one loaded down dude looking for his gunner to shoot up as much ammo as possible any chance he gets. Because we didn't get to cook off all 800+ rounds per gun in the SBF position, we decided to "lose" a couple hundred rounds in the woods. Honorable? Hell, no. Smart? Absolutely. My AB, Georgi the Georgian, was rather grateful. After we consolidated on the objective to get accountability of all our equipment we noticed the dark clouds rolling in and the wind starting to pick up. After the equipment layout the new chain of command was called out and yours truly was named the platoon leader for the night. Honestly, I was hoping for this position, but by the next morning I was praying for it to end.
As we moved from the last mission's objective to the security halt to go recon the patrol base, the rain started falling. Cold rain. Wind gusts at 40 mph. Zero illumination because it's after sunset and the clouds have blocked out all star and moonlight. Yeah, pretty much the worst conditions imaginable to set up a patrol base. Oh, but wait! There's more. We were all running on 3 hours of sleep TOTAL for the last 3 days and we couldn't go to sleep until we got this PB set up. "Martin, take charge of this platoon." Roger that, Sergeant. Things actually went extremely well up until the point where the RIs mandated I have the platoon set up poncho hooches to get under so they could dry out and warm up. Once my guys got all happy and dry and warm again, my job as PL became a living hell. We still had to finish all the tasks involved with patrol base set up including a security plan, weapons maintenance, and personal hygiene. Part of emplacing a security plan includes collecting sketches of each squad's sector of fire and range cards from the machine gun on each apex of the patrol base triangle. I told the squad leaders to get them done, but everyone was more concerned with their own comfort and warmth in the ridiculous rain storm than completing the task at hand. The sketches and range cards kept coming to me all jacked up and unusable so I would tell them what to do again and wait for it to come back to me. In the meantime, almost the entire platoon, even though they were told to keep each other awake, had racked out and it was all I and the PSG and team leaders could do to keep them awake. Big mistake on my part not making one man from each team stand up to pull security, but we'll get to that later. We finally got the sketches completed to standard, around 0320, cleaned our weapons by 0350, and had a whopping 10 minutes for chow and sleep. 10 minutes. Unbelievable. And it was my fault/responsibility as the PL. You think you've had a bad night before? Come talk to me. I've got something for you.
Day 33: Friday, 10 March
0400 wake up. Brutally tired. In the last 4 days I've gotten 3 hours and 10 minutes of sleep. Ate some of my MRE from the night prior and just sat there thinking crazy sleep-deprived thoughts until the incoming RI for the day came up to do his inventory of all our special equipment. They put in the new chain of command and my time as PL was finally over. The next hour or so is pretty hazy as far as what all happened, but I helped take down the poncho hooch and took my place on the line as a normal rifleman. I volunteered to help the new PL with planning for his mission for about an hour and at 0800 my RI evaluator from the night before called me over to give me a quick critique of my performance as PL. "Ranger Martin. I'm not gonna lie. You had close to the worst conditions possible to set up a patrol base. 40 degree temp, 40+ mph wind, zero illum, tired-ass Rangers that don't want to do jack-shit, and you're in charge. Your time management throughout the night absolutely sucked and your spot-checks were almost non-existent. On the plus side, your control of the platoon was excellent, your use of terrain when employing your patrol base was awesome, your movement into position was the fastest I've seen in a long time with or without the ridiculous rainstorm, and your motivation through the night was pretty damn good." So I guess I didn't do as bas a job as I thought. A lot of guys came up to me later in the day saying they were glad it was me and not them and that I did a helluva good job considering the circumstances. We'll see when I find out in a week if I got a GO or not. Everyone was dragging their feet and moving slower than normal today. Can't imagine why... Our movement to the objective for our final mission took us up and over the TVD 3 times and 6 km later we were all on the verge of collapse and wanting to kill the point man of the platoon. The ambush didn't go so well, we did another 3K movement back to Cp Merrill, laid our stuff out, cleaned weapons, got some hot chow, and racked out by 2200.
Day 34: Saturday, 11 March
0400 wake up. Noticed our company was the only one outside when we formed by normal platoon formation. Oh wait! Ours is the only company awake! Hehe, oops. We went back to bed for about 30 minutes, went to chow, and then had optional church services. I didn't go so I could sleep some more, but I kinda wish that I had. Oh well. Had our end-of-FTX AAR and learned a few things about the way we did out there in the field. Had an MRE for lunch and then did Practical Exercises on the airstrip until 1600. The new CoC was put in and round two of our FTX was officially going. We did bay planning the rest of the night and we're gonna do well this time, I can feel it. Mail call tonight was AWESOME. Holy crap, I've got some incredible family and friends. I got a bunch from Erika including my new black gloves, one from my mom, and one from my good buddy Jason "Lance Lovegarden" Hillman. I'll have to post a picture of that envelope when I get back to the real world. Too funny. I finally got everything packed up and ready to go, but passed out writing a letter around 2345. FTX II starts tomorrow and we're getting inserted by Blackhawks for our first mission. Right on. I wish Erika was one of the pilots.
Day 35: Sunday, 12 March
0400 wake up. Had to quickly finish the letter to Erika I started last night, but passed out in the process of writing. Mail goes out at 0430 each morning, but I also had to shave and do all that bathroom stuff and pack the last few things in my ruck and get suited up in all my gear. No problem, I got 'er done. Blueberry pancake breakfast and then back to the planning bay to help today's CoC finish their plan. Matt Noreus, the VMI grad who was my buddy Rory Opanasets' roommate while there, is our squad leader for the day and he asked me to be his Bravo Team Leader. No problem, all I have to do is make sure the other 4 guys in my team are on track and also keep accountability of all the special equipment in the squad on the squad status card. We had a "Come to Jesus" meeting in the platoon last night about the lack of overall teamwork and how all the "blue falcons" in the platoon could very possibly keep a large number of people from moving on to Florida. After we moved to the airstrip this morning for our airlift we sat around for a little bit and had another group talk. Basically, those individuals acting as anchors on the rest of the group won't be tolerated anymore. The word of the day every day is FLORIDA. This phase is too physically brutal to recycle and that withstanding, the majority of us would love nothing more than to see our significant others, get a ton of real food, take a nap, and sport that Ranger tab with pride. It's either 5 days of hard work for this FTX or 5 weeks extra in the mountains. Now, I love those pancakes, but I love my girl and my freedom and getting to my platoon a hell of a lot more. Our Blackhawks started airlifting people to the LZ and when it came my chalk's turn I was one happy dude. The pilot played a little game with us called "NAP of the earth" and it was AWESOME. Mountains suck to walk up and down, but to trace their shape in a helicopter doing like 60 knots? Oh wow what a treat. The ride wasn't long enough and eventually we got to the LZ. We unloaded the aircraft, grabbed our rucks, and beat feet to the wood line to link up with the rest of the platoon. Some OPFOR started a firefight, but nothing too serious. We eventually moved out and walked over the river and through the woods to our raid site. The raid didn't go very well and the RIs made us do it again, but that's how it goes sometimes. That night we set up a blocking position overlooking an intersection known for having IEDs emplaced. The OPFOR showed up a while after we got set and we took care of it. Because of the jacked up guard rotations we each only got 30 minutes sleep total for the night. Let the sleep deprivation begin...
Day 36: Monday, 13 March
Went to "bed" at 0130 last night. "Wake up" was at 0200. We finished our blocking position guard rotations and got a new mission with a new chain of command. John Reinke is our new squad leader. We were given the mission of search and rescue for a downed pilot about a click and a half away from our current position. The leadership went through the planning process, assigned my squad as lead in the platoon column, and John asked me to be his point man. No worries, I've been wanting to do that. As we move down the steep ridgeline I'm handrailing, the huge sky full of rain clouds suddenly kicked up and the day got a helluva lot worse real quick. We kept moving and made contact with an enemy dismount. My team took care of that and the rest of the platoon found the "pilot". They loaded him up in a SKEDCO and started hauling the 180lb mannequin to the top of the hill. We actually made it way earlier than the RIs expected so we "earned" a repeat mission on the way to TAA Hawk where we would spend the night. As we moved out, the RIs threw Arty sims and assessed two casualties. We were instructed to load them up in SKEDCOs, move them to TAA Hawk, and the medics would take them from there. No roads were to be used, we had to remain tactical at all times, and Medevac was not available. Oh, by the way, Hawk Mountain was 6 kilometers away and had a 1400 ft elevation change between where we were and the top. We started dragging these two guys and quickly realized it would be the movement from the innermost circle of hell. Briars, thorns, thick vegetation, steep terrain, rain soaked rucksacks on our backs, zero visibility because of the low clouds, and RIs dropping Arty sims every time we stopped. In 2 hours we went 800 meters. Absolute hell. A few guys were on the verge of LOMing, but we hung tight and at the 3 km mark, a Humvee Ambulance appeared out of the darkness and fog. Thank you, God...
Oh but wait, there's more. At this point we donned NVGs and continued our movement to the top of Hawk Mountain "admin style" on a road. We finally got there around 2130, cleaned some weapons, had an accountability layout, ate some MREs, and were allowed to rack out about 2330. Exactly two and a half hours later I awoke to an RI violently shaking me. "Ranger, wake the F*@# up! Get down the mountain and out of this lightning!! Go! Go! GO!!!" As I opened my bivy sac I noticed the RIDICULOUS thunderstorm that had built up and commenced to slamming us. We all scrambled for boots and BDUs, and lined up behind an RI who led us down the side of the mountain where we sat there absolutely miserable, soaking wet, tired, pissed off, and just wanting a damn break from all this. About 30 minutes later the storm passed and we moved back up to find most of our gear soaking wet. The rest of the night was not exactly my favorite and most cherished memory in life.
Day 37: Tuesday, 14 March
0245 wake up. Yeah, 15 minutes after we got back up from our safe position on the side of the hill we got "woken up". The leadership got a new mission to start planning for, the rest of us started cleaning weapons or ourselves as best we could, and we were ALL hatin' life. I realized we had about 3 hours until our next hard time so I grabbed an usused MRE heater, my shaving kit, a canteen cap, and my Camelbak and headed to a Port-a-Potti to get out of the wind. Oh yeah, forgot to mention the constant 40+ mph wind on Hawk Mountain. Using my little set up I brought with me I managed to wash my face with hot water and get a hot shave in that Port-a-Potti. It's the little victories over the ridiculous situations in Ranger School like that which are part of my motivation for each day. If we're on the verge of physical collapse and we're given a bit of time for chow, you'd better believe I act like Martha Stewart and cook the hell out of an MRE. It's all about what you mix, match, or trade for amongst the 24 different meals. Sure, you can heat up your Jambalaya and eat it plain. Or, you can heat up the Jambalaya and some Jalapeno cheese and mix in your Tabasco. To go with that you mix your Cocoa powder, coffee creamer, sugar, and Taster's Choice packets for some "Ranger Pudding" when you add a bit of water, and to top it off you might be able to trade something for a Vanilla Dairy Shake. Sometimes life is good with MREs like that, but sometimes definitely not. Anyway, 0600 rolled around and they put in the new CoC. "Roster number TWO ZERO TWO!!" "Roger Sergeant. Ranger Martin." "Alright Martin, you're the new Platoon Sergeant." Right on. My buddy Fields, an SF team member from 5th Group, is the PL and we did a pretty decent job. We had an ambush to conduct, but before any of that took place, it was my job to do resupply, download trash, upload more ammo, and get control of the platoon. We did a few rehearsals and around 1245 loaded up on Blackhawks again for air movement. Good Lord, I can't WAIT to see Erika. Man, do I miss that girl. Every time a Blackhawk flies over or someone mentions one I start wondering what she's up to and if she's loving flying as much as she did before. The picture of the two of us I keep in my patrol cap keeps me going, sometimes more than I ever thought possible. Anyway, the ambush went pretty well overall and everyone is convinced I got my GO. Please, God, make it so. I love this phase, but I can't do it again. That's just how I feel right now. The new CoC took over after our equipment checks and my buddy Adam Deerdorff is the new PSG. We did another blocking position, but this time Adam squared it away and we got some decent sleep. It got so cold tonight the RIs let us build fires. Immediately everyone started asking where I was and if I could take care of it so I did. Finally got to sleep around 0200.
Day 38: Wednesday, 15 March
0400 wake up, but we got skipped over for guard in the middle of the night somehow so my team slept straight through. Even still the total amount of sleep we've gotten up to this point is 5 hours spread over 4 days and 3 nights. Brutal. George got picked to be a squad leader today and asked me to be his Bravo Team Leader. Oh, by the way, he's still a part of our squad, but kind of on a probationary status because of the coffee packet incident a few days ago. Friggin' xxxxxxxx is our platoon sergeant today. Brutal guy. If he's not in leadership or being evaluated somehow he doesn't give a damn about anything except his next meal or sleep time, but if it's his butt on the line? You better believe he's the loudest jerk in the world. We all hate the guy. Everyone is hurtin' pretty bad from the lack of sleep along with wear and tear on our bodies from the terrain. Two guys got carted out on the meat wagon this morning for frostbite. Hopefully they'll be allowed to stay. Our mission today is another air movement and raid. We loaded up on the Blackhawks, moved to our dropoff LZ, and moved out. Gary Gorrell, the 11B PFC from the 82nd, is our PL and he did a pretty good job overall. I found out the OPFOR doesn't like to play by the rules and that the cadre doesn't care. My team killed an OPFOR, cleared the body, removed his weapon, and kept moving thinking we were good. Not true. 5 minutes later the guy jumps up and starts shooting at some other members of the platoon. "Well sometimes the OPFOR are god-like, Ranger." Whatever. 24 hours and I'm out of this ridiculousness and moving on to Florida. The night ended with another round of "SKEDCO games" with our favorite RI. We had to drag 2 casualties up Hawk Mountain, a 2 km movement. At first we stayed together pretty well but, like always, our platoon started breaking up into little groups that didn't help the team as a whole and before we knew it we were spread out way too far. A "break in contact" like that isn't exactly a good thing in the Army. I kept suggesting ways to rig up the sleds to make it easier to pull, but the PL wanted to keep moving. Finally someone suggested to him that I be allowed to rig up the SKEDCOs and he finally let me. I pulled out the 120 foot rope our platoon carries around and doubled it over. I tied a figure-8 on a bight of the leading end and 2 figure-8's on the ends to the 2 SKEDCOs with carabineers and told everyone to jump on and start pulling. We were 30 something dudes pulling the sled up the hill like Santa's reindeer and it friggin' worked! No more breaks in contact, everyone working together, and mission accomplished. We got to our position in the Assembly Area at the top of Hawk Mountain and racked out for the night around 2230.
Day 39: Thursday, 16 March
0230 wake up. "Rangers, pay attention. WAKE UP AND PAY ATTENTION!!!" "Roger that, Sergeant." He called out a few roster numbers and then, "Roster number 202! Martin!!!" Uh oh... A third patrol. That means I NO-GO'd the first two and they've given me another chance at earning my GO. Pucker factor just set in and I need to get my butt in gear. We get the mission of conducting a raid on a suspected mortar site 3-and-a-half clicks away. We go through the planning, the rehearsals, and all that other stuff and get moving. The RIs told us before we left that we would get Arty'd quite a bit to speed up our movement because of the short timeline today. The first kilometer of our "adventure" was spent on THE Appalachian Trail before we got off of that and followed another train to get where we were going. As we got started, we came across two civilian hikers who seemed more than a bit surprised to find an entire platoon of US Army Rangers joining them for a stroll through the woods. Funny stuff. Their jaws were literally hanging open. We kept moving, reacted to indirect fire a whole bunch, saw some gorgeous countryside, and just as things were looking like they might work out our PL lost his mind. He had just gotten a letter a few days earlier from his soon-to-be ex wife and it had messed him up pretty badly. Suffice it to say the man lost the ability to think with any shred of rationality or common sense. Fields, one of the other squad leaders, and I were trying our hardest to make suggestions and get the guy back on track, but to no avail. Soon enough he had us off course by an entire grid square and running from Arty up a hill, no, mountain where we were supposed to cross a creek. Now, I've never heard of a creek on the very top of a hill or mountain, but that's what the PL wanted. Ok, roger that. Halfway up this beast of a hill the RI finally yelled out, "STOP!!! I'm tired of following you jackasses up and down these pointless hills. PL, what the hell are you doing?!?!" There was a bit of a discussion between them which ended with, "... well you're an entire grid square off from where you think you are." Yeah, generally a bad thing. We got headed in the right direction, but the PL had us walking a ridgeline and the OPFOR spotted us before we even knew where they were. Ok, so much for the element of surprise. Our super-sneaky raid had to turn into a hasty attack so I started making suggestions about what to do and how to do it and we finally got things rolling. The attack went pretty well overall and my squad kicked arse. Everyone said I did a really good job and they knew I had gotten my GO. We formed up on the nearest road and did a click-and-a-half foot march back to Camp Merrill. God, what a great feeling to know that I had my GO because I had done everything I was supposed to for my squad and tried everything I could to help the PL. We got back, turned in some equipment, and then an RI came out with a list and started calling off roster numbers including mine. The guys that were called off lined up at the door and we just sat there wondering what the hell was going on. I thought I might be there to get a Major Plus for my SKEDCO double-rope ring, but I didn't think it was quite worth that. My name was finally called and the sir told me to shut the door. "Ranger Martin, do you know why you're in here?" "No, sir. Not exactly." "You're being recommended for recycle." (Open-mouthed stare from me) "Do you have any questions?" "Uh... well... uh... Sir, uh, roger. What did I do wrong?" "You didn't have enough control over your subordinates on all 3 of your patrols and you took a backseat way too much on today's mission when the PL was struggling and you should have stepped up to help." (Another open-mouthed stare from me) "Sign here, initial there, and good luck." "Sir, I was told by my first grader that my first patrol was one of the best patrol bases he had ever seen emplaced and to do it during a miserable rainstorm? He said I had absolute control over that platoon." "Roger, I don't know what to tell you. The Battalion Commander will take all this under consideration. Is there anything else?" "Roger, Sir. If you bring my team leaders from today's mission in here right now one at a time they'll back me up and verify how much I tried to save that patrol by making recommendations and being active about doing my part. Sir, if you look at my evals from Darby you'll see how clearly black and white the difference is between my performance then and what that piece of paper right there in your hand says." "Ranger, I don't know what to tell you..." "Roger, Sir. Rangers Lead The Way." And that was that. I wouldn't be moving forward with my squad. Instead, I would get to enjoy the sights of the Chattahoochee National Forest for an extra 4 weeks. Stellar. "These are the times that try men's hearts..."
Day 40: Friday, 17 March
0400 wake up. Cleaned weapons all morning. Got the first round of care packages. My buddy Braden, who got his tab last Friday, hooked me up HUGE with the means to make PB&J sandwiches, some Little Debbie cakes, Goldfish, and a letter about what to expect in Florida. Good dude. Thanks, brother. We few, we happy few, we band of recycles went to the arms room to turn in all the weapons and NVGs and such while the dudes moving on did their Airborne refresher class for their jump into Florida tomorrow. Didn't do a whole lot the rest of the day, but had mail call tonight. Good God, people... Thank you! I seriously got more mail tonight than I did in my entire time of Basic Training nearly 8 years ago. 18 letters and 2 care packages??? SWEET! Erika sent me an AWESOME package with her famous Chocolate Covered Cherry Cookies and a whole bunch of other goodies. Ahhh... Good stuff. Sucks that I'm recycling, but I realized that it's all good. Just another story for the grandkids.
The rest of the story...
Mountains Round 1
Mountains Round 2
Mountains Round 3