Interview – 5 lessons from a Ranger/Special Ops soldier about leadership and persistence




Ranger School has been called the “toughest combat course in the world.” My friend Joe (2nd from the left above) graduated class 495 in Ranger School and was Special Operations for seven years.

I interviewed him about leadership, attitude and what it takes to make it through such a punishing ordeal. He also reminded me what “Ranger Candy” is.

The full interview was almost 90 minutes long, so for brevity’s sake I’m only going to post highlights here.

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How difficult Is Ranger School?


Ranger School is a small unit leadership course. They try to reenact the most physical elements that you’ll face in a long drawn out war. Those elements are hunger, fatigue, and extreme pressure. The hunger and the fatigue they are induced by taking away most of your sleep and then the stress that you feel is self-induced because at Ranger School is a voluntary school. You can quit any time of the day or night.

…The class in front of me, 395, had four Rangers die in it. It can be dangerous. It’s a dangerous school because you don’t have enough food, you don’t have enough sleep, and hypothermia is what killed all four of those rangers.

I have been to war twice, once to Iraq and once to Afghanistan, and I rarely have nightmares about that place. My nightmare is of going back to Ranger School where I’m starving and I’m tired and I’m miserable for 68 straight days.

Most people, because of the fatigue and the lack of food will hallucinate. It often happens at night and most of the time it happens when, people are hungry. Most of the times the hallucinations involve food.

For instance, one of my friends says that he was waiting in line at an ice cream truck that didn’t exist. There were six other Rangers in in line ahead of him for ice cream — they didn’t exist either. He got to the front of the line to order his ice cream. A Ranger Instructor found him and tried to pull him away from the “ice cream truck.” My friend nearly punched the Instructor because he wasn’t going to get the nonexistent ice cream…

People will drone. When you are a droner you get so tired you will start walking off in the middle of the night or off the side of a road. You often have to stop the patrol because you have to go collect the droners. In extreme cases, when I was there, they had ropes which they would tie from the droner to the people who were more alert, to keep them in line.

…Motrin. They call it a “Ranger Candy.” 800 milligrams of Motrin is Ranger Candy, and it was just about the only medicine you’ll ever get there. 


Nature or nurture? Can anyone make it through Ranger School?


Because before I went, my father and my uncle tried to tell me that Rangers were different people. That they have a different mindset, that I wouldn’t make it, that we weren’t about that. And in my opinion, it’s not like the NFL. I could have worked as hard as I wanted, but I probably never would of been a professional football player. I wasn’t big enough. I wasn’t fast enough. And so, the nature element you speak of is sometimes just not present for people to do things like that. Ranger school, in my opinion is, if you don’t quit, and you keep working, if you’re willing to recycle and go back, it’s just one huge suck. You have to work hard. You have to accept the fact that you’re going to be miserable every second of every day for 2 1/2 months, but if you can do that, I think anyone can make it through. 

But I don’t think very many people are willing to do the work or have the mindset. And I know a lot that aren’t. You can’t go to Ranger School and have an attitude. They’ll get rid of you. You get rid of you. The humble pie, the infamous humble pie is ever present in Ranger School. 

Or you just quit. You can, any time, day or night. That’s one of the hardest part about Ranger School is because you can quit and have warmth and hot coffee and donuts right there. And a lot of people do.

…The guys that I knew that got booted that first week lacked the preparation. They weren’t physically prepared. And the other guys that I knew that didn’t make it weren’t mentally prepared, and just didn’t want it bad enough, or had an attitude…

If you’re willing to bite the humble pie, and you’ve trained mentally and you’ve trained physically, can anyone do it? I think they can as long as, again, the elements of luck are with them.  But, I guess, the other factor is, if you’re a jerk, you’re going to get peered out. You won’t make it then either. I think a lot of those aspects apply to anything in life. You have to prepare physically. You have to prepare mentally; and if you’re a jerk, people won’t like you. And they’ll want to see you fail. 


Humor is king. And take it one day at a time.


It occurred to me, I said “You know what? If I can laugh once a day, every day I’m in Ranger School, I’ll make it through. That was one of the things that I’d say to myself and I make sure I can laugh. There’s always humor around. Given that the root of all comedy is misery there’s plenty of humor in Ranger School because people are constantly miserable.

The other thing I would tell myself in Ranger School, they say this a lot: “The only easy day was yesterday.” My Ranger Buddy and I always said: if tomorrow yesterday looks as bad as it does right now then we’ll quit. But by tomorrow, looking back on yesterday, it was over. We survived it, we can go one more day, so, we would continue on. That was another method we used to sort of help us limp along.


Leaders should “Set the example”


The military says this a lot, with very few people putting the words into practice, they always say “set the example.” So if you’ve got a leader that’s out of shape telling you you’ve got to pass a physical fitness test, is kind of disheartening. Or a leader that will never go on combat patrols. I saw that a lot in Iraq and Afghanistan. They just never went outside the wire. And they can only say they’re busy for so long before people start to say, “Wait a minute. Is this guy a coward? Is he afraid? Is he sending me to do the combat patrol when he won’t?”

Keeping morale high was easy for me in the military because of my personality, because I’ve never been a jerk. It’s always been easy for me rustle up a game of cards or a game of football or whatever because I’m a personable guy. People like to hang around me. And this rubs people, a lot of my leaders, the wrong way thinking that I spent too much time with the troops. But, in my opinion, they didn’t spend enough time with the troops. They never got down and figured out that somebody’s dog at home just died and how that was affecting them, because they never talked to them. They expected other people to report it. Well, that’s not the type of thing you report. It’s not the type of thing anybody finds out unless you talk to them.

A soldier’s not going to tell you things that they know you don’t want to hear unless you ask. I think that’s true in civilian life too. And that’s where taking the time to talk to different people in a corporation or wherever you’re at; talking to the people around you is certainly going to get you both the answers you want and the answers you don’t want. And both of those things are valuable.

Something I learned in a recent school, the Commander General’s staff course, is incredibly important. There’s a new sheet that’s trying to be pushed in the Army where a leader, when he has an idea, say a twelve mile road march next Friday, and each of his company commanders need to give him three reasons that we should do the 12 mile road march as a battalion and three reasons we shouldn’t. So, in other words, the leader asks for dissenting points of view or mandates dissenting points of view so he can look at both and weigh both. Rather than surround himself with yes-men, he gets dissenting points of view. 


A good leader knows that they don’t know everything


One company leader, socially was a buffoon and tactically he was a buffoon. But, he knew he was a buffoon. He didn’t try to be a stud like my first company commander. And when we got into the field, there were portions of the tactics that he knew. It was a signal company, a signal core company. There were portions of it that he knew very well. When it came to stuff that, tactically speaking, he didn’t know, he was okay not knowing it.

We get out there, and I had just come off from an infantry platoon leader, twice. I was a Ranger. I knew tactics. When we got to our site, he said to me – even though I was his XO – he said, “You’ve got the training to protect this site. I don’t. Protect this site.” That’s all he had to say.

So those were examples of company commanders who taught me a very valuable lesson: “It’s okay not to know something.” There are people around you who do know something, and they can teach you. If it’s too grand a knowledge base to pick up right there in the war and that fight, put them in charge. Have them report to you. Put the responsibility on them. If you do that, they will execute that to perfection, and I did. 


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