Adrian struggles during Ranger School.
Adrian sloshed through the murky swamp, slowly following the men in front of him as they navigated through the stagnant, muddy, waist-high filth. His feet felt like someone had taken coarse sandpaper to them; he wished he could tear his boots off right then. His pants chafed his crotch, making him wonder why he even chose to wear underwear today. He tried keeping his eyes on the horizon so that he didn’t have to gaze at the writhing black leeches that had attached themselves to it. Peeling them off was no use, in this swamp flicking one off meant that three more would hook on as soon as Adrian separated the parasite from his skin. He tried not to think of the squirming, black creatures siphoning out his body fluids.
His boot came in contact with something lurking in the silt where he placed his next footstep. It was smooth and hard, with ridges running down its body length. Adrian yanked his foot away when he remembered their instructor’s description of the local fauna that he had given just before the mission. Judging by the feel of what he had stepped on, it was most likely the shell of a snapping turtle.
Adrian remembered the horror stories others had told him that involved snapping turtles, most prevalent were stories about large ones that take chunks out of an unwary person’s boot, steel toe and all – sometimes taking some flesh with it as well.
He reasoned the splash that he made from his panic attack must have been fairly audible, as the men in front of him were now shooting him nasty looks.
“What the hell? You’ll get us killed in real combat, kid,” piped a hoarse, annoyed whisper.
Real combat, Adrian thought, this isn’t real combat.
He had to remind himself again what all of the miserable days and sleepless nights had tried to take away from him. It was just training, Ranger School. The training that shaped some of America’s most elite warriors, the Army Rangers.
Adrian reminded himself that quitting wasn’t an option. I already passed Airborne School; I made it through Ranger Assessment by the skin of my teeth, I made it through Benning, Camp Merrill, well, that was passable, but –
“Don’t move,” rasped the same voice. It was their pompous squad leader, Retch, who came equipped with an ego the size of his biceps and a temper to match. The squad froze where they stood. Adrian saw the creature they had stopped for come slithering passed his waist, flicking out its tongue as it glided along the water’s surface. Adrian had no doubt that the fat black form he had just seen was a venomous water moccasin. He shuddered at the thought of being bitten. If I’m going to die anywhere, he thought, it’s not going to be during training.
There were three different phases of Ranger School, The Benning Phase, Mountain Phase, and Florida Phase. Each phase did its best to determine who was and who was not fit to become a Ranger. Benning was the introduction course, full of obstacle courses and many physically demanding activities, as well as mental skills. The Mountain Phase, held at Camp Merrill, Georgia, tested the student’s abilities working in mountain terrain, and learning military climbing and mountaineering techniques. But it was here, deep in the panhandle of Florida, where Ranger students were truly tested. Here, students spent their time wading through swamp water and steering clear of the local fauna, all while focusing on the mission. Dropouts in Florida were not uncommon.
Retch ambled out of the water and started off into the forest that surrounded the swamp.
“The capture point can’t be too far from here. Remember: form a semi circle like we planned, so the enemy can’t flank us. We’ll catch them from behind and they won’t have anywhere to go but back the way they came.”
A few men started smiling at the thought of surprising and attacking their own instructors that had hassled them since day one.
“That only works if there’s tanks backed up behind you,” Adrian piped up, “we can’t afford to be so far away from each other.”
The look Retch gave him made Adrian want to take every word back. His face contorted with a mixture of astonishment and disbelief, as if he could not believe Adrian had just challenged him.
“Kid,” Retch asked, “what rank are you?”
“E-3. Private First Class.”
“First Class Boy Scout?”
Adrian reminded himself that he should keep his mouth shut. “That’s right,” he said, determined to stand his ground. “I was.”
This time, there were some muffled laughs.
“Focus on the mission,” said a straight-faced Retch as he eyed up each man. There was silence as every man fell silent. “We’re this far into training, we can let the RI’s beat us, or we’ll all go home.”
“Hooah,” the squad said in unison. They started off into the jungle.
The enemy encampment was perched atop a small, forested hill about 500 yards away. From a distance, the team could make out some shapes moving around.
Adrian felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around to see binoculars being dangled in his face.
“Look through this and tell me what you see,” Retch said.
Adrian scanned the enemy encampment through the binoculars. The Ranger Instructors, or RIs, played the part of the well-rested, alert enemy. Adrian watched as patrols paced around the camp’s borders, looking off into the woods for their students, who had, in total, received a generous amount of two hours sleep the night before, much better than the previous nights. The candidate’s sleep deprived brains started to function in odd ways. Nearly everyone had seen some sort of hallucination or had a delusion of some sort.
Adrian handed the binoculars back to Retch. “Four patrols with M4 rifles. One with a light machine gun,” Adrian said.
“Are you sure, Boy Scout?” Retch snarled.
“Positive,” he said back. Adrian hadn’t seen too much, apart from a few shadows darting around in the woods at night and other minor delusions, he hadn’t seen as much as the others. He had seen squad leaders straightening out kids who were fumbling around in their pockets, looking for their wallets so they could buy something out of the Coke machine they thought they had found in the woods.
“I’m going in,” Adrian said, getting up from his prone position and heading forward.
“Boy Scout, get your ass back here! Did I tell you to move?”
Adrian’s mind was on autopilot. He kept going and drowned out his squad leader’s voice.
His ankle came into contact with something thin and taught. It made him stumble as he flailed and stomped around, trying to regain his balance. The ear-splitting shriek that followed made him fall flat on his face into the wet mud. The whining firecracker acted as an alarm to the enemy camp, which immediately grabbed their weapons and ran into the forest, straight at the trainee’s current position. A hand grasped his shoulder and pulled him up. He met Retch’s displeased gaze, and braced himself for the punishment Retch would give him.
“You need to get your head out of your ass,” Retch said as he handed Adrian’s rifle to him. “If I mess up one patrol because of you, my ass is grass. Don’t ever move until I say so.”Adrian wiped the caked mud from his face and grabbed his gun.
“We’re starting the attack early!” Retch yelled as the crackle of mock gunfire erupted around them.
There turned out to be patrols that had moved up farther than the students had thought, and they suddenly found themselves facing a whole enemy squad a hundred yards ahead of the capture point. Adrian counted six other men taking shelter behind tree stumps and other debris.
He noticed a small fire team of about three enemy men proceeding down the hillside. They were tightly grouped together, and moved with one another. Adrian assumed their plan was to split up and flank the left and right sides, with one left as a cannon fodder distraction, or at least, it’s what he would do in that situation. But he wouldn’t allow them to do it.
He slowly worked his way up the hill, rolling behind tree stumps to cover his movements. Over the sound of gunfire, Adrian heard a faint “What the hell, Boy Scout?” as his squad tried to catch up with his unprecedented movements.
Adrian saw the fire team beginning to branch out. Here was the opening. He yanked the pin out of a dummy fragmentation grenade and wailed it full force up the hill.
He horribly miscalculated his throw; the grenade ricocheted off of a tree with a hollow “thump” and, naturally, gravity sent the grenade rolling back down the hill. He turned to the student crouched beside him who, unlike Adrian, bore a dismayed expression, sighed, and covered his head, as if he were already about to face the punishment he was going to get.
“Frag out!” Adrian yelled, covering his face, as he was instructed to do. Several more calls of “Frag out!” followed.
In the midst of all the gunfire, he felt a heavy tap on his helmet that jarred his brain. He looked up to see his least favorite Staff Sergeant at Camp James E. Rudder. Staff Sergeant Thompson was a bitter man who had zero tolerance for excuses of any kind. In his mind, you either screwed up, or you didn’t, and there were no stuttering or “buts” about it. He had gone through training himself. He knew what the candidates were going through, and he knew what brings out the best in the students, straight up, in-your-face yelling.
“You, come with me,” he said tapping his helmet with a stick. He turned to the candidate beside him, rapped his helmet, and added a “You, too.”
The man beside him got up from the ground, rolled his eyes, and strolled on along with Staff Sergeant Thompson as if he was walking down the sidewalk, like whatever verbal abuse Thompson was about to give them was part of his daily routine.
Adrian, on the other hand, was restless. His heart thumped and he started to sweat at the thought of losing a shot at becoming a Ranger. He needed the insignia on his uniform.
He knew exactly why he wanted the Ranger mark on him, but he refused to share with anyone else. In fact, no one knew much about Adrian. None of the candidates knew where he was from, who his parents were, what he liked to do, or anything personal about him. To the others he was “that kid that doesn’t talk and does stupid crap.”
He did all the “stupid crap” for his own reasons, as well, but some of the things he did, Adrian himself could not explain. His mind seemed to operate on its own many times.
They followed him through the forest until they were far away from the mock battle. The sound of gunfire was now just drowned out ambiance along with all the other noises of the forest.
“Kids,” the staff sergeant began, “you are soldiers, correct?”
“Yes, sir,” they both said politely.
“Then act like a damn soldier!” said Thompson as his voice slowly increased in volume. “Do you know why I called you back here to begin with?” he said, glaring at Adrian.
“Yes, sir,” he said with a straight face. Adrian didn’t know about the guy next to him, but he himself was shaking on the inside from fear.
“Why?” he demanded.
“We were pronounced dead. The frag that I threw bounced back at us,” Adrian said, taking the bullet.
“Stupid-ass mistakes. I’ve seen them all. You get off easy here. In Ranger School, you’ll get off the hook after a few good old words with me. But in combat, your penalty is death, and bullets hurt a lot worse than my words. Stupid-ass mistakes could get you and a lot of other people killed, just like – what’s your name, kid?” Thompson said, pointing and snapping his fingers at the other student beside him.
“Fritz, here, could’ve been added to the body count. We could put his name right next to yours on the list of casualties. Maybe include your name as Fritz’s cause of death.”
Thompson let his words sink in.
“As a soldier,” Thompson said, turning to Adrian, “how do you think you did?”
“Do you understand why?”
“Yes sir. I could have needlessly killed our men.”
“Then get back out there and fight!”
“Yes, sir,” he said, picking up his rifle and walking off. Fritz followed.
As they trotted off, the two didn’t say much of anything to each other, except for Fritz turning to Adrian and telling him, “Try not to throw frags up hills. They tend to roll.”
Adrian didn’t say anything as they parted ways.
“I heard Bravo Team got their asses wiped during the last mission,” Adrian heard another student say. The other student was from Alpha Team, the other squad in Adrian’s platoon. There were two squads to a platoon, but it didn’t matter who did what, when something went wrong, the whole platoon took the beating with them. Adrian was one hundred percent sure that the kid from Alpha Team was speaking about him. It was his fault that Bravo Team had failed, his screw-up had cost the squad too much; he knew that he may have hurt the entire platoon’s chance at becoming Rangers. At this far into Ranger School, screwing up was even more critical. He hoped to just keep plugging along and move on to the next lesson.
The next lesson had something to do with food; Adrian was sure of that. He couldn’t wait for the lesson to start. In the past, they had been limited to two MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat, per day. Food, in Ranger School, food was at the bottom of your priority list. You never put food above your duties, ever. With such varieties as Sloppy Joe and Mexican Bean Burrito, Adrian wondered if the RIs were handpicking the foods themselves, so that only the ones that could really upset one’s stomach remained.
“What’s happening, again?” Adrian asked the student next to him.
“Ranger Chicken To Go,” he muttered.
“Chicken to go?”
“This has to be some kind of trap,” Adrian said.
The student beside him snorted in amusement. “Of course it is. When was the last time an RI let us off easy?”
“You couldn’t be more right,” Adrian said.
At that moment, Staff Sergeant Thompson approached the group, holing a live chicken by the neck in his outstretched arm. The chicken flapped and squabbled as he pinned the bird against a rock, pulled his knife out of its sheath, twirled it around like a set of keys, and cleanly sliced the bird into two parts; the head and everything else. For him, it was almost routine.
“Listen up,” he began as he slowly dissected the bird. “This is obviously, a chicken, which can be acquired by purchasing, or stealing, depending on the circumstances.”
He began yanking off the skin and feathers like a sleeve. “This can be your only food if there is a combat shortage or you eat all of your rations. Now as you may know, birds of this variety, especially those in the countries you will be deployed in, may carry a variety of nasty diseases. Unfortunately,” he paused to slice open the chest, making hollow grinding noises like a watermelon being cut open, “you’re shit-outta-luck; it’s lights out and a fire might attract the attention of the enemy, or you’re fresh out of fire starters. Whatever the hell your problem is; you can’t make a fire. So you’ve got to eat it raw.” He started to part the chicken down the middle, scooping the grisly innards out with his bloodied hand. When chicken’s insides lay on the dirt beside him, Thompson worked his knife around the breast meat, cutting off a palm-sized, gelatinous, pink blob. He then held it up, dangling it above his mouth, and took a bite.
Adrian wretched as Thompson chewed the raw bird. He couldn’t stand the feel of raw chicken in his hand, let alone the taste and texture in his mouth.
“Everyone see how it’s done?”
Adrian held the squirming bird in his hand. He tried subduing the chicken against the ground and getting his knife in the proper position. But no matter what, he always had the feeling his was going to slip and lop off one of his digits.
“Trying to do it Thompson’s way, huh?” said a voice behind him. He whirled around to meet an expressionless face that seemed not the least bit plagued by anything that the other men were facing. If he was hurting, there was no way he was showing it. Adrian realized it was the kid that he had fought alongside during the mock battle, Fritz, the one who was killed by his grenade.
The chicken dangled in Fritz’s outstretched hand. He then tightened his grip and spun the chicken around by its neck violently. Adrian heard the neck vertebrae snapping and other soft tissue breaking as he twirled the bird around in a windmill of death.
When he was done, Adrian’s jaw fell open is disbelief as the chicken lay dead in his hand.
“Didn’t feel a thing,” the soldier said as he laid the chicken on the ground. He then twirled his knife around in his hand, and removed the head in one swift chop. He then raised the chicken’s headless body into the air, and visibly gulped down its bodily fluids. Adrian felt weak in his knees.
“Why?” was all he could say.
“Because,” he said as he finished and began to skin the chicken, “we don’t have any water. Liquid retention purposes.”
He sawed into the chicken, which by now looked good enough to be picked up from a grocery store. One by one, its major organs were removed. He then started on the breast meat, slicing off a nice slab of pale-pink flesh.
“Hand me those two stones over there, will you?” he said to Adrian.
Adrian tossed two stones toward Fritz, one after the other. Then, he began two rub the breast meat he had cut off between the two stones, making odd squishing sounds.
“The friction warms it up,” he said, continuing to rub, “sort of cooks it. Kills some of the nasties.” He then bit into it and tore the meat apart in his mouth like an animal.
“Not bad,” he said as he chewed. “You should try it.”
“Are we allowed?” Adrian said as he picked up the bird, preparing to spin it around.
Fritz chuckled. “Just tell Thompson you’re doing it Fritz’s way.”
“Fritz, huh?” said Adrian as he clumsily spun the bird by its neck.
“It’s a nickname. Don’t you have one?”
Adrian remembered being called by his first and middle initials by distant family members. “AJ,” he replied. AJ, for Adrian Jaycee O’Brannon.
Fritz was expressionless as he continued to chew the meat.
“Aren’t you worried about salmonella?” Adrian asked.
“Oh, AJ,” Fritz said as he unzipped his pack and produced his first aid kit. From it, he grabbed a generic antibiotic and two anti-diarrhea pills. He nonchalantly downed them all in one swallow.
“Are you crazy? One of those anti-diarrhea pills is enough to constipate and elephant! You’re going to die!”
“Kid,” Fritz began, “here, you can’t poop. You can go home when you’re done and take all the Ex-Lax you want, but here, taking a shit will end your chances at being a Ranger. That’s what happened to me last year,” he said as his voice trailed off.
“This is your second try?”
“Yes, sir,” Fritz said, munching on the rest of his food, “Let this be a lesson to you, Small Bear.”
Adrian thought for a minute, and then started rooting around his pack for his first aid kit.
Nightfall. The RIs had allowed the students a few minutes to rest. Most of the men lay against trees, mouths agape, zoned off into a deep sleep.
Adrian’s eyes were heavy, but every now and then they flickered open. He could see shapes flitting around in the forest, but he shrugged them off. They’re not real, he kept telling himself.
When he opened them again, there was no mistaking the figure that was now standing in front of him. It was a girl, in her early 20’s. She was wearing a white sundress, and her blue eyes and blonde hair could be picked out even in the night-shrouded forest. She slowly made her way toward Adrian.
“Sophie?” he said to her, “what are you doing here?”
“AJ,” said Sophie, “I came out here to talk to you. You need to let this go.”
“What?” said a sputtering Adrian.
“My father was right,” she said with a sigh of disapproval, “you won’t ever amount to anything in life.”
“How can you say that?” Adrian said, sitting up, “You would have never said that a year ago!”
“Open your eyes, AJ. These people around you are cut out for this. You’re just doing this so you can feel good about yourself. You’re doing this to try and change my mind. Well, guess what? It’s not going to work.”
Adrian was speechless. How did Sophie know?
“Goodbye, AJ,” she said as she began to slowly walk back off into the woods.
“Soph, wait!” Adrian yelled, “Wait! I need to-“
At that moment, he felt a stone-cold hand clasp his shoulder followed by a low, “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Adrian jumped and turned around. It was Fritz.
“Jesus, kid, you’ve been yelling at that tree for an hour! Lucky you didn’t wake up the whole damn camp.”
Adrian whirled around in disbelief. Of course there was someone there! She was just-
He had hallucinated the whole time.
“Fritz,” Adrian asked, “Do you think sometimes, dreams mean something? Do they have a message?”
Adrian heard Fritz grumble. Maybe he was hearing things, but to him, it sounded a whole lot like, “Shut the hell up.”