Which branch of the military has the toughest training course for its officers and special operators is a matter of animated debate, but there’s no question that the Army’s Ranger School is a viable candidate for carrying that designation. Over nine weeks, and three grueling phases, soldiers undergo physical, mental, and emotional challenges that test their endurance, resilience, and leadership.
My guest today went through Ranger School twice: first as an infantry officer in 2004, and then just last year as the first journalist to embed with a class all the way through the course. His name is Will Bardenwerper and he wrote an article about his experience for Outside Magazine called “Army Ranger School Is a Laboratory of Human Endurance.” Will and I begin our conversation with why he wanted to observe Ranger School from a third-party perspective after participating in it firsthand as a soldier. Will then explains the difference between earning your tab by graduating from Ranger School and being an official Army Ranger who belongs to the Ranger Regiment special operations force. Will then gives us a big picture overview of the three phases of Ranger School: Benning Phase, Mountain Phase, and Swamp Phase. We then dive into what happens in each phase, taking side trips along the way into the controversy of allowing women into the course, whether or not it’s gotten easier since Will went through, and the importance of doing well in the combat patrol exercises and peer reviews in which the students participate. We end our conversation discussing the lessons in endurance that civilians can take away from those who graduate from Ranger School and earn the tab.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- Why Will went back to Ranger School as a third-party observer
- What differentiates the Rangers from other Special Forces?
- A rundown of Ranger School basics
- What are the physical fitness tests like? Is it more about actual fitness or endurance?
- Group success vs. individual success
- Was it controversial letting women participate in Ranger School?
- The intense Mountain Phase of Ranger School
- The impact of peer reviews and what really keeps people going
- What Will’s second Ranger School experience revealed about himself
- What can Ranger School teach us about endurance? The human condition?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- The History and Future of America’s Special Forces
- Black Hawk Down
- The Benefits of Rucking
- What It Takes to Become a Navy SEAL
- 3 Obstacles to Doing Epic Deeds
- You May Be Strong . . . But Are You Tough?
Connect With Will
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast, which branch of the military has the toughest training course for its officers and special operators as it matter of animated debate, there’s no question. The Army’s Ranger School is a viable candidate for carrying that designation. Over nine weeks and three grueling phases, soldiers undergo physical, mental and emotional challenges that test their endurance, resilience and leadership. My guest today went through Ranger School twice, first as an infantry officer in 2004, and then just last year as the first journalist to embed with a class all the way through the course. His name is Will Bardenwerper and he wrote an article about his experience for Outside Magazine called “Army Ranger School as a Laboratory of Human Endurance.” Will and I begin our conversation with why he wanted to observe Ranger School from a third-party perspective after participating in it firsthand as a soldier.
Will then explains the difference between earning your tab by graduating from Ranger School and being an official Army Ranger who belongs to the ranger regiment special operations force. Will then gives us a big picture overview of the three phases of Ranger School: Benning Phase, Mountain Phase, and Swamp Phase. We then dive into what happens in each phase, taking side trips along the way into the controversy of allowing women into the course, whether or not it’s gotten easier since Will went through, and the importance of doing well in the combat patrol exercises and peer reviews in which the students participate. We end our conversation discussing the lessons in endurance that civilians can take away from those who graduate from Ranger School and earn the tab. After the show is over. Check out our show notes at AoM.is/rangerschool. Will joins me now via clearcast.io. Alright, Will Bardenwerper, welcome to the show.
Will Bardenwerper: Great, thank you for having me.
Brett McKay: So you are a former US Army infantry officer, also the author of a book, The Prisoner in his Palace. But back in 2019, you joined a class of soldiers and officers who were going through Ranger School. The thing is though, you yourself, you graduated Ranger School back in 2004. Why do you think it was necessary to go back as a third party observer to write about what it was like to go through Ranger School when you already did it yourself?
Will Bardenwerper: Well, I think that’s a good question, and maybe the way I begin the article is the best way of answering it, which is that I’m lucky enough to have spent 14 or so months in Iraq during a pretty violent year there and a pretty violent place. But luckily enough, I don’t almost ever have bad dream about that experience, however, not a month goes by when I don’t wake up in the middle of the night from a nightmare imagining that I have to go back to Ranger School, and so I think for that reason, I decided to go back in an effort to kind of discover what it was about that experience that impacted me the way that it did.
Brett McKay: Will, so let’s talk about the Rangers for those who aren’t familiar with them, because I think… I don’t know, let’s say in the past 20 years, of all the special operations groups in the military, the Navy Seals are probably gotten a lion’s share of attention in the popular press and the media. So a lot of people are familiar with the Army Rangers. What sort of operations do the Rangers take part in? What’s their specialty?
Will Bardenwerper: I mean, that yeah, that is, I think a valid point, for whatever reason, the seals have garnered a lion’s share of the publicity, but I mean, I think for most folks not too familiar with the military, but maybe they have seen a few of those seal movies, they’re not that dissimilar. Obviously, the Army doesn’t engage in the underwater operations that seals are capable of but as far as the kind of work that they’ve been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are quite a few parallels. The Army Rangers are special operators, they’re highly trained, very selective, and the kinds of missions that they would engage in would be along those same lines of attempting to locate, capture, potentially kill high value targets, sometimes behind enemy lines, so to speak, in dangerous places. So you think about your traditional raid where you’re trying to find an enemy target, that would be the kind of mission that they would engage in. They’re also very skilled at reconnaissance operations. If you think back, I think a lot of people are probably still familiar with the movie Black Hawk Down. That was a group of Army Rangers and Delta Force operators who were assigned to capture a Somali warlord. The mission kind of went south and they had to fight their way out of a pretty tricky situation, but that’s the sort of mission that they would often be assigned.
Brett McKay: Well, another interesting thing about the Ranger… So you can earn your Ranger tab, but then you can also be part of the 75th ranger regiment. So what’s the difference between the two?
Will Bardenwerper: Yeah, it’s a little tricky, I guess, for those not in the army and well-versed in the nuance of these things. So the 75th ranger regiment is that special operations component of the Army, and the way it typically works on the enlisted soldier side would be that you sign a contract to join that… Or to have the opportunity essentially to join the ranger regiment, assuming you pass all the prerequisites. And so a young soldier that signed that sort of a contract would go to basic training, he’d go to his infantry training. He’d be assigned to one of the ranger regiment battalions, and then pretty quickly within the first year or so, he would go to Ranger School and he would essentially have to pass Ranger School in order to return to the ranger regiment and be assigned there on a more permanent basis. So for them, it’s almost like an extended tryout, in order to remain in the regiment.
It gets a little more tricky on the officer side of the house, because officers are generally not allowed to go straight from West Point, for example, or ROTC or Officer Candidate School as I did and become an officer in the ranger regiment, they would need to go to a conventional combat arms unit first, and then, if they were a high performer there, they would then have a chance to apply to be selected to be an officer in the ranger regiment, and I guess just the final part to that answer would be for someone like me as a young infantry officer who was commissioned from officer candidate school. We are afforded the opportunity to go to Ranger School, received that high quality training. And then the theory basically goes that we can return to whichever infantry unit that we are assigned and impart some of those skills and some of that knowledge to the young soldiers that we are responsible for leading. So that’s kind of the reason why young officers would go to this school, even if they were not immediately destined to go to the ranger regiment.
Brett McKay: Tell me, why did you… Was that the reason why you went to Ranger School and earned the tab, so you could do that? Or was there something else going on there?
Will Bardenwerper: I mean, no, for an infantry officer, it’s pretty much expected that you go and give it your best shot. Clearly, not everyone completes the course, but you’re at least given the opportunity to attend and to try. So yeah, I mean, it was an expectation, but I think for a lot of young officers such as myself, it’s also you know an opportunity to kind of prove ourselves. And I think that the, you know, one of the underlying principles is that if you can withstand the physical and the psychological stresses and challenges of Ranger School, you’re gonna be better equipped when you get to your first assignment because you’ll have at least a degree of confidence that comes with knowing that you’ve… You know, at a minimum, you can go an extended amount of time without a lot of food, without a lot of sleep, and be assigned to lead guys who are equally stressed and fatigued. And so I think in addition to the whatever tactical skills you are expected to learn, there’s a degree of confidence that comes with that, that ideally you emerge from the course having gotten and that will serve you well as you move forward in the army.
Brett McKay: Correct me if I’m wrong is it all… Isn’t Ranger School also open to people in other branches in the military?
Will Bardenwerper: Yes, there are a handful. You’ll see a few Marines, a few Air Force folks. Typically, they will draw from those organizations, you know, more specialized units as well. There’s not a lot of them, but there will be some. And there actually are some foreign students as well, on occasion.
Brett McKay: So this article you wrote for Outside Magazine, you talk about how the Ranger School is this sort of laboratory. You were talking about that, this is laboratory of human endurance. And I think one of the interesting things that was useful, were you going back and walking through the class with these guys you’re going through, is that you’re able to talk to them and get their experience. Like, I mean, it’s always different to write about your own experience, but then actually like hear from someone else and their perspective… So let’s talk about Ranger School and this experience you had. For a start, big picture, how long is Ranger School and what are the phases? Like a big overview and then we’ll dig into the details with each phase here in a bit.
Will Bardenwerper: Sure. So it’s essentially nine weeks, you know, 62 or 63 days. And it takes place in three, three-week phases as you called it. And it begins at Fort Benning, Georgia at a place called Camp Darby. And as the battalion commander there explained to the students, and as it became you know clear to me as I observed, really the only individual physical assessments that take place are on those first three or four days, when they go through sort of a battery of a physical fitness tests that are basically designed to determine if you’re in shape to complete the rest of the course. And so those are pass-fail. If you pass, you move on, if you fail you basically get sent home. And then… So that’s the better part of the first week, and that’s followed then by two weeks of simulated combat patrols. And those basically take the same general form throughout the rest of the course in the ensuing two phases as well. And I can… You know, maybe we can come back to what that’s all about because that’s really at the heart of what the course is all about, but after that three weeks you get… If you’re successful, you move on to what they call Mountain Phase, which takes place in North Georgia, right along the Tennessee Valley divide at the very Southern tip of the Appalachian Trail. You have three weeks there, and if you’re successful there, you move down to Florida for the final phase, which is called Florida Phase or Swamp Phase.
It takes place on the Florida Panhandle at a place called Eglin Air Force Base. The Ranger School has like a little outpost on this larger Air Force Base. And that’s the final three weeks. And if you finish that successfully, then you go back to Fort Benning and you graduate. So that’s basically how it’s laid out. It’s nine weeks, three three-week increments. And at no point will you basically expect… Should you expect to sleep more than about four hours. And more often than not they’re sleeping maybe one to two hours outside in the elements and eating if they’re lucky, you know, two pre-packaged MREs, Meals Ready-to-Eat a day. So that you have a pretty dramatic calorie deficit that’s built up because you’re burning the neighborhood of 6000-plus calories and you may only be consuming you know three or 4000 calories. So that’s why a lot of the students graduate and they’ve lost 15-20 pounds over the course of that time period.
Brett McKay: And that’s all on purpose, ’cause that’s part of the training.
Will Bardenwerper: Yeah, yeah, I mean, lack of sleep and lack of food makes everything more difficult. And again, you know, I think the idea is you’re preparing these soldiers for combat, and you want to kind of simulate some of the stresses that you may encounter overseas as best you can in a situation where they’re not in any actual danger of someone trying to kill them so you can try to identify other stressors that can make their leadership evaluations more challenging. So that’s how the school generally works. And if you like later on in the conversation, I can get into a little more about the patrols and what the students are kind of evaluated on.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s do that. So let’s talk about that Benning phase, you’re doing that physical fitness test, see if you’re in shape for that, then you do the simulated patrols. What are they being evaluated and what are those simulations like?
Will Bardenwerper: Sure, so the physical fitness tests on the surface are actually not… You know, I think most fit… You know, I go to a CrossFit gym, for example, and you know I think most of the folks that come to my gym on a good day would be able to do 49 push-ups, 59 sit-ups, run two miles, and whatever it is you know under… I can’t remember the exact amount of time. Actually, it’s a five mile run in under 40 minutes. And then there’s some other tests, a land navigation test and a combat water survival test. But you know on their own they’re probably not very intimidating to a young fit athlete, but what makes them more difficult is the fact that you’re doing those essentially in the middle of the night. You’re getting woken up at 3:00 in the morning, it’s pitch dark, it might be raining, it might be cold, it might be muddy, you haven’t eaten and you know that… You know the future of your Army career, to some extent, is gonna be impacted by your performance, so there’s a lot of professional stress.
So something… It’s a lot different to do 49 push-ups in the comfort of your gym on a good night sleep after a nice meal than it is at three in the morning in a driving rainstorm, having not eaten and not slept, and in conjunction with all these other tests that are being administered. So assuming you can get through that portion of the first week, then you transition into those patrols, and that’s really at the heart of what Ranger School is all about and how that works is each day you wake up, let’s say again, three in the morning or so. And you’re broken into, let’s say, maybe a 30-man platoon, and then four squads within that. And the ranger instructors will then identify a group of three, four leaders for that day’s operation, it might be a raid, it might be an ambush, it might be a reconnaissance and they then will be evaluated over the course of the next 20 or so hours on their ability to accomplish the mission.
And as a student, you need to successfully accomplish one leadership role during each phase to move on to the next phase, and you might get two to three opportunities in the event that you fail in your first attempt. And so that’s essentially at the heart of what Ranger School is, it’s the ranger instructors observing you as you spend a day leading your fellow ranger students on that day’s combat mission and there are soldiers whose job, it is to play the part of the enemy for all of those missions. So they try to make it as sort of life-like and realistic as possible. So if it’s an ambush, you’ll go to the location, it might be a pretty long overland movement through the woods, you have to navigate your way there successfully, you have to put your soldiers in place and then the other soldiers will play the part of the enemy, coming down the road that you then engage in your ambush. And so that’s how it works. And at the end of it, the ranger instructor will take the leaders aside and will explain to them what they did well and what they did not so well.
Brett McKay: And that’s… I think, the big take away I took from this, that you all think of these special operations schools is about the individual… Your ability to endure individually, the other is that… But really the most… The essential part of these things is like, can you lead and work as a team? That seems like the thing that’s the most important part of this, or what the instructors are trying to get through their heads?
Will Bardenwerper: No, that’s absolutely right. And that is something that I think became more clear to me, watching it then was maybe clear to me when I was a student going through it 15 years ago, when I think I kind of viewed it more as kind of like an individual try out to evaluate just how tough you are as an individual and what you could endure, clearly that’s important, but what’s more important is your ability to contribute to the group, and the students who kind of started to observe as being among the more successful ones, were the ones who were always externally focused on picking up their teammates, even when they were not in a leadership position, they did it all the time. And so what really contributed to their success was their ability to figure out what am I good at? Maybe I’m just a real big strong guy, and I can carry more equipment than other people when we’re on these endless marches up and down the mountains.
Maybe as the case, was the case with one or two of the younger female officers who weren’t as physically imposing, but they were really good at delivering operations orders, which is something that’s very important for young officers to be able to do, and so maybe there was a young soldier going to the ranger regiment who didn’t have a lot of experience with that, and so they could help him out with that. So it was critical to kind of identify what is it that I’m good at, how am I uniquely qualified to help this group and then do it. And what I really found to be interesting was the fact that not only did that help the group, and not only did it help those soldiers when it came time for there to be these peer evaluations, which we can discuss later, but it helped the soldiers themselves because it took them out of their own minds, if you’re actively engaged helping other people, you’re less likely to just sort of recede into your own discomfort and misery and kind of the dark places that you can go if you allow your mind to go there.
Brett McKay: Will, so you mentioned something, women now can go to Ranger School that always hasn’t been the case, when were women allowed? And was there any controversy about that allowing females to take part in Ranger School?
Will Bardenwerper: Yes, and I wish I could give you a good date, but I would say it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 20, maybe 16-ish. I might be off a year or two in either direction, but around that time period, I think to date there have been somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 that have graduated, so it’s still a very small percentage, for example, in the platoon I was covering of 30 people I think there were two. So it’s certainly a small number, but there are some now who are going through, and one of the ones who graduated with the course I covered was among the higher performers, she did exceptionally well. And yes, there was controversy as there has been with the decision to kind of allow women to join combat arms units to begin with, and I think that was for a number of reasons, some valid, probably some less valid, but the fact is that from what I observed, they were treated pretty much the same as everyone else by the instructors and by their peers. Now it so happened that the women I was following were among the higher achievers, had they been struggling… I don’t know if that would have changed sort of the chemistry among the platoon, but in the situation, I found myself watching it actually went, I think surprisingly smoothly, given just the realities of what life in the field is like and the complications that could have arose had things not been managed as well as they were.
Brett McKay: And you mentioned there was some of like the valid, invalid. What are some of the valid and invalid reasons do you think people… There was a controversy.
Will Bardenwerper: I mean, I think there’s always the concern over standards and will standards, especially some of the physical standards be reduced in order to make it more likely that women can pass. I think… And I think ultimately, there were very few things that I noticed really that were any different from when I was there. There was one change, but I think this pre-dated the admission of women, but it I think made the school maybe slightly less physically demanding cumulatively. And that was… We did a 16 or 17-mile road march carrying all our equipment. So 80-plus pounds at the end of that first week whereas now they do a 12-mile march with less weight. And so I and a lot of other students after just one week already had feet that were completely torn to pieces. And so we were essentially limping around on those combat patrols, trying to do the best we could, but in a lot of physical pain, which of course makes everything else harder.
I think these students got out of that first week, maybe in slightly better physical condition just because of that march had changed. But aside from that I certainly when I did the article, I didn’t wanna be one of these guys who said, “Oh, you know, I went through it when it was hard and now it’s gotten easier.” Because I think pretty much since the first class, every ensuing class has said that about the next class, and that’s not really the case. You still don’t eat, you still don’t sleep, there’s still a lot of stress. You’re still out in the cold, in the rain, in the mud. Those things haven’t changed, even if there’s a few things here and there that have maybe made it ever so slightly more manageable.
Brett McKay: Alright. So you do Benning phase, you start those combat patrols, those battle patrols. After that you go to Mountain Phase and you’re still more patrols, but what’s going on there? How do the instructors ramp up the stress to make it harder there?
Will Bardenwerper: Yeah. Well, just to get to Mountain phase, you need to have earned what they call a go. So you need to have successfully passed one of those patrols, not everyone does. I think 50% of the incoming class doesn’t even make it through that first three or four day test of physical fitness. And so there’s a smaller group of people moving forward at that point. But yeah, assuming you pass your patrol, you get through the fitness prerequisites, you move on to the mountains. What really changes there isn’t so much additional stresses the instructors give you, it’s the mountains and the terrain. And you go from walking across relatively flat Fort Benning, even though there’s some dense vegetation and swampy elements to it. It for the most part it’s relatively flat. You get to mountains and all of a sudden, a five-kilometer patrol looks a lot different when four of those kilometers are straight uphill carrying 100 pounds on your back. And so that’s one element that makes it tougher.
I think most people agree that the mountains are in many ways the toughest phase primarily for that reason, just because you’re carrying so much weight over such long distances, over such challenging terrain. And then the weather, of course, up in North Georgia can be rough. The winter weather in particular. There can be snow and cold. I went through with this class. It was already March, I believe, into April. But there were still nights where it was freezing at night, and they’re just sleeping out there. They’re not in a tent or in any kind of shelter. They’re just on the ground. And so that makes it of course pretty difficult as well. And they’re not always walking on nice paths. It’s not like a nice trail. Sometimes they’re just breaking brush going downhill at night with no visibility over steep terrain, not on a trail. So people are falling down left and right. It can be a real mess.
Brett McKay: Well, speaking of the weather when you were… The crew you were with some two soldiers got hit by lightning up on the mountain.
Will Bardenwerper: Yeah, yeah. It was more than two actually, it was, I think four or five, including an instructor got hit. I actually wasn’t on that particular patrol, but I spoke to the people who were. And yeah, they were… I think it was… They were very fortunate to escape serious injury. And that’s not entirely uncommon. I had spoken to some other folks who had been through different classes that also had either… Had near misses or been hit by lightning. In this case, they were medically evacuated and they returned to duty the next day. But yeah, you’re dealing with some pretty unforgiving weather in those mountains.
Brett McKay: And when you were talking with these soldiers during the Mountain Phase, like what were the things that they were struggling with the most that they were willing to share with you?
Will Bardenwerper: Well, that was kind of one of the cool parts of the story, was being able to earn their trust and have them confide in me. That was what I spent the first three weeks doing was trying to establish a rapport with a handful of soldiers, so I could tell this story through their eyes and through their experiences. And they maybe shared with me things that they wouldn’t be too you know as enthused to tell their friends. And so yeah, I think one element of it is just the uncertainty of, “Am I gonna finish or not, or get recycled?” Which is this other thing that can happen. If you don’t earn your go on a patrol, you don’t necessarily get drop from the course, you may be given the opportunity to pick back up with the next class.
But that means you have to wait four more weeks until they come through. And so that’s four more weeks away from your family, and your loved ones, and your friends, and just the comforts of society. So it was just this uncertainty, “When am I gonna see my girlfriend again, or my wife, or my buddies? Am I gonna graduate in time for the, you name it, the Super Bowl or the World Series, or whatever event is on the horizon that people are looking forward to?” And just the sense of we’re occupying this weird limbo. We’re disconnected from everything that we enjoy in life and when is it gonna end? That that was the source of some of their anxiety.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned earlier after each phase, so the Benning Phase, the Mountain Phase, after all these patrols, the soldiers are getting evaluated by the instructors but also by their peers. And that’s a weird situation ’cause a bad evaluation by one of your peers could end your Ranger School experience, or you could recycle or maybe you’re just done. And so with that in mind was there any pressure not to give bad reports, ’cause they didn’t wanna ruin some guy’s chance at the tab?
Will Bardenwerper: Yeah, so that’s… I mean that’s a very unique and important part of the school is what they call these peer evaluations. And so after each phase… And the short answer to your question is no, because you have to evaluate all of them. And so you’re given essentially a scorecard and you have to rate everyone in your squad from one highest to let’s say 14 lowest. So you can’t just say no. [chuckle]
I don’t wanna… I don’t wanna vote, you have to. And someone has to be number one and someone has to be number 14. I don’t know the exact formula, but if enough of your peers vote you you know in the bottom third, let’s say, you can either get dropped or recycled. I think they basically… They’ll take that in conjunction with how you did on your patrols, what the ranger instructors had to say. And if the ranger instructor said this guy was a disaster and all your peers say, “He was a disaster.” More than likely you’re gonna get dropped. Your peers may say, “Hey, maybe not the best performer.” But the instructor saw some good things or some potential, maybe they’ll give you another chance with the next class, but yes, I think you know that can be certainly a rude awakening for some students. I mean, there was one student, I believe, who in the first phase was literally ranked dead last by all 14 of his peers. And so I would have to think that’s kind of devastating to learn. But I guess if there’s anything good to come of it, it can help him to identify his weakness and try to improve before he potentially is in charge of real soldiers in a real more high stakes situation. But yeah, that’s an interesting part of the class, and it leads to, I think, you know a lot of stress among some of the weaker performers.
Brett McKay: So after Mountain Phase it’s Swamp Phase. Where does this take place again and then what goes on there?
Will Bardenwerper: Yeah…
Brett McKay: Is it more of the same?
Will Bardenwerper: Yeah. So that takes place down in the Florida Panhandle. It’s in the swamps as the name suggests. And it’s the same idea as far as you’re doing these combat patrols and you’re being evaluated on them. I guess one of the changes there is that you know some of them are waterborne on Zodiac boats. I should have said that during all these phases you’re doing some airborne operations. So you’re actually jumping out of airplanes, and then there’s some air assault movements, so they’re doing operations on Black Hawk helicopters. And then in Florida you would do… You have some airborne, some air assault and some waterborne combined, which is slogging through the swamps through water that can be up to your neck, you know obviously surrounded by snakes and whatever else are in the swamps.
But yeah, you’re being evaluated on your missions. I think that for a lot of the students by that point though, they’re so close to the finish line that it’s perhaps not as challenging as the mountains were simply because you can see the end at the… The light at the end of the tunnel. And by that point, you’ve already successfully finished two phases, so there’s a degree of confidence that comes with the fact that you know I earned my go in Benning, I earned a go in Mountains. I’ve probably gotten some decent peer reports at this point to have made it this far, and you know I’m only two or three weeks away from graduation. So I noticed that there was actually a little bit of bounce in the step of the students I was following when they got to Florida for those reasons.
Brett McKay: So some of the most poignant parts in your article were when you were talking to these guys after they failed, they got a no-go.
Will Bardenwerper: Mm-hmm.
Brett McKay: I mean, what was the typical response if you talk to a guy that… They got the no-go after a Mountain Phase or Benning Phase or Swamp Phase?
Will Bardenwerper: Oh man, I mean, it was tough. And I mean I had gotten to know some of them, I had grown to like them. I was kind of rooting for them, so to speak. And so to see them come up short, you know, was… I felt for them for sure. You know, not in all cases, I mean in some cases, they were just… They had just not done well at all. But for others, there were guys who were just right on the fence and were really trying hard and their heart was in the right place, and they were giving it a 110%, and their performance wasn’t necessarily terrible. It’s just not a perfect science and sometimes people don’t pass. And so you know their responses were usually… They weren’t all uniform, but I would say there was kind of a weird mix of like short-term frustration and sadness, but coupled with a little bit of relief. You know, “Hey, this is over, and for better or worse, I’m gonna be home eating a pizza with my loved ones in 24 hours, and the misery is finished.” But I think an awareness that you know despite that, it’s something that they’re gonna regret and it’s gonna stick with them for a long time. So yeah, there were some… Definitely, some kind of depressing scenes of guys giving their best and coming up short.
Brett McKay: Did a lot of them decide they’re gonna recycle and try again?
Will Bardenwerper: If they’re allowed to, most of them did attempt to do it again. In a few cases, there were guys who had already recycled once or twice. You know, so they’ve already been in this place for like over 100 days.
Brett McKay: Oh, jeez.
Will Bardenwerper: I think there was one guy that had… Was pushing like 200 days. [chuckle] You know, so… I mean…
Brett McKay: That’s like Groundhog Day.
Will Bardenwerper: Yeah, yeah, I mean, it’s like a horrible Groundhog Day. The quality of life is definitely far worse than at a minimum security prison. And so imagine like a 200-day sentence of jail and it’s pretty much worse, because you’re not sitting in a climate-controlled room napping or watching TV. You’re out in the mud, in the rain, you’re not eating, you’re… And it’s just… It’s miserable. And so in a few cases, those guys did just say, “You know what, I’m out of here, I can’t be away any longer.” In one case, there was a guy whose best friend was getting married, he was gonna be the best man. And he just said, “You know, this is an important relationship, I’ve been here for 100-plus days, I’m not necessarily confident the outcome is gonna change if I try yet again. You know, I’m done. I’ve given it my best and I’m moving on.”
Brett McKay: And when you talk to the students that made it through Ranger School, what do they say that kept them going even when they wanted to quit?
Will Bardenwerper: That there were all different kinds of motivations. And they would often write you know some kind of like an inspirational, a little slogan inside their patrol cap and look at it when they needed to kind of dig deep and keep pushing. In one case, you know, a soldier was… And it’s kind of a strange coincidence, but he actually knew the brother of one of my real good Army friends, and his brother perished on 9/11 in the World Trade Center. And so he wrote that guy’s initials in his cap, as a motivational force, “Hey, this may be miserable for a short amount of time, but this is why we’re here.” And drew strength from that. Other people would draw inspiration maybe from a parent or a grandparent who had served in the military and gone through equally or more challenging circumstances. Another guy remembered the little things, so an attempt that no matter how bad things are, I’ll at least have a few minutes to maybe scarf down an MRE or get an hour’s sleep, or maybe on an extra good day, get a letter from home and get a chance to look at it. But to try to just derive some form of pleasure from the most modest circumstances. So they all had some kind of a trick, I think, for when moments got real dark, to keep pushing forward.
Brett McKay: Well, it seems like the common theme is that… What you talked about earlier is they thought outside of themselves, they thought about someone else, that was the thing that kept them going. So I’m curious, though I didn’t ask this, do we know what the typical passage rate of Ranger School of a class is?
Will Bardenwerper: Yeah, they monitor that very carefully, and it generally hovers anywhere from 45% to 55% of the students who start will eventually graduate, but of that group or of the starting group, only about 15% to 18% will go straight through nine weeks without recycling at all. So yeah, that’s how it typically breaks down. Half of the people who start will eventually finish, but the majority of them will have to recycle one, if not more than one phase.
Brett McKay: After following this Ranger class as a reporter/journalist, did it change the way you viewed your own Ranger experience?
Will Bardenwerper: Yeah, I think one of the reasons I went back again was because, and I mentioned this in the article, I was not the world’s best Ranger student, and I was surprised by that to some extent, because I had always been pretty successful at what I had set my mind to. I was always a good student, I was always a good athlete, I was always a hard worker, and yet I struggled, and so part of the reason I went back was to identify, what was it about this place that… Why did I have such a hard time? And so, yeah, watching these students, on the one hand, part of it was humbling because I would see some of the high performers, I don’t wanna say they made it look easy, but there were a few students who really did not appear to struggle very much, they were in the minority, but they were there. There was one young Special Forces soldier, for example, who just really didn’t look much different on graduation day than he did on day one, and he had… And I was just like, “How in the world is this guy capable of getting through this without really even breaking a sweat?” But at the same time, it was… I saw plenty of other people who were probably more similar to myself, who really did have to dig deep and who for whom it didn’t come easy, but at the end of the day, they graduated and they could hold their heads high.
Brett McKay: Did you think… Are there any lessons or insights about I don’t know, the human condition that Ranger School can give people, even those who’ve never gone through, or probably never will?
Will Bardenwerper: Yeah, I think that lesson of “remember the little things” is an important one that can be applied to anyone’s life, I find myself, certainly not every day, thinking about this, but there are times when things get tough and you can get stressed out, and then if you step back and you say, “Wait a second, is it really that bad? At the end of the day, hopefully I have a roof over my head. If it’s raining out, I’m dry. If I wanna take a hot shower, I can. Presumably, I can find some food.” So as long as some of these elemental needs are met, as they are for, fortunately, for most Americans, other stuff can fall into place, but I think it’s that idea of just not taking those little things for granted that can help power you through situations where other stuff may be more and more stressful in your life. So that was one enduring lesson. And the other one I think is just very simple, but “just don’t quit.” Usually things will… If you set your mind to it and keep pressing ahead, things will get better.
One of the chaplains in the mountains would tell the students… Because everyone I think wants to quit at one point or another. And he said, “The moment you quit and you go home and you get a good night’s sleep and a good meal, you will regret having quit for the rest of your life because you’ll have scratched that itch, that desire to leave this place and to rest and to eat and to enjoy those things, but as soon as you enjoy them even for a minute, you’re gonna realize that you can’t undo that decision and that you wish you hadn’t made it.” So that was another, I think, lesson that you can apply to any number of elements of life today.
Brett McKay: Will, the articles, Army Ranger School Is a Laboratory of Human endurance is on outsideonline.com. What are you working on now? Where can people learn more about the rest of your work?
Will Bardenwerper: Sure, well, I would suggest anyone who’s interested to take a look at my first book, which was The Prisoner in His Palace: Saddam Hussein, his American guards and what history leaves unsaid. That’s an account of some young American soldiers who most and probably found themselves responsible for living alongside and guarding Saddam in the days before his execution and then ultimately leading him to his execution. And in the process of doing that, they developed some really strange, I guess you could say relationships with him, in that they knew intellectually that he was a very terrible person and he was guilty of some horrible crimes, but they also found themselves growing to like him on a human level, to the point that when they had to deliver them to be executed, some of them found themselves in tears because they had developed this strange bond with this person. So that book, hopefully people will enjoy. And then right now, I’m just beginning to write a book on what is expected to be the end of the Minor League Baseball’s Appalachian league. Major League Baseball is in the process of getting rid of about 40 minor league teams.
And in the case of the league I’m writing about, these teams have been a part of some of these small Appalachian working-class towns and cities for over 100 years, and their loss is gonna really leave a hole in the lives of these communities. But hopefully, they will find a way to restore baseball in some form and get back up on their feet. But I’m gonna tell the story of the forces that led to baseball’s extinction and then maybe if we’re lucky, it’s rebirth in at least some of these towns.
Brett McKay: Well, I’ll have to check that. That sounds like a great one. Well, Will Bardenwerper, thanks for your time. It’s been absolute pleasure.
Will Bardenwerper: No, thank you for having me, I appreciate it.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Will Bardenwerper, he is a journalist and the author of the latest article in Outside Magazine, Army Ranger School Is a Laboratory of Human Endurance, you can check that out on outsidemagazineonline.com. Also check out his website, willbardenwerper.com, where you’ll find more information about his work, and his latest book, The Prisoner in His Palace. Also check out his show notes at AoM.is/rangerschool, where you’ll find links to resources when you delve deeper into this topic.
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