Sunday, April 4, 2010

Mountain Patrol

The Tennessee Valley Divide known as the TVD sits astride the border between north Georgia and southeast Tennessee. The rounded mountains of the TVD are the terminus of the ancient Appalachian mountain chain that stretches along the Eastern Coast of the United States from New England to Georgia. The TVD is used as a training tool for the United States Army Ranger School with its mountain Ranger camp located in the town of Dahlonega Georgia. The mountain Ranger camp is officially named Camp Frank C. Merrill. Colonel Merrill commanded a unit officially known as the 75th Infantry and unofficially known as Merrill’s Marauders in the Burma-China-India theater of World War II. Merrill’s Marauders harassed the Japanese Army and conducted a jungle guerilla campaign that is legendary in American military history. The current Ranger Regiment or 75th Infantry Regiment (Ranger Airborne) traces part of its lineage from this World War II unit.
At the time I attended in 1988, Ranger school was divided into “city week”, Mountain, Florida and Desert Phases. When I arrived at the mountain Ranger camp fresh from the completion of “city week” at Fort Benning Georgia I didn’t know quite what to expect. City week, which was actually ten days in length, had been a shock but it had mostly consisted of physical training, road marches, and classroom instruction. As Ranger students we had yet to experience the graded combat patrols that would decide whether we would receive the coveted black and gold Ranger Tab.
After our chartered passenger buses arrived at the mountain camp we were none to gently instructed to get in formation by platoon and company. I was in third platoon, B Company also known as “B-no” as in “be no food and be no sleep.” We were assigned to six man wooden cabins or “hootches” that had been housing Ranger students since the 1950’s. At the command, move! We rushed from formation to our assigned hootch dragging our gear like a bunch of OD green hobos. Once inside as we choose our bunks we noticed that the walls and ceiling of our hootch was covered with names and dates of past Ranger students. Some of these names dated from the Vietnam era and as I fell asleep in my bunk that first evening I wondered if the men who had their names written the ceiling had made it back alive.
For the next several days we attended outdoor classroom instruction on patrol orders, movement formations, and how to conduct the three combat patrols. Combat patrols are divided into three categories, Reconnaissance, Raids, and Ambushes and all offensive operations in the United States Army no matter how complex can be broken down into these three categories. In the “Mountain” phase of Ranger School the basic unit size was the section which consisted of two 10 man squads. These twenty man units where broken down further as different specialties where assigned to Ranger students on a rotating basis. The important assignments were the graded leadership positions of Patrol Leader Assistant (PL), Patrol Leader (APL) and Squad Leader. These graded positions rotated on a daily basis and were the primary criteria by which Ranger students were evaluated.
Throughout this entire process we continued to conduct daily physical training surviving on one meal a day and 4 hrs of sleep or less. In fact the highlight of the day was our trip to the Mountain Dining Facility and a chance to eat a few of the fabled blueberry pancakes served there. Stories of these pancakes had been passed down from Ranger Student to Ranger student almost since the start of the course in the 1950’s. I believe it wasn’t so much that the pancakes where that good but that the lack of nutrition made their blend of carbohydrates and sugar just what the body needed and the mind followed. This lack of nourishment and sleep was one of several ways that the cadre simulated the stress of combat for the duration of the course. It was not uncommon for Ranger Students to lose twenty to thirty pounds during the course of training. Most Ranger qualified individuals see there weight loss as a badge of honor. I myself lost 23 pounds off a frame at the time that didn’t have much to lose.
Finally the day came when we would conduct our first graded patrol. It was a 10 day patrol across the TVD and we meticulously prepared for it as we had been taught. The student leadership issued the appropriate patrol orders, such as the warning order and operations order. These base orders which where given orally in a stylized fashion would be later modified on a daily basis by fragmentary orders. Much to my delight I was assigned the position of machine gunner and was assigned to carry one of the section’s M60 machineguns. The M60 was the basic infantry automatic weapon at the time and it weighed 23 pounds and was about 3 feet in length.
Prior to the patrol we were required to lay out all are gear for inspection and the packing list was required to be strictly adhered to. Only One Meal Ready to Eat was allowed per day as well as one pack of gum or chewing tobacco per day. Being a dipper of tobacco at the time and always hungry by this point I was glad to have something to put in my mouth to combat the hunger pangs that were almost constant. Once the packing list inspection was complete we shouldered out rucksacks and filed off in patrol order headed up the well groomed trail that headed us toward the TVD.
The pace was leisurely as we adjusted our gear and got comfortable for what we expected to be along overnight walk through the North Georgia forests. It was late afternoon and I watched the sunlight bounce of the leaves of the oaks and mountain laurel. The path we followed closely hugged the banks of a babbling creek that was splashing its way noisily down the valley as we headed in the opposite direction. I remember thinking that up to this point Ranger school was not as bad as I had been led to believe. Things were going to get worse.
As we continued walking in single file up the valley the trail got steeper and the sides of the valley started closing in until they blocked out the sun and we were in semi permanent dusk. Suddenly the man in front of me took a hard left and headed straight up the mountain ridge that had been paralleling our route. I remember thinking” What are we getting off a perfectly good trail for?” After about 100 meters of going up a forty degree slope filled with leaves and underbrush I liked carrying the M60 a lot less than I had previously. After 200 meters I was walking 10 meters and leaning against trees gasping for air as I tried not to fall back down the ridgeline. At 300 meters my thighs were burning likes my pants were on fire and I was very seriously contemplating throwing down my weapon and saying “I quit!” But I had an epiphany as I leaned against a skinny little pine tree trying to force some air in to my lungs. I realized that even if I quit I would have to get to the top of the ridge to get evacuated to the “Gulag” which is where all quitters, failures, and medical holds went on they way to be recycled to another class or kicked out of the school entirely. So I kept trudging upwards until finally I reached the top. Looking to my left and right I saw all the other students lined up in a single ragged rank trying to catch their collective breathes.
Our RI (Ranger Instructor) decided this was a perfect time to check everyone for ticks as Lyme disease was making a big splash in the papers at the time. I just thought it was an excuse to get us all to takes our uniforms off in the by now frigid mountain air, just another way to mess with our exhausted bodies.
So for the next week we walked day and night thru the mountains fighting the dense mountain laurel trees and thick sticky underbrush. The days followed a familiar pattern, conduct a reconnaissance patrol in the daylight then go back and conduct a raid or ambush in the hours of darkness on the target we had done reconnaissance on. Sleep was nonexistent and every time we stopped we had to dig in fighting positions with our entrenching tools and pull security. Any one caught sleeping or eating when they were supposed to be watching the perimeter was severely punished. The most feared punishment was the handing out of a “Major minus” by an Ranger Instructor (RI). These consisting of your name and the words major minus on a slip of paper. Any Ranger who received 2 major minuses during the conduct of any one phase of Ranger school was automatically put in the Gulag and recycled. Some guys screwed up so much that the 58 day Ranger course took them over 6 months to complete. Major plusses were also given out occasionally but not nearly as often as the minuses.
Every morning the RI’s conducted changeover as the old RI’s went home to clean up and eat and the new ones took over conducting the day’s mission. We students of course went nowhere and liked it. Shortly after RI changeover the new RI would bellow the roster numbers of the new student leadership for the day and what our objective would be. One day when I was the assistant patrol leader (Platoon Sergeant) we were crossing a linear danger area (road). My job was to police up the left and right side security details who had been securing the flanks of the crossing site. These details faced down the road providing cover for the rest of the patrol and as long as they were giving us the thumbs up it was good to go to cross. So anyway I was hissing at these guys to go ahead and get moving and follow the rest of the section but I couldn’t get the attention of the guy on the right. Left side security had already hightailed it across the road while myself and the right side security were the last two left on the other side. The patrol was still moving and we were in danger of having a break in contact which was a huge no go and would result in much pain from the Ranger Instructor. So I kept trying to get this guy’s attention, as I moved toward him without yelling and giving our position away. Did I mention we also did all these patrols with hardly a word? We communicated mostly thru a set of hand signals. So as I moved closer I finally realized that this doofus was sound asleep with his thumb up facing down the road. I gave him a kick in the foot and woke him up and as we were rushing to catch up with the rest of the patrol I started laughing to myself about how stupid this was and how tired we all were.
The last day of the patrol I was given the position of Patrol Leader (PL). I was the man, the most important position on the patrol, my decision was the one that counted and all the blame of a failed mission would rest on me. Every Ranger student must pass a patrol in each phase as a PL if they expect to graduate from the course. It was already getting dark and my mission was a simple one, get us from point A to point B to establish a patrol base for the evening. I was the PL for movement one of the easiest PL grades there was and I was psyched to pass and get out of the field. The RI let me study the map for about 10 minutes and memorize my route to our new tentative patrol base about 5 kilometers away. Although I wasn’t allowed to have the map I did have a compass and I memorized the route based on some key terrain. So I briefed my point man and compass man that we would be heading south along a major ridgeline until we got to the crest where the ridge fanned out into three distinct fingers. We would be following the middle finger down and to the west until we hit a major stream, this is where we would establish the patrol base, easy huh?
By the time we started off with me third from the head of the file it was already dark, things went fine until we got to the top of the ridgeline and took what I thought was the appropriate finger heading west. After walking downhill for about 3 hrs I realized we must have taken the wrong finger and I was hopelessly lost, not only me but the entire patrol. It was pitch black and the RI started asking in a loud and disgusted voice “Where are we PL?” What’cha going to do PL?” I was screwed, the best we could do was fumble around in the dark for 5 more hrs trying to find that stream the whole time the RI was on my ass. Finally he told me to have the patrol climb a ridgeline, establish a patrol base and we would figure out where we were in the morning. So I had them climb the ridge and we established a perimeter. After I had filled out a resupply request to be called in over the radio once light broke and we could figure out where we were, I started walking the perimeter kicking people awake and having them pull security. By the time I would make it full circle around the patrol the 1st guys would have fallen asleep again. I did this for what seemed like an eternity but was really probably only 3 hrs or so. When dawn broke the RI found a nearby road and called in our transportation back to the mountain camp. Later that afternoon we were being called one by one to receive our grades for the final patrol and I just knew I would be recycled for getting the entire patrol lost. So anyway he called me up to the picnic table and started off by telling me all the piss poor decisions I had made that had lead up to getting lost. Finally he said “ Ranger, I was going to fail you and recycle your ass but you showed intestinal fortitude by keeping your patrol awake and pulling security when you could have said screw it I failed and went to sleep. So I am giving you a passing grade.” I was ecstatic as I went back towards my hooch, out of the mountains and on to Florida phase, Kick ass!!!!

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