THE COVETED BLACK AND GOLD - Excerpt

THE PERILS OF RANGER TRAINING

 

We need to do realistic training, but good units don’t kill their own people in combat, and they don’t do it in training, either.

 

General Wayne Downing

Commander SOCOM, 1995

To become a Ranger, a soldier must suffer to prepare him for what he may face on the field of battle. It is not a survival course, it is a test, an experience as close to real combat as possible. Ranger training is often dangerous and has been described as “about as close to terminal misery as the Army gets.” That is as accurate a description of the course as any.

 

Unfortunately, simulating stressful, combat conditions can accidentally lead to tragedy. In the winter of 1977, two students died of hypothermia when they lost contact with their main element in the Florida swamp. In 1985, again while in the Florida phase, a soldier drowned while trying to cross a stream against a strong current. Other deaths during Ranger School, while not directly attributable to the course, per se, were no less tragic. While training during the Mountain Phase in March 1992, a student, unknown to the Ranger Cadre, carried the sickle cell anemia trait that proved to be fatal for him when placed at high altitude and under stress. Then, five months later, a Ranger fell to his death while negotiating the slide for life.

 

On 15 February 1995, the worst incident in the 44 year history of the school occurred when Ranger Class 3-95 entered the swamp for their first full day of training on day 9 of their 15 day Florida Phase. Scheduled as an introduction to the swamps of Florida, this introduction would prove to be a deadly experience for four of the class’s Ranger students as the class crossed the deep running, tea-colored Yellow River later that evening.

 

The day’s events began on the 15th at 0630, when the Ranger Camp battalion commander received a weather update at Eglin Air Force Base Auxiliary Field Six-50 miles east of Pensacola, Florida, otherwise known as Camp James E. Rudder: cloudy with a 30 percent chance of rain, highs in the 70’s, lows in the 60s, wind from the south at 10 to 15 mph, water temperature of 50 degrees, water depth knee to upper-thigh. Organized into three 34 student companies, Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie, the class of 102 students began its movement towards its insertion points by late morning and early afternoon. It was noted at this time that the water level had risen 12 to 18 inches. Based upon the air and water temperatures, the decision was made to continue with the swamp movement as planned.

 

At 1430, the C Company Ranger student patrol leader missed the designated landing site and was allowed by the RI to continue down river for another two kilometers. Water levels continued to rise another 3 to 5 inches. Reaching the landing site at 1519, B Company opted to move another several hundred meters from the site to cut their travel time in the water once they disembarked. Once at this location, though, they found that the water was too deep. C Company Rangers began to disembark at their location around 1600. At approximately the same time, A Company arrived at its drop off site and found it too deep. The accompanying RI moved the unit to a dry insertion point on the debarkation side of the river where the company disembarked and moved 2 kilometers to a road. Following C Company to their drop site, B Company began to off-load at 1700.

 

As these events were unfolding, the Ranger battalion command remained unaware of the fact that the waters were rising rapidly. Soon after entering the water, one student from C Company and another from B Company began to display early signs of hypothermia, the lowering of the body’s internal temperature below 95 degrees Fahrenheit—the consequence of losing body heat faster than it can be replaced, which resulted in an RI calling for an aerial MEDEVAC. Fatigued, stressed, weakened by lack of food, and weighing on average 10% to 20% less than they did when they started the course, the Rangers were rapidly losing body heat from the water faster than from the air.

 

By 1720, the water was so deep in the Crane Branch Creek, the vicinity of their landing, that the Rangers of B and C Companies were swimming to stay afloat in the Cypress and Cedar swamp with some of the students fighting to keep from being totally submerged. Blundering into water that was over their heads at times and beginning to collapse from exhaustion, B Company finally made the decision to build a one rope bridge across the Crane Branch Creek.

 

Having arrived in the vicinity of Crane Branch Creek, the Ranger Battalion Commander began to access the situation. By 1729, the Staff Duty NCO at Camp Rudder tripped the camp’s siren in response to the MEDEVAC request.

 

For the next 45 minutes, C Company, located approximately 150 meters from B Company, struggled as students swam from tree to tree. Left with no other choice, this company also constructed a one rope bridge to cross the Crane Branch Creek. Soon, another student began to show signs of hypothermia.

 

Meanwhile, the MEDEVAC of B Company’s hypothermia took place from 1740 to 1835. Originally reported as one student, three Ranger students were evaced to Camp Rudder’s Troop Medical Clinic where they arrived at 1850. As a result of the quick response, these students survived the ordeal but, during the rescue, the beating blades of the helicopter disrupted voice communications thus causing three Ranger students to drift away from the company. On their own, these three students moved out to higher ground and safety. As events were to show later, the hour of hovering by the MEDEVAC helicopter to find the unit would prove to be costly in terms of fuel consumption. With the sun having set at 1827, B Company resumed its movement towards dry ground at 1840. Cold and cramping, the students found it difficult to move and, soon thereafter, the company began to fragment as the cold began taking its toll. Students began to lose and discard equipment, weapons, and the only operational unit radio, thus severing the company’s communication with Camp Rudder.

 

Weather conditions continued to deteriorate as a dense fog began to move in. By 1900 hours, C Company had been in the water for their maximum emersion limit of three hours based upon the original estimate of 50-55 degrees. By 1920, the B Company RI had moved eight students to high ground and built a fire to help guide and warm the company.

 

The rescue effort began to significantly unravel by 1930 when B and C Companies requested another MEDEVAC only to find that the helicopter was out of fuel. Fuel was unavailable at Camp Rudder and a request had to be submitted to Eglin Air Force Base for a fuel truck. At this point in time, the Battalion Commander was under the mistaken impression that all was under control.

At 2000 hours, B Company reached its maximum immersion time. Forty-five minutes later, A Company, having completed its ambush training, learned of the severity of the situation and stood by to conduct rescue operations.

 

By 2100 hours, the battalion chain of command began to realize that something was horribly wrong. After hearing a Ranger student call for help or his Ranger Buddy would die, the battalion Command Sergeant Major, who was on site, began to gather all available RIs to assist with the rescue effort. Having been refueled, the MEDEVAC departed Camp Rudder for B Company’s location in the swamp.

 

At 2115, the Battalion Commander, finally realized that the Ranger students were in a life or death situation and began to mobilize all of the Camp Rudder personnel to assist in search and rescue efforts to get the Ranger students out of the swamp and onto high ground.

 

By 2145 hours, the MEDEVAC was hovering over B Company’s location but was having a great deal of difficulty spotting the location from which to make the extraction. Matters only get worse later as the stretcher with a Ranger on it hung-up on a tree as it was being extracted. While attempting to maneuver the stretcher, the cable snapped dropping the Ranger 10 to 20 feet back into the water. Eight minutes later, the helicopter was able to extract two students with a jungle penetrater but the helicopter’s hovering over the unit’s location exposed the remaining Rangers to additional cool temperatures from the rotor’s backwash. Arriving at the hospital at 2050 hours, one student was pronounced dead at 0143 hours on the 16th. The second student recovered after being hospitalized for two days.

 

Grounded by limited visibility at Eglin, the MEDEVAC was unable to respond to C Company’s call for assistance. Unable to evac the students by air, it took the C Company RIs nearly an hour to drag their two incapacitated students through the swamps to high ground, administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) along the way. Shivering students continued to shed weapons and equipment. Finally, the entire class was evacuated from the swamp and the exercise was canceled. Forced to transport the casualties by vehicle to two different hospitals at 2347 hours, the two students were pronounced dead on arrival around 0130 hours. Just minutes after the ground evacuation of these two students took place, the cadre realized that they were missing a student. Continuing their search until 0230 hours, the Ranger cadre’s search was finally called off by the Battalion Commander to prevent any additional deaths or injuries among the searchers. The search was resumed at 0530 and the last Ranger student’s body was located in waste deep water just 75 meters from high ground. Transported to the hospital, he was pronounced dead at 0853 hours.

 

On 17 February, a memorial service was held at Camp Rudder for the four Rangers who died: Captain Milton Palmer, 27, The Citadel, Class of 1990; 2LT Spencer Dodge, 25, USMA 1994; 2LT Curt Sansoucie, 23, USMA 1994; SGT Norman Tillman, 28, 1-325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82d Airborne Division. Having been awarded the Ranger Tab posthumously, the bodies of the deceased were escorted to their hometowns by representatives of the Ranger School.

 

On 24 February, the remaining 98 Rangers of Class 3-95 stood on a field at Fort Benning for the pinning of their Coveted Black and Gold Ranger Tabs. COL(Ret) Ralph Puckett was the graduation guest speaker. Commenting on why the good ones always go first, COL Puckett provided the following observations:

 

The good ones go first because they are the good ones. They volunteer for the tough jobs. They want to be Rangers. They strive for excellence in everything they do. They push themselves. They know that “good enough” is never “good enough” until it’s the best that they can do. They give 100% and then some to every job. Those young Rangers whom we lost were some of the best. They were some of the good ones. They gave their lives for their country as surely as if they had died on a battlefield in some far-flung corner of the world.

 

Because of these deaths, there are people who would curtail Ranger training. There are those who say that we should never expose our best to risk. I disagree. Ranger training is the best close combat, small unit leadership and tactics training given in our Army. Ranger training is the best life insurance for the battlefield that we have. Ranger training will save more lives in combat than will ever be lost in training. If anyone has any doubts, he should ask a Combat Infantryman who had Ranger training before he heard the first shot fired. Ask any commander who has Ranger trained officers and non-commissioned officers under his command. Ask any Ranger graduate. The unanimous answer will be, “Ranger training is the best training I ever received!” Last week, the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer quoted an old Ranger who said that Ranger training was the toughest thing he had ever endured. He said that but for the toughness he developed during Ranger training he would not have survived his two years as a POW during the Korean war!

 

Ranger training IS the best training and any attempts to curtail its difficulty should be thwarted. But, while Ranger training is meant to be exceptionally tough, demanding, stressful, and realistic, students are not meant to die. Three investigations into the deaths were ordered: one by the Air Force because the deaths occurred on an Air Force installation, one by the Ranger Training Brigade Headquarters at Fort Benning, and one by the U.S. Army Safety Board, Fort Rucker, Alabama.

What went wrong? Deprivation of food and sleep, constant stress and evaluation, that is what Ranger School is all about. But Ranger training does not constitute real combat. No training, in peace or war, is worth the life or limb of a soldier. No amount of training can justify training deaths. Death is not an acceptable alternative, nor is needlessly endangering one’s soldiers. Following this terrible tragedy, many articles and commentaries made note of how “Ranger training is the best” and “only a Ranger understands.” While these statements are true, it does not give license to do foolish things and to risk lives.

 

The final investigative results indicated that a combination of events contributed to this disaster. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these events proved to be the result of human error. As determined by the investigations, the major contributors to this tragedy were an inadequate safety risk assessment and the failure to ensure adequate safeguards were in place. The combination of unexpected weather conditions led to an erroneous risk assessment. While the water temperature of 52 degrees was 2 degrees above the minimum 50 degree threshold set after the 1977 hypothermia deaths, the assessors failed to realize that prolonged exposure to chilled air of 60 or 65 degrees can bring on hypothermia; especially when these temperatures and exposure times are combined with the student’s significantly fatigued state. The water depth was significantly underestimated and, even though the accompanying RIs were well aware of this factor, two of the three companies opted to continue with the original plan. As events began to unfold and the situation turned to confusion and then to chaos, the Rangers found themselves in the swamp for six hours, twice the time authorized with the vast majority of the additional time a result of having to construct one rope bridges and to MEDEVAC hypothermia victims.

 

From the start of the exercise that day, adequate safeguards were not in place, beginning with a general lack of experience among the instructors, themselves. Allowing the boats to move farther into the swamp, the B and C Company instructors found themselves in deep water, strong currents, and unfamiliar territory. Communications proved to be woefully inadequate and no SOP existed for mass casualty evacuations. Even if a mass casualty evacuation SOP existed, the nearest medical facility, Camp Rudder, clearly had no ability to refuel the MEDEVAC helicopters.

 

The Army’s report stated that there was a “failure in supervision and judgment, lack of situational awareness, and lack of control” for the accident. While nine RIs were disciplined, to include the relief of the Florida Phase Battalion Commander, none were court-martialed for there was found to be no basis for criminal charges.

 

Could this have been a case where the Ranger ethic went awry? Quite possibly. There is an adage that all Rangers have heard—and used themselves, “Ranger Tabs will keep you warm.” It stimulates that drive-on attitude that enables a Ranger to persevere during tough times.

 

The caveat to that perseverance, though, is that it also enforces a mentality that makes Ranger students reluctant to slow the pace or call attention to themselves even at the risk of their health.

 

The saddest fact about the exercise was that four Rangers died and nine careers were ruined for absolutely no reason. It did not have to happen. Some may call this Monday morning quarterbacking. I prefer to call it common sense. Adequate control measures had been in place prior to the arrival of the incumbent Battalion Commander. Winter training rules were established to keep students out of the water at night to decrease their overall exposure and to minimize the potential of becoming a hypothermia victim. For each of these swamp exercises, the Battalion Commander was the risk assessor who determined whether or not the conditions were too risky. Upon assuming command, the incumbent Battalion Commander scrapped that policy and delegated the responsibility down to the RI platoon instructor level with the belief that the field instructors were more knowledgeable and experienced than the camp staff. Unfortunately, that proved not to be the case in this situation for the primary instructor for this fatal mission had been in charge of the first day of swamp training only once before and had never walked the route taken by the students who died. Where was the knowledge? Where was the experience?

 

Students must have faith in their instructors and in the Army that their lives will not be needlessly endangered. The RIs placed their students in danger and then could not save them when they were overcome with exposure. Had some members of the chain-of-command and RIs not lost sight of their responsibilities by becoming trapped in the belief of their own invincibility, Ranger Class 3-95’s initial baptism in the Cypress swamps of Florida would have just been another in the long line of miserable experiences Rangers endure.

 

With the completion of the investigations and the implementation of thirty-eight safety measures, Ranger School waterborne training in Florida resumed in the fall of 1995. New equipment is now on hand to assist troubled students; equipment which includes one-man inflatable rafts designed to get Rangers out of the water and to arrest hypothermia, water measuring devices, and global positioning systems. Monitoring stations have also been installed in swamp locations to provide better information on weather and water conditions. Command and control procedures now include the Ranger Battalion Commander who will make the final call as to whether waterborne operations are a Go, No Go, or modified—onsite RIs also have the authority to call off an operation should the situation warrant it. Additionally, training lanes will be walked by RIs prior to the exercise and there will be no deviation in the landing sites for the patrols.

 

Every waking and sleeping moment, my nightmare is the fact that I will give an order that will cause countless numbers of human beings to lose their lives. I don’t want my troops to die. I don’t want my troops to be maimed. It is an intensely personal, emotional thing for me ... Any decision you have to make that involves the loss of human life is nothing you do lightly. I agonize over it. It’s not purely a question of accomplishing the mission ... But it’s a question of accomplishing the mission with a minimum loss of human life and within an effective time period.

 

General H. Norman Schwarzkopf,

5 February 1991, Interview in the Washington Post

Ranger Class 3-95

Ranger Class 3-95 Graduation picture.  Gaps were left in the formation in memory of their four lost comrades, Rangers Palmer, Dodge, Sansoucie and Tillman.  Note the symbolic ambulance to the far right of the formation.