'Sky Soldiers' hold pre-Ranger course while deployed to Afghanistan

FORWARD OPERATING BASE WARRIOR, Afghanistan (Jan. 2, 2013) — As temperatures go down across Afghanistan, lush green farmland and rocky, brown mountain peaks are now blanketed with snow. With the colder weather, many of the foreign fighters head toward warmer climates, resulting in a slower winter fighting season.

Taking advantage of the decrease in enemy activity, the Soldiers of 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, took the opportunity to develop and conduct a pre-Ranger course.  The course was held at Forward Operating Base Warrior in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan, and while the decision to hold the course was easy, implementing it was no easy task.

After weeks of planning and with the help of the Ranger Training Brigade at Fort Benning, Ga., who sent the most current course materials, a cadre of Ranger-qualified noncommissioned officers from 1st Battalion put together a course, focusing on the fundamentals taught at what is generally considered one of the toughest courses the Army offers. “We were pulling information from stateside to make it accurate and to get the most updated techniques from Ranger school itself,” said Sgt. 1st Class Zachari Rushing, one of the instructors of the course and the lead in creating the course.

“Everything that we taught off of was word for word what they teach,” said Staff Sgt. Gregory Quarles, a weapons squad leader with A Company, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, and a native of Ringgold, Ga.   “We focused on RAP week and squad tactics,” said Rushing, who is a native of Gulf Breeze, Fla. “We went the amount of depth that they would get at ranger school and we did a lot of patrolling.”

RAP week is the Ranger assessment phase, the first three days of Ranger school, that includes the Ranger physical fitness test, a combat water survival assessment, a 2.1-mile buddy run in uniform, carrying an M4, an obstacle course, and 12-mile ruck march with a load of no less than 35 pounds. According to the Ranger Training Brigade, 60 percent of all Ranger school failures occur during RAP week. While 1st Battalion’s instructors couldn’t replicate RAP week exactly, the Soldiers were held to the same exacting time standards of Ranger school.

“At 6,800 feet, a full Ranger PT test was run just like it would be run at Ranger school,” said Quarles. The cadre was comprised of all volunteers, a fact that was not lost on Spc. Ron Murphy, an infantryman and machine gunner with 1st Battalion’s A Company, and a native of Simi Valley, Calif. “We’re all deployed right now, and they have places they need to be, too,” he said of the instructors. “But they put in so much work to make sure we got the lesson and we picked it up.”

As the class continued, the elevation wasn’t the only additional challenge, as temperatures fell below freezing at night and while many units have similar courses, holding the pre-Ranger course while deployed presented some unique challenges. “The fact that you’re taking the course downrange with all the other stresses, the results were good,” said Rushing.

Even in the face of challenge, there were some benefits to being deployed during the course, especially while teaching demolition.

“We blew live claymores,” said Quarles. “We taught them charges that they won’t learn in Ranger school, just to give them the knowledge, and taught them the charges they will do, to set them up for success but also to give them some extra tools.”   For Soldiers who are already planning on attending Ranger school, like Murphy, the course provided a look into the future.

“This was something I wanted to do to better prepare myself,” he said. “They laid out how it’s going to be in Ranger school, and personally, it made me feel better.”

“They basically broke it down for us,” he continued. “Here, they’ll work with you more and they’ll teach you and you get to absorb it [at a slower pace] than I imagine you would be able to in Ranger school.”   While the course was primarily attended by infantrymen, any Soldier could attend.

“For a few months, I’ve been thinking about going to Ranger school,” said Staff Sgt. Christopher Hurtig, an intelligence analyst with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, and a native of Flower Mound, Texas. “For intel analysts, it’s rare to be airborne qualified, much less Ranger qualified, so I feel like it’s a challenge that I can accomplish that will set me apart from my peers.” The students were given a test at the beginning of the course to test their knowledge of infantry tactics and as an analyst, Hurtig got off to a rough start.

“My first test grade I got a 14 percent,” he said.

“I was able to move that into the 80s by the end, but that just shows the learning curve I had,” he continued. “It allowed me to learn a lot of skills in the infantry world, the people I’m supporting, so now I have a better idea what they go through.” After two back-to-back classes in a month, 1st Battalion graduated 28 Soldiers from the course, giving them a glimpse into the future and confidence that if they can make it through the pre-Ranger course while deployed in Afghanistan, they will be able to make it in the real Ranger school.

“The weather sucked, but the weather can suck anywhere,” said Murphy. “I know what I have to do to make it through and I know I can get through it. You just take it day-by-day, and if you need to, take it hour-by-hour.”