November 4, 2005
Capt. Cain Baker, left, Sgt. Maj. Richard Erickson and Maj. Denver Leonard graduate from Ranger School today. For 62 days, they were deprived of sleep and food and contact with the "outside world." Upon returning to Fort Benning earlier this week, they wondered why the flag was at half staff (the death of Rosa Parks) and what was "going on with that hurricane" - meaning Katrina. They knew nothing about Hurricanes Rita and Wilma until Sunday night, when Erickson learned that Wilma had done considerable damage to his home in Miami.
'It's like sharpening knives'
Ranger Class 11-05 is marked by diversity more than any class in recent memory, Ranger School cadre said earlier this week, as 104 all-but-tabbed Rangers returned from the final Florida phase and prepped for today's graduation ceremony on Hurley Hill.
Among today's graduates are seven foreign students, a sergeant major from Special Forces, an Apache pilot pending promotion to major, and an artillery major with 17 years of service under his belt.
Any one of these soldiers would be an anomaly under normal circumstances, said Lt. Col. Odie Sheffield, the 4th Ranger Training Brigade's deputy commander, but combined, they make for "a very unusual class."
The war on terrorism has changed the dynamic of Ranger School.
"Ten years ago, none of us would've been sent here," said Capt. Cain Baker, the 31-year-old pilot who'll pin on major rank in December.
That's because 10 years ago, it would've been hard to justify funding and training for senior leaders. The typical Ranger class is heavy with lieutenants and fresh-faced privates. Popular thinking was these Soldiers had their whole careers in front of them to put Ranger skills to good use.
These days, it's still unusual, if not rare, for a senior NCO to get the opportunity to earn the tab. It's an opportunity Erickson had to fight for.
"I've tried for 22 years to get to come here," said the 42-year old National Guardsman, who spent a year in Afghanistan with the 20th Special Forces Group. "Every time I thought it would happen, my orders would get canceled or we'd get deployed or something. Always something. I just didn't give up."
Like Erickson, Baker and Leonard are combat veterans.
The 36-year old Leonard, who fought in Desert Storm, tried twice before to make it through - not to - Ranger School. He was sent home once when his son took sick and again when he injured his back.
To get another shot at the tab, Leonard said, he had to sell his soul to the devil. He wanted it that badly. Becoming a Ranger has been his goal, he said, since 1988, when an Army recruiter showed him a picture of an Airborne Ranger. It was enough to get him to enlist.
Baker, 31, who deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, said his reasons for wanting to attend were less altruistic than he cared to admit.
"My dad was tabbed in 1982. I got tired of him making fun of me," he said. "I got tired of asking myself if I could make it or not. I decided to find out."
Deciding to go to Ranger School was easy, Baker said. Like his classmates, he discovered "the hardest part of Ranger School is getting to Ranger School," because Army brass in all MOSs recognize the value of Ranger training, and classes fill up quickly, he said.
As far as justifying their Ranger slots - no problem. All three said they will benefit, and more importantly, their Soldiers will benefit, from the training they got here.
"It's like sharpening knives," Baker said. "You take a senior leader, you take him off his high horse and you humble him - which is good. You level the field, and he has to rely on E-2s and E-3s to show him how to do a job. A company commander goes back to being a guy on the line. It makes you a much better leader.
"I know I'd have done a lot of things differently if I'd gone to Ranger School when I was a lieutenant," he said. "I'll do a lot of things differently from here on out."
After 62 grueling, sleep- and food-deprived days of rigorous training, those E-2s and E-3s are "more dear to me than anyone I went through combat with," Baker said. "You end up revealing your soul to your Rangers brothers. You tell them things you'd never tell anyone else."
Ranger School was harder than combat, they all agreed. With no down time, no chance to regroup, it forged a bond between the students that will last a lifetime.
"(Ranger School) would be the best survival show on TV if they'd put it on TV," said Baker, who believes he's in the worst shape of his life after losing 10 pounds - a mere 10 pounds, compared to Erickson and Leonard, who both lost 40.
"I came through in good shape, and it was still challenging all the way. But I'd do it again if I had to. I had a good time," Erickson said.
In fact, they all agreed, Ranger School was fun.
"It's probably the last chance we'll get to be Soldier Soldiers," Baker said. "To fight and carry a weapon and a ruck and be a true warrior. Believe it or not, it was fun. Guys don't join the Army to do PowerPoint slides."
All three made it through school without recycling, and that alone is a feat, considering that less than a third of their squads, combined, made it through the first time.
Baker had an incentive. His fiancee was making plans for their wedding in 16 days. Failure was not an option, he said.
Simply not having to go through it all over again was incentive enough for Leonard, who discovered his greatest vulnerability is fatigue. After a while, the days "all began to run together." Now, after a couple of days of rest, only one day matters - today.
US Army 1968 to 1991 Retired SFC/E-7
A Co 75th Ranger Ft Hood, Texas '72- '74