I shouldn’t have been able to receive the call. Up here in Northern Pennsylvania, I rarely get any reception and, as a result, I usually don’t have my phone with me while we visit. But last night, in the middle of nowhere, my phone rang. One glance at the unrecognized number out of Georgia made my heart skip a beat as I lunged for the phone. “Hello?”
“Hey, mom, ‘sup?” That voice. So tired. The one that seems to have aged far more than its 21 years in just our last several years apart. I recognized that voice. Underneath the usual easygoing voice everyone knows, there was a lot more held in check under the surface. It broke my heart to hear it but I’ve learned that with this one, you don’t acknowledge pain. Don’t make him retreat.
“Hey, son, how are you?”
I knew how hard it was for him to make this call. The fact that he was even around to make this call was a bad sign, and I wondered how long it had taken him to actually pick up the phone and dial. An hour? A day? A weekend? I knew he would have put it off as long as he could. To him, this call was a sign of failure, of personal weakness. He comes by it honestly, that need to deal with his disappointment first before telling others. I can’t bear to deal with other people’s feelings when I’m overwhelmed with my own. I want to retreat and lick my wounds in private, not lay everything out for public view and commentary.
And so we have two conversations simultaneously. The obvious one, which deals with the news in a detached manner: he got a “no go” for Squad Combat Operations and wouldn’t be moving on to the mountain phase of Ranger School. Instead, he would be recycled and reinserted when the next class started in a month. While he didn’t have to go through the Ranger Assessment Phase (RAP) and the physical fitness testing again, he would have to repeat everything else. His voice was thick with exhaustion. He’d lost 15 pounds in only three weeks of Ranger School, and he was having a hard time staying awake.
The coded conversation underneath was a lot harder. The silent frustration and loss, of not being able to cut it; of being somehow less than those who were moving on. The anger at the mixed messages from the instructors would take a bit longer to process. He was too close to see that everything is a test in Ranger School, including how you deal with setbacks. Most things come ridiculously easy to this one; seldom does he have to deal with failure. This was foreign and, I imagined, there was a struggle in his mind if it was all actually worth it.
How do you convince him that setbacks are part of the process? Does he even have a grasp of the recycle rates for the “toughest combat course in the world”? By their own statistics, only 3 percent of the U.S. Army is Ranger-qualified. Fully 1 in 3 (37%) Ranger graduates recycle a phase at least once. Darby recycle rate is approximately 15%; however, 75% of those who complete RAP week will eventually pass the Darby phase and move on to the Mountain phase.
It’s not as if getting through to Mountain phase is a lock, either. The second and third phases both have an 18% recycle rate, although the conversion rate is certainly better — 94% of those who start the Mountain phase will eventually pass and move on to the Florida phase, and 98% of those who start Florida phase will eventually pass and graduate Ranger School. The fact that he was still in the running was huge. In the meantime, however, he was stuck at Ft. Benning without phone, funds, or friends. He would end up doing busywork detail and waiting, both things he hated. It was going to be a long month. “Is there anything you need?”
“Yeah. Gum. And stamps. And calling cards. I’m gonna want to call. A lot.”
And for a moment, I had a glimpse of the boy again, and realized there was one more layer to the conversation. Love. Despite the necessity of the call, he needed to hear a friendly voice of unconditional acceptance and support. He needed to know someone was on his side. I think we’ve all needed that at times.
Hang in there, DangerBoy, because we’re all behind you. You’re going to get through this and come out stronger on the other side. Maybe not unscathed but, then again, that’s the nature of life. It’s up to each of us to make the call.
[Epilogue: Twenty-nine students were recycled in this class, including three female candidates, the first women to ever be admitted to Ranger School. Out of the original 19, none of the female soldiers made it through Darby phase on this pass through.]