JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. --
When U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Joseph Petrone and U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Jordan Ryan were sent home from the Ranger Assessment Course in July 2017 they were both frustrated, yet determined to prove they were meant to be United States Army Rangers.
As a 61-day combat leadership course, the U.S. Army Ranger School is open to all branches of the military, as well as allied military students.
However, for Airmen to qualify for a slot at the school, they must first go through a Ranger Assessment Course.
“It's a security forces-run program for pre-Ranger, and the Air Force’s version is extra intense just because we only have limited slots to send to the actual school,” said Petrone, a 83rd Network Operations Squadron plans and programs manager. “They want to guarantee that those slots are given to the right people.”
At the beginning of 2017, it was brought to Ryan and Petrone’s attention that they would be trying out together. They teamed up and started to train together for the upcoming Ranger Assessment Course in July.
This assessment was meant to gage their physical capabilities and consisted of a five-mile run, 49 pushups, 59 situps, six chin-ups and a 12-mile ruck. Individuals must also complete a combat water survival assessment.
“We had the knowledge on what we needed to pass physically, but there were still academic things we didn’t quite understand,” Petrone said. “So when it was time for us to actually go through, we both ended up getting sent home.”
Not meeting the standard, as they were told after months of training, hit them hard.
“I was mad because I knew what I could do and I didn’t perform while I was out there,” said Ryan, a 633rd Security Forces Squadron unit scheduler.
Petrone said that even though he was frustrated with the outcome, the experience reassured him that this is what he wanted do.
“I felt like I let my unit down,” Petrone said. “I went through the whole process to get their approval and now I’m getting sent home a couple of days in. I was disappointed in myself.”
But Ryan and Petrone were not going to let it end there. They went back to the drawing board. Looking at each other’s strengths, they made a plan to help overcome their weak points, working to keep each other focused and motivated.
“Honestly going through it alone would’ve been tough,” Ryan said. “We would push each other super hard in training and that definitely helped.”
It was this competitive wingmanship of not letting the other win while at the same time not letting the other give up, that pushed them past their limits.
According to Petrone, though it’s mainly security forces and battlefield Airmen who try out, all career fields are eligible to go through the course. That being said, anyone wishing to participate must be unit-funded.
Petrone felt ready for a second shot at the assessment, but still needed his unit’s approval to invest in him once again.
“It was kind of nerve-wracking to see what my unit would say,” Petrone said. “I spoke passionately about the course, about my drive and determination, and the amount of training I had undergone to go back. That’s where my unit saw something in me and supported me to go a second time.”
Back at the Ranger Assessment Course, Ryan and Petrone got back on the metaphorical horse. They went through each assessment again: physical training, combat water survival, Ranger tactical tasks, shooting, field stripping weapons, understanding radios, utilizing the Defense Advanced GPS Reciever, land navigation and a 12-mile ruck.
Throughout the rest of the course they went on patrols where they had their leadership abilities challenged.
“With the accumulation of not eating, not sleeping and lugging around heavy rucks, the patrols were extremely challenging,” Petrone said. “Basically you run a mission as a squad leader and go through the whole operation order process, assessing your leadership in that aspect.”
This second time around, Ryan got a conditional go after coming in five minutes late on the land navigation portion of the assessment. This meant he had to go back to his unit and undergo multiple land navigation assessments until approved. Once approved, he got a slot to Ranger School on September 17.
For Petrone, there came another twist in his journey. Instead of a go, he had to return to RAC.
“So I did not pass the patrolling aspect of it,” Petrone said. “That was kind of a kick to the stomach, because now I have to come back for a third time. But again, I would much rather be doing this than anything else.”
After getting approval for a third time, another slot opened up. However, instead of going straight to Ranger School, Petrone was sent through the Ranger Training and Assessment Course, which is the Army's version of RAC. This two-week course rolls right into Ranger School.
“I was the only Air Force in the class and right from the beginning the instructors were like ‘oh Air Force huh, don’t worry you’re gonna be out of here real soon,’” Petrone said. “It sucked going through that not having Ryan because we motivated and helped each other out to get through whatever tasks and obstacles that got in our way.”
Starting with a little over 80 Soldiers, Petrone was one of the 36 graduates to move on to Ranger School where his wingman Ryan was already making headway.
Now at Ranger School, for the Airmen to graduate as Rangers, they had to master three phases: Benning Phase, Mountain Phase and the Swamp Phase.
“It’s 61 days straight if you don't recycle, and approximately 85 percent of people do recycle, which I did,” Ryan said. “It really is a life-changing experience because, for however long you’re there you're not eating normal, you're not sleeping normal, you’re not living normal. I consider myself a winter ranger because we went in the wintertime so it got really cold, just another factor of suck.”
As the first phase of Ranger School, the Benning Phase provides students with the fundamentals of squad-level mission planning. Designed to assess a Ranger’s physical stamina, mental toughness, leadership abilities, and establish tactical fundamentals, the “crawl” phase sets Rangers up for the following phases and future missions.
“There was a night that I don't think I'll ever forget,” Petrone said. “We were already getting limited sleep and this night, when everybody got back from their patrols around 11 p.m., they had destroyed our campsite including our multiple planning bays. There was paper, tissue, blankets, ripped up note cards and all this stuff all over the place like a tornado hit. They made us clean everything, smoked us for four to five hours straight to finally go to bed at about 4:30 a.m. and wake up at 4:40 a.m.”
Following the fundamental phase, the Mountain Phase prepares students for military mountaineering tasks, mobility training and techniques for continuous combat patrol operations in a mountainous environment. Once again, the students have their stamina and commitment put to the test.
“It was really tough emotionally because after a while when you don't eat right or sleep right, your hormones get messed up,” Ryan said. “So there were times when we'd be down on ourselves and pout out in the field. I saw a lot of guys crying because it got really cold one day, it was raining at 30-35 degrees and we were soaking wet.”
According to Ryan, there was a record number of quitters because of how tough the cold was that day.
Though geographically separated at this point, Petrone and Ryan found out via letters through Ryan’s wife that Petrone recycled once in the Benning Phase while Ryan recycled once in the Mountain phase.
Moving into the Swamp Phase, the Rangers are introduced to a realistic opposing forces scenario. As the scenario continues, the techniques taught are: small boat operations, expedient stream crossing techniques, and skills needed to survive and operate in a rainforest/swamp environment by learning how to deal with reptiles and how to determine the difference between venomous and non-venomous snakes.
“I ended up in Charlie Company somehow because of some mix up, and their standards are just crazy,” Ryan said. “Charlie Company graduated 25 out of 50 students while Alpha and Bravo graduated about 40 to 45. I just didn’t make the cut so I recycled in the Swamp phase.”
Much to their surprise and excitement, this caused Petrone and Ryan to meet again during the final phase of Ranger School.
According to Petrone, they always try to separate Airmen but somehow he and Ryan ended up not only in the same company, but the same platoon. Just like at RAC, they found themselves working together for the final 10-day field training exercise.
“For the first couple of days, we tried to avoid each other because we thought there was an error, we thought if they saw us they would separate us,” Ryan said. “But after a few days it was like ‘ah, screw it’. It was like, holy crap! It’s here! We’re going to finish this out together.”
On day three of the field training exercise for Ryan and on day six for Petrone, they passed their graded patrols. They were emotionally charged, tired and hungry, but all that mattered now was to push through the FTX and help the rest of their class pass their patrols.
Out of the original class of 355, 149 graduated with only 17 going through without recycling.
“To those aspiring to go through Ranger School, reach out to us and don’t quit,” Ryan said. “We have a Facebook page, Airmen Prep for Ranger School. It's a life-changing experience, literally something I'll never forget—until the day I die I'm going to be a Ranger.”