The Hard Stuff isn’t Easy

by Stephen Kaminski

What I remember from class 11-14: August – November 2014

  1. The first mission
  2. Doing what was wrong
  3. Failing Mountains

The First Ranger School Mission

In the summer of 2012, I am at 15,000’ in the air as I provide armed overwatch from my F-16 in the vicinity of Kandahar, Afghanistan. I “sparkle” a landing zone with infrared light from my Sniper Targeting Pod attached to my jet as two MH-47s fly in from the East, at zero dark thirty. I watch from a screen in my cockpit, a company-sized element of high-speed Rangers, and their Afghan counterparts quickly dismount the MH-47s as they proceed to their target objective.

Stephen Kaminski Ranger School
South Carolina Air National Guard F-16 pilot Maj. Stephen Kaminski receives his Ranger tab from a friend after graduating the U.S. Army’s demanding Ranger School at Fort Benning, Ga. Kaminski completed his training at Fort Benning and performed an F-16 flyover for his graduating glass. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by 2nd Lt. Stephen Hudson/Released)


Flash forward two years later to the summer of 2014 and I rendezvous with Rangers again. This time, I am on the ground at Ft Benning and the situation is different. “What the f am I doing here?” I ask myself as I listen to the names being called that will lead the first missions in the Darby Phase of Ranger School. Before the names are voiced by a Ranger Instructor (RI), my mind is occupied with the thought that there is no way they are going to pick me to be the Squad Leader for the first graded Patrol….in my mind, I say to myself “I’m a 32-year old Major, a pilot in the Air National Guard, surely they won’t choose me.”

I continue to think how I barely passed RTAC (Ranger Training and Assessment Course) and somehow passed RAP (Ranger Assessment Phase) week, and that I sure would like to watch one of my peers lead a patrol first so that I can continue to learn from them and gain more experience in leading patrols. “Kaminski” the RI called out.

“Crap” I mumble to myself.

Judging from the other names I heard, I could tell that they chose the names based on rank order. Even though Ranger School is supposed to be a rankless program as the students did not wear rank on their uniforms. Via conversations with my fellow Ranger students, I knew who the officers were, and they too were tasked to lead.

Ranger School is a Leadership School. I wasted no time feeling sorry for myself due to my lack of knowledge in just about everything I was expected to do the next morning. It was time for me to lead. I barely slept that night (like every night) as I re-read most of my Ranger Handbook from the “comfort” of my tent, trying to memorize everything in the handbook so that I could sound competent during the mission brief I would have to give to my squad the next morning.

Thankfully, the only thing up to this point that I had any useful experience in doing that would prepare me for my first graded patrol, was that I had routinely given briefings and presentations in my role as a flight lead, mission commander and instructor pilot in the Air Force. I repeat, in the “Air Force.” The Army has its own way of giving briefings, so I had to learn and adhere to the format that followed the 5-Paragraph OPORD.

It was now go-time. I had to brief the plan on how we would execute an ambush on our target objective, but I leaned on my squad to plan, prepare, resource, and execute what was to be briefed. Teamwork in action! If my squad didn’t know me already, I could have fooled them into thinking I was an experienced infantryman. I minimized being vague, I used specific examples of how we would shoot, move, communicate, and I added some humor where it seemed appropriate (looking at my M249 Gunner, “let that piggy eat”). After the brief, my peers told me I nailed it. I needed to hear those words of affirmation because it was now time to execute and that meant I was back to being outside my comfort zone. By the end of the day, my comfort zone didn’t matter, I started off on the right foot and that set the tone for the rest of our mission. I received my first “Go!”

Doing What was Wrong

Integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do. These are the Air Force Core Values, the principles that help us guide our decision making and vector us to take a path towards mission accomplishment. These core values don’t apply only to officers, or those that serve in a position of leadership, they apply to every airman in the Air Force. Albeit the Air Force has stamped their name on this published set of values, these values are just as applicable to every Ranger and every service member.

I remember one day before we were to step off on a mission that required us to foot-patrol to an objective and set up an ambush on a convoy of vehicles. We were given way more 7.62mm and 5.56mm ammo from the instructor cadre than we needed or wanted to carry. More weight in our already backbreaking rucksacks equaled more suck. We were told early on in training that what was given to us, must be carried. A seasoned combat veteran of the 75th Ranger Regiment was in my squad along with some youngsters and brand new 2LTs.

We all knew the guy from Regiment was a stud. He was in the RRC, the Regimental Reconnaissance Company. He finally had to shave his face and put on a uniform to attend Ranger School, which was not his norm because his mission requirements allowed him relaxed grooming standards and wear of civilian clothing. This guy is a great guy, but prior to that particular mission, he dumped a shit ton of that ammo into a hole in the North Georgia mountains and covered that ammo-filled hole with dirt, a move we were told not to make.

The younger guys on the team saw his actions and copied his moves during later missions because he was the one they all looked up to. People notice when you don’t do what’s right, when you break the rules, and when you want to slink. I too would eventually leave my trace of lead on the training range, a move I regret to this day, even if none of my teammates saw me do it. I made the wrong call because I was expected to make the right call, even when no one was looking.

The fourth stanza of the Ranger Creed states “Gallantly will I show the world that I am a specially selected and well-trained Soldier. My courtesy to superior officers, neatness of dress, and care of equipment shall set the example for others to follow.” Set the example for others to follow. I didn’t set the example that day. I was weak at that moment, but it was a valuable learning point for me; a learning point that I carry with me today and vow to never repeat as I reflect upon the Air Force Core Value of “Integrity First.” The strong-willed are the ones that do what is right when it sucks the most.

Failing Mountain Phase of Ranger School

“Mace 11, two weapons away”…. “Mace 11, Singer 6 090, defending South.” These are radio calls I would make on the radio from my F-16 while employing weapons and then reacting to contact from an adversary. In the jet, I could quickly make tactical decisions and then execute my maneuvers with high-confidence that I was making the right call because I had a lot of experience in both the training and combat environment. I had seen plenty of mistakes and successes over the years, and that experience enabled me to fall back on habits and lessons learned that I could use for future applications. “Boots on the ground,” however, was not my norm.

At Ranger School, I didn’t have experience in small unit tactics to fall back on to get me through the situations that I had never seen before but routinely faced. It felt to me like I faced something new every mission I executed. I was challenged with some situation that was different from every other mission, forcing me to react to situations vs being proactive. I was out of my comfort zone, but I chose to be there. I consciously chose to force myself to get comfortable being uncomfortable.

I vividly remember being muddy on the slope of a mountain as a Platoon Sergeant during one particular mission in Mountain Phase. We had just received incoming mortar fire from the enemy, which was quickly followed by an ambush against our team. We had two casualties that needed to be quickly medevac‘d and I was in charge of making that happen. Everything about that scenario was in utter disarray. Our squad was spread everywhere, I had no idea where most people were located, my heavy-ass rucksack was 100-meters away from me, I didn’t know when to use a litter or skedco based on the casualty’s injuries, I didn’t have a working radio, and the list goes on with what I was trying to deal with at that very moment. The term “FUBAR” comes to mind.

All of my Mountain Phase of training felt just like that moment. By the end of our 10-days of field training exercises, I was completely miserable. The physical strain on every part of my body, my constant feeling of stomach-growling hunger, the mental mind-messing games I had played, were all crushing my health: mind, body, and spirit.

After we completed our training in the vicinity of the Appalachian Trail in the Smokey Mountains, we returned to Camp Merrill where each Ranger Student would learn their fate. Did we successfully demonstrate our leadership potential during our patrols and receive a “Go,” or did we not meet the standard and become a “No-Go” Ranger. I would fall into the latter category. I was crushed after receiving my grade. I wasn’t surprised, but I was still crushed and felt sorry for myself. The thought of having to repeat everything I had just endured, again, had me doubt myself and the reasons I was even at Ranger School. I said, “forget-it.” “Screw this place. Screw this crap.” I was ready to get on a bus, go home and enjoy some blueberry pancakes at a leisurely pace.

Outside our Company building, standing on our rock pad that night, a young kid (compared to me) in my squad named Ivan Ivanschenko (a Ukrainian-American and recent graduate from West Point), knew that I was bothered by my recent news and gave me a pep-talk. Ten years my junior, Ivan essentially told me that I need to do what Rangers do best, RTFU, or Ranger The F$#*% Up. He told me that if I didn’t RTFU and endure the extra three weeks of additional Mountain Phase training that would be required for me to earn my Ranger Tab, I would regret it for the rest of my life. He was 100% correct, and then some.

I listened to him. I didn’t quit. I RTFU’d. I endured more pain. I learned more. I got stronger. I earned my Tab. What I re-learned at the end of Ranger School is that the hard stuff isn’t easy. It’s a weird thing to say, but it’s true. The “never quit” attitude is what gets people to where they want to go. If I had quit that night, I would forever live a life of “what if?” and I don’t ever want to be one of those guys. I’m blessed and thankful to have a guy like Ivan on my team that night; it’s guys like Ivan that help motivate you and keep you going when the nights are dark.

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