EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. - As Washington politicians fought a war of words over who's at fault in the federal government shutdown, Army Lt. Col. Marcus Wildy cautioned his elite Rangers-in-training to keep silent as they practiced stealthily fording the Yellow River.
"I don't want to hear any yelling when we do this at night," said Wildy, a combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Wildy's trainees, numbering about 117, all are volunteers in the home stretch of a 61-day curriculum that started at Fort Benning, Ga., and culminates later this month in a swampy area of Eglin Air Force Base where the Army is allowed a rustic little fiefdom called Camp Rudder.
To earn the prestigious black-and-gold cloth Ranger tab on their uniforms, which doesn't bring any extra pay and can be a path leading to dangerous missions, Wildy's charges obligingly endure sleep deprivation during 30-hour maneuvers in terrain that's more hospitable to snakes, alligators and mosquitoes.
"Camp Rudder is located here because this is one of the most miserable places on Earth," wisecracked Michael Ferguson, a retired Army brigadier general and Ranger who occasionally volunteers to provide get-acquainted tours of the remote base for area civic leaders, business figures and journalists.
Yet there's an intense pride among the Rangers about the lack of amenities on Camp Rudder's 150 acres. Whatever the Army spends on the bare-bones base camp, the training has to come at a bargain. There's no golf course or cable television. No connection exists with CNN or other news outlets for the latest on the government shutdown. And no one here has time for that anyway.
Absolutely, positively destroy
There probably couldn't be a less ambiguous description of military training anywhere than Wildy's briefing about the Rangers' only reason to exist: "To close with and destroy the enemy in direct-fire battle."
Or, as expressed in a popular bumper sticker seen near some Army bases, mimicking a well-known FedEx slogan: "Army Rangers: When it absolutely, positively must be destroyed overnight."
One modest attraction for whiling away rare moments of leisure time at Camp Rudder is the alligator pen, where 13-foot-long Vincent and his girlfriend Stumpy are on soggy display as reminders of perils in the surrounding wilderness. Symbolizing those risks, one of Stumpy's legs is missing due to the aggression of a contemporary. And Stumpy must be separated from a male named Doughnut in a neighboring pen because, as Wildy said, those two "cannot get along."
A sign on the metal fence around the reptiles reminds that frivolous behavior is frowned on hereabout: "Those who throw objects in the alligator enclosure will be forced to retrieve them."
Indeed, Camp Rudder is all business, and brutally so. In a briefing to visitors last week, Wildy said the Ranger training emphasis is on "self-imposed stress." He added, "What we're looking for are students who can endure hardship, go further than they ever thought they could, and lead under those conditions."
A Ranger trademark is succeeding when they're exhausted, hungry, dehydrated, cold, wet or all of those. But that quest hasn't been without tragedy. Four trainees died of hypothermia in February 1995 during a Camp Rudder swamp maneuver at night.
"What we do is very dangerous," Wildy said. "So we have to keep it hard and keep it safe."
A series of road signs near the entrance to Camp Rudder reinforces its standards: "Acknowledging that a Ranger is more than a soldier," proclaims one. Another states, "Though I may be the only survivor."
Pursuit of that iconic military stature is so demanding that only about one-third of those who are accepted into the program complete it without being recycled through at least part of the curriculum - and even then the graduation rate is limited to roughly 50 percent. So while the 11 classes a year at Camp Rudder sometimes number up to 250 men, only 1,815 graduated in 2012.
An elite 1 percent
And Rangers comprise only about 1 percent of the current 565,000-soldier Army, where they are usually embedded in combat units with regular infantry units and paratroopers. Although the Department of Defense issued guidelines earlier this year to allow women more access to combat jobs in all military branches, there are no immediate plans to admit them to training as Rangers or other such specialized groups as the Army's Special Forces or Navy Seals.
The difficulties of the training are sometimes subtle. Staff Sgt. Blaine Weiers, a Ranger instructor, doesn't intervene as he watches a trainee, carrying an 80-pound rucksack and a rifle, struggle down a steep bank to practice working his way hand-over-hand along a rope over the 100-foot-wide river. And it's all the aspiring young ranger can do to keep from falling face down into the river with the pack on top of him.
But that's why this basic technique will be repeated a dozen times over the next few days.
"They go back and forth, back and forth. Later they'll do it in the dark, because that's the way they might have to do it in a real situation," Weiers said.
The Rangers can't predict the environment where they might have to practice or actually fight in the future. For example, when Weiers' assignment as a Ranger instructor ends later this fall, he has orders to report to an Army infantry unit based in Alaska, which has deployed troops to Afghanistan.
As Wildy said in his briefing to visitors last week, "We don't know where the next fight is going to be."
News emerged from Washington during the Ranger training that the government shutdown put football games scheduled by the nation's military academies in jeopardy. But the war games at Camp Rudder don't stop because of political infighting. The Rangers' schedule calls for practice seven days a week in surprising the enemy with raids, ambushes and amphibious assaults.
Rob Johnson, The Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal