Teamwork, attention to detail helps LT earn Ranger Tab

First Lt. Aidan O’Connor (front row, third from the right) poses alongside his fellow Ranger School Graduates after successfully completing the course. (Courtesy Photo)

RICHMOND, Va. — When Virginia National Guardsman 1st Lt. Aidan O’Connor decided to go to Ranger School, it was partly because of leadership. So many of the best leaders he’d met had Ranger tabs on their shoulders and while O’Connor knew that wasn’t all it took to excel in the leadership arena, it seemed like a pretty good start. Plus, O’Connor says he was looking for a challenge, which he knew Ranger School would deliver. 

Ranger School is one of the toughest training courses offered by the U.S. Army. Developed during the Korean War, the purpose was and still is to develop the combat skills of selected officers an enlisted Soldiers, according to the Ranger School website. The school covers three phases  over more than two months and those who manage to complete the course, Army-qualified Soldiers, become experts in leading Soldiers on difficult missions. The training at Ranger School is rigorous and realistic and, according to the school’s website, emphasizes the development of combat skills though leadership principles and the development of military skills. 

“In a nutshell, Ranger School is a patience and endurance ultra-marathon,” O’Connor explained. He said he started his Ranger School journey in March. “Most days begin with six to seven hours of planning, followed by four to five hours of movement, then three to four hours of conducting a mission, then five to seven hours of movement and establishing a patrol base. With the exception of eating and sleeping, most things take a very long time and require adherence to a strict sequence.” 

The first phase of Ranger School, Benning Phase, assesses a Soldier’s physical stamina and mental toughness while establishing the tactical fundamentals Ranger students will need for the subsequent phases. Only 50 percent of Ranger students successfully complete this first phase, which is broken into two parts, the Ranger assessment phase and the patrolling phase. One of the first challenges faced by the Ranger students is the Ranger Physical Assessment which requires Soldiers to knock out 49 push-ups, 59 sit-ups, a five-mile in less than 40 minutes and six chin-ups. Then, there’s a combat water survival assessment, a land navigation test, testing on various Soldier skills, a 2.1 mile two-person buddy run and a 12-mile foot march, all in the first week of the course. 

In order to advance in the course, Ranger students have to demonstrate their ability to effectively lead at the team, squad and platoon level, not just to Ranger School cadre, but to their peers as well. Peer evaluations come at the end of each phase and impact a Ranger student’s continuation in the course. O’Connor said one of the biggest lessons he learned in Ranger School was about communal suffering. 

“[You have to] be a good person to suffer with,” O’Connor said. “I found that the highest performing squads were the ones who were in a good mood most of the time. When you and everyone else around you is going through something difficult, having a good mood is contagious.” 

The second phase of Ranger Schools is completed in the mountains of northern Georgia and is aptly called “Mountain Phase.” Here, students learn how to conduct continuous combat patrol operations in a mountainous environment and, at the most basic level, learn how to sustain themselves in the adverse conditions afforded by the mountains. In this phase, O’Connor said he learned to appreciate the little things. 

“The soul-crushing reality of being in Ranger School can be dulled by taking in the great views of Mountain Phase,” O’Connor said. 

During Mountain Phase, the physical and mental strength and stamina of the Ranger students is put to the test. Students are pushed to lead their peers through missions while running little sleep, less food all while operating in a challenging environment. Even simple tasks can prove difficult. 

“Staying motivated to do the right thing to help my buddies out while experiencing severe exhaustion and hunger was the hardest part for me,” O’Connor said. “It seems silly, but when you can barely pick your own emaciated body up, the last thing you want to do is something seemingly small like properly camouflaging your helmet.” 

For those Ranger students who make it through the mountains, the next stop is Camp Rudder, for Florida Phase. This phase continues to develop the combat arms functional skills of the students and includes waterborne operations, small boat movement and extended platoon-level operations conducted in a coastal swamp environment. It was here, in the final phase, that O’Connor thought he might not make it.

“There was an incident on the second day of the [field training exercise] in Florida where I was sure I was going to be dropped from the course,” O’Connor said. Instead, the cadre gave him three major minuses, which he explained nearly guaranteed he’d be recycling until he passed a second patrol. “I did well on peer evaluations and from that point on, I dedicated myself to ensuring that my buddies passed their patrols, which they did.”

The support O’Connor provided his peers proved to be integral to his own success. O’Connor passed his peer evaluations in the final phase and was able to graduate alongside his peers. 

“With luck and help, I was able to graduate on time,” O’Connor said. 

O’Connor, a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, is currently assigned as the executive officer to Delta Company, 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. He joined the National Guard in order to serve his country while still maintaining a civilian career.