What My Special Forces Father Taught Me About Never Giving Up
Lessons on resilience from a former Army Ranger and cancer survivor
Like most military men I’ve known, my dad doesn’t talk much about his career in the army.
To say he’s like most military men, though, is a gross misstatement of his character, skill, and expertise. He’s a former Army Ranger, Blackhawk pilot, and cancer survivor. He’s also the greatest father a son could ever hope for this side of heaven.
The little that I do know about his time in active service is fragmented at best, puzzle-pieces scattered from a dozen different puzzles.
One story, in particular, stands out — something that happened to him in Ranger School. A story of perception, grit, and never giving up.
It’s a story with a lesson I’ll never forget.
Meeting a Marine at Ranger School
Rangers are known as some of the most highly trained and lethal soldiers in the world. To earn the title of Army Ranger, you must complete Ranger School, a 61-day elite course divided into three stages: Benning, Mountain, and Florida.
Ranger School is consistently ranked as one of the toughest military training courses in the world. According to online data, roughly 60% of soldiers drop out in the first four days.
Adam Hurley, a Ranger graduate, describes Ranger School as “a unique laboratory that administers a self-aware serum.”
By “unique laboratory” he meant unforgiving mountains, freezing temperatures, random “enemy” assaults, zero sleep, hallucinations, and snake-infested swamps.
In a letter he wrote home during Ranger School, Will Bardenwerper explains the sheer disorientation of fatigue and darkness:
There was no visibility — the moon was entirely covered — and my night vision optics weren’t working well. I literally couldn’t see my hands in front of my face. People were falling all over the place. Once I fell down a slope and as I was lying there I could feel something moving under me. Turns out I had fallen on top of someone else, and the movement was his breathing. It was so dark I couldn’t see him, and he was so dazed he didn’t even say anything. People were walking into trees, tripping over rocks, falling down hills.
When my dad entered Ranger school, it was an 8-week course split into phases known as “crawl,” “walk,” and “run.”
One of the first people he met at Ranger School was a Marine.
Although it’s been years since he told me the story, the gist of how my dad described the Marine was “a badass guy.” In my imagination, the Marine merged the hulking physique of The Rock with the deadly dexterity of Wolverine.
My dad thought that if he just rode this Marine’s shirttails, he would breeze right through Ranger training.
First impressions, though, can be deceiving.
Suck It Up, Buttercup
The “Long Walk” is a 12-mile march during Ranger School. Doesn’t sound like much when you write it like that in a sentence. But Cody Nolin, a former sailor, says his “shoulders felt like they were ripping out of their sockets, but when you have a tattoo that says Suck It Up, Buttercup, you can’t quit.”
He wasn’t lying about the experience or his tattoo. My dad didn’t have any tattoos or quit.
The same can’t be said of the Marine. Men and women who have earned the Ranger tab refer to nighttime as flipping the “stupid switch”.
According to first-hand accounts, men claimed to see visions of naked women and dogs. Many would stumble around in a zombified daze or fall asleep standing up.
I lost 33 pounds (from a start weight of 155, not much of it fat), and ended up looking like a refugee from a concentration camp. I still have little marks where my hip bones rubbed the skin over them against my ruck until I bled. For years afterwards I’d wake up, at home, in bed, in a panic because I couldn’t see little ranger eyes (glow in the dark tape) around me and thought the patrol had left me after I fell asleep. Dreams…I went 37 years ago, give or take. It’s only in the last two that I’ve remembered any dream that wasn’t nightmarish enough to wake me in the middle of it.
Still, there’s no excuse for the Marine.
During Mountain Phase, the Marine was caught cheating, so my dad and his crew had to carry the hulking giant up the peak, and then back down again. They carried him on top of their already 80-pound rucksacks, starvation, and sleep deprivation.
I don’t know the nature of the cheating — it could have been anything. Long story short, he cheated because his mental strength didn’t match his physical strength.
It’s a lesson my dad never forgot.
Neither did I.
You Need a Steel Hard Mentality
My dad served in the Rangers for more than 30 years. His missions took him all over the world, missions I know next-to-nothing about because they remain classified.
He spent time in Iraq, Afghanistan, and South America.
But his toughest mission of all occurred in the last few years. He went to the doctors for back pain and left with a diagnosis of kidney cancer. Cancer has since spread to his lungs.
Watching the strongest man I’ve ever known go through surgery and rounds of chemo have both pained and inspired me. In the hospital, he refused to lay around when he could be rehabbing.
You need a steel-hard mentality to come back from cancer.
He’s not yet back to 100%, and there’s always a chance his cancer will return. Yet, he’s never complained. Not once.
I imagine that, on some sleepless nights, he remembers his days at Ranger School. Walking chest-deep through a swamp, or shivering on the side of a mountain. I bet he thinks of those experiences and grins.
During the quarantine of 2020, while recovering from chemotherapy, my dad married the love of his life. That’s just my dad. He still doesn’t have any quit in him.
Thanks to him, neither do I.
I needed the strength he taught me when I suffered relentless bullying in middle school. I needed it during the first year of college when I felt isolated and alone. I needed it when I got divorced and felt like my world was falling apart around me.
I needed it when I ended a 13-year career to go full-time as a freelance writer.
The mountains he’s taught me to climb are the mental and emotional mountains of adversity, fear, and suffering.
Thanks to him, I know that I can handle it. Thanks to him, I know that cheating is only cheating myself. Thanks to him, I know to sling my rucksack over my shoulder, pick up my giants, and head toward the peak.