I was never in the Ranger Regiment, but I’m fortunate to know a lot of Rangers. I even helped write a book about them, once upon a time. But this is a different story, a story about how a unit I was never in, taught me to dance.
I’ve been in the Army for almost 25 years. And as a military intelligence officer with seven combat deployments and service in multiple special operations forces (SOF) units, I’ve seen a lot and done a lot, and been exposed to the best and the absolute worst that humanity has to offer. I’m very grateful for that.
On the right sleeve of my “dress blues” uniform I wear seven gold combat stripes, indicating 42 months of service in a combat zone. I say that not to brag, but for context, because it will be important later in this story. Seven stripes and seven deployments is a lot, but that was on the low end of average for individuals in the SOF community during the time at which I was part of it. For purposes of comparison, individuals like General (Retired) Stanley McChrystal have at least half again that number of stripes, and probably at least twice as much. Ranger Kris Domeij was on his 14th deployment when he was killed.
Image: Former Army Ranger GEN Stanley McChrystal
Photo Credit: unknown
Image Source: Internet search
As is the case with an individual’s time “down range,” the nature of one’s deployment also varies. I was proud of what I did for the Task Force, but at the end of the day, I was a “Fobbit,” the term reserved for individuals who spent most of their time on a Forward Operating Base (FOB) instead of out engaging the enemy. We got rocketed regularly, and someone chucked an RPG round our way in the early days of Iraq, but I never really felt that my life was in danger. I got shot at just enough to earn a Combat Action Badge and four bronze stars—for merit, not valor—but I never even fired my own weapons in combat. And that is how it should be; as a mid-rank intelligence officer in a national-level SOF Task Force, my hands belonged on a keyboard, not a trigger.
Over the course of my career, I was assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and the Joint Special Operations Command and worked with most of the other major SOF units. But the Rangers were always my favorite unit to support. They were aggressive, disciplined, and highly professional. They were also constant and detail-oriented planners, which I especially appreciated during my time as an intelligence officer in the 160th. Over time, the Ranger Regiment became my favorite “unit I was never in.”
The Ranger Regiment was in charge of the overall Task Force effort in Afghanistan during my last deployment there in 2009. Up to this point, I had worked mainly with just the company and battalion-level Ranger leaders. But this was the first time I worked with the highest level of the Regiment’s leadership, and they did not disappoint. The Regimental Commander I worked with at that time is now a four-star general, and the Regimental S2 that I worked directly for is a senior colonel. The nature of my duties on that last deployment required regular interaction with the commander and several members of his staff, particularly the Regimental S2 and the Regimental Judge Advocate General. Although I was not “one of them,” I felt included and valued as a small part of the overall team. It was a good feeling.
One of my clearest memories of my time with the Task Force in Afghanistan is the pictures that hung on the entrance hallway of our “Plywood Palace” joint operations center (JOC) in Afghanistan. There were several, but there were two that I remember most. The first was the Falling Man photo taken as a man plummeted to his death on 9/11, choosing to jump rather than death by fire or asphyxiation. It’s a common photo that most people who were alive during 9/11 have probably seen:
Image: “The Falling Man” of 9/11
Photo credit: Richard Drew
Image source: Wikipedia
Another blowup photo in that hallway was of a young Ranger, wounded, intubated, and lying in a hospital bed, with two other young Rangers standing behind him holding an American flag stretched between them. This was a re-enlistment; the young man had been wounded in action but was still signing up for more.
I don’t have a copy of that photo, because it was inside a secure area where personal cameras were not allowed. But it’s a scene that played itself often over the course of the war. And the combination of those two images—the first a reminder of why we were in Afghanistan, and the other a reminder of the dedication of those doing the fighting and the dying there—was deeply moving and is something that I will always remember.
One thing I remember but did not enjoy was going to the memorial ceremonies for the Rangers we lost in combat. Those events were mercifully few, and I never knew any of the fallen Rangers personally, but the experiences were heart-wrenching nonetheless. We would gather up on the road inside the Task Force compound, the commander and the chaplain would say a few words, there would be a Last Roll Call, and then we would all file by to pay our respects. It was the least that we could do for a comrade who fell trying to make sure that 9/11 would never happen to us again. It was tough enough to have to stand witness to those ceremonies. I can only imagine what it must have been like to lose someone I loved. I began to wonder if it was worth the cost.
During my deployments, I was on the periphery of a lot of major operational-level decisions, and through the nature of my job had a lot of information at my fingertips. But I also had a lot of time to just think. I eventually came to the conclusion that our country was never going to make the kind of commitment we needed to make in order to convincingly win in Iraq or Afghanistan, and indeed it appeared that several of our prominent politicians seemed eager for us to fail, because it served their political ambitions.
The Task Force in particular was doing absolutely amazing things and I was proud of my part in it. And I was never “against the wars” per se, but I thought the way we were going about them was… well, let’s just say I didn’t think it was a recipe for success. I planned to stay in the SOF community for the rest of my career, but after gradually becoming disappointed and disillusioned—not with SOF, but with things outside of it—I started looking to do something outside of the constant “down and back” deployment cycle. That was because even for a Fobbit, there was still an element of danger down range, whether that’s from the burn pits, roadside bombs, disease, accidents, or rocket fire.
And for my wife and two daughters, “gone” is gone, no matter where I was gone to.
After considering a lot of different options, I decided to go all-in for a teaching position at West Point. As a product of Mercer University’s ROTC program and proud non-West Point grad, I had only been to West Point on one previous occasion, but that was enough. It took me several tries, but eventually, I lucked into an assignment with West Point’s Department of Social Sciences, arguably the most prestigious department at the Academy. As part of that package, I was able to attend graduate school at Yale University, where I earned a master of arts degree in International Relations. As you might imagine there were not a lot of former Rangers at Yale, and indeed, there weren’t even a lot of veterans. But there were a lot of great people there nonetheless, and I truly loved my time in grad school. I completed my studies at the expected time and moved on to the storied but new-to-me environs of West Point.
So, what does all of this have to do with dancing? Well, I’m glad you asked.
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