"Sometimes the best helping hand you can get is a good, firm push." - Joann Thomas
I had passed the physical fitness test, including the dreaded pull-ups. Now, all that stood between me and U.S. Army Ranger School was the Combat Water Survival Test, or CWST. Three stations – swim the length of the pool, jump blindfolded from a diving board, and remove my weapons harness while under water. And holding onto my rifle the entire time.
Although I grew up in New England, and each summer my family spent a week at the ocean, I’m not a good swimmer. I can swim the length of a pool. If I can use both arms. And stop halfway to catch my breath.
I had failed the CWST only 3 months earlier while attending the Infantry Officer Basic Course. I was assigned to “Rock Training” class – designed for people who swim like rocks (i.e., who sink like stones). Many of my classmates didn’t know how to swim, and most of us wanted to go to Ranger School.
The most important thing I learned during “Rock Training” was the side stroke technique. This technique would allow me to hold my rifle in one hand, while using the other arm to swim. After several weeks, I could swim the length of the pool. While I wouldn’t be entering the Olympics, I had learned enough to lose the “rock” designation. I was sure I could pass the test.
There were about 100 Ranger School candidates gathered at the pool for the test. We masked any apprehension with shouts of “Hooah!” and “Airborne!” The first group of soldiers jumped into the pool, and the test had begun. I was about midway in the line.
My turn arrived. For the first test, we started in the shallow end of the pool with the finish line at the deep end. The whistle blew, and we were off. At the halfway point, I started to have problems. My wet uniform was dragging me underwater. I couldn’t remember how to swim with one arm. I panicked, stopped swimming, and started splashing as I couldn’t keep my head above the water.
An instructor pulled me out of the water. Dejected, I stood there with my head down, spitting out water. Suddenly, I was grabbed by the battalion commander, a combat veteran who served with the Rangers in Vietnam. He looked me in the eyes and shouted, “Do you want to go to Ranger School?”
“Then let’s do it!” He pulled me back to the front of the line, bellowing, “Get out of our way! This man wants to be a Ranger!” At the start line, he faced me, and ordered, “Now swim the length of this pool!”
I started with the finish line in mind and gave it my all. The battalion commander stayed with me, walking along the edge of the pool, prodding me with encouragement and expletives. With more desire than style, I made it to the end of the pool. Swallowing copious amounts of water along the way. But I did it. Now I could rest before tackling the next 2 stations.
But the battalion commander wasn’t about to let me stop. He grabbed me, pulled my face up to his and yelled, “Do you want to go to Ranger School?”
Then he led me to the front of the next line with the same order, “Get out of our way! This man wants to be a Ranger!” I climbed onto the diving board, walked to the edge, and put on the blindfold. Moving forward, I took the fateful step into the water. I wasted no time getting to the side of the pool, my rifle clutched tightly in my hand.
Again, the battalion commander was waiting for me. Again, the question, “Do you want to go to Ranger School?”
“Then let’s do it!” We moved to the final station with the familiar refrain, “Get out of our way! This man wants to be a Ranger!”
By now, many of my fellow students were also cheering me on. A simple task, jump in the deep end of the pool, and while underwater, take off my weapons harness. Then swim away, so when I broke the surface of the water, the harness wasn’t touching me. Even underwater, I could still hear the shouting of the battalion commander and my fellow students.
Suddenly it was over. I was above water, swimming to the edge, with my harness 5 feet away. I had passed. I pulled myself out of the pool, and was face-to-face with the battalion commander. He had an expression that could almost be considered smiling. “Well done, Lieutenant,” he said. Before I could thank him, he turned and walked away.
Two weeks later, I reported to Ranger School. Two weeks after that, I was in the hospital emergency room because of an accident during a parachute jump. It marked the beginning of the end of my military career. I never earned my Ranger Tab.
But I did pass the Combat Water Survival test. I overcame my fears - the fear of drowning and the fear of failing. As usual, it was with the help and support of others.
The first time I failed the CWST, the Army could’ve given up on me. But they didn’t. If I wanted to give the effort, then they would give the instruction. I would have the opportunity to succeed.
More importantly, on the day of the test, the battalion commander wouldn’t let me give up on myself. I had given a good effort, and had come up short. At that moment, I could have walked away, safe in the comfort that I had tried. No one would fault me.
Somehow, the commander knew that I could try again. He replaced my fear of failure with the desire to succeed. By pushing me to the front of the line, he didn’t allow my mind any time to second-guess my actions. His continuous shouting, “Get out our way! This man wants to be a Ranger!” was a reminder that this test was about my dreams and goals.
Although dramatic, this wasn’t the first time, or the last time, that I’ve been helped by people pushing me forward. Friends, family and co-workers have played a part in every success that I’ve achieved. People who didn’t let me forget the reasons why I took on a challenge. People who believed in me, even when I doubted myself.
We need the desire to succeed. We need to put in the effort required to achieve our goals.
And sometimes, we need a little push.