“The greatest teacher, failure is,” said Yoda. Or if Winston Churchill is more your speed: “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
When I was a gun team leader in the 3rd Ranger Battalion, I felt like I knew what I was doing. I struggled from switching from a position on a fire team, from clearing rooms and bounding through objectives, to a weapons squad, setting up support by fire lines and firing ungodly amounts of 7.62, but I still found my way. Enough to latch onto the over-confidence many “tab-spec-fours” or corporals often have when they think they’re finally owed something.
The RPAT (Ranger Physical Assessment Test) was a test that started getting seriously integrated into the Regiment when I was there. It consisted of a 3 mile run in combat attire (boots, kit, helmet), a skedco drag, a rope climb, a caving ladder climb and an 8-foot wall jump. Most people had already done the RPAT at some point or another, but for various reasons my platoon had not yet run it since I had been in. I hadn’t yet tested my mettle in that regard, and I was eager to do so. Endurance was my strong suit, and the name of the RPAT game was endurance.
I crushed the running part; I wasn’t too fast up the ladder and the rope, but I made it. The skedco drag was no problem — but for whatever reason, I couldn’t get over the wall. I tried several times, and eventually was told to stop and docked a certain penalty for not making it over. I made up the time with the run and the skedco drag times, but my squad leader was not impressed — and he wasn’t the only one.
Needless to say, this was unacceptable. Being a Ranger (or a soldier or Marine of any kind) isn’t a race where you can try your hardest and get a participation trophy. Had that wall been a wall in Afghanistan, it could have gotten me killed. Had I been trying to cross a wall to support another element in combat or to save a wounded Ranger-buddy, it could have gotten them killed. No matter how hard I “tried,” a dead Ranger is still a dead Ranger, and I could either be physically fit enough to do my job, or I could find another line of work.
Not only that, but I was in a leadership position where I had younger Rangers looking up to me to embody the standard — that day I failed both them and myself. Not to mention the fact that the wall should be the easiest part, and failing that is just plain old stupid.
After that (and several ass-chewing sessions), I went down to the obstacle course every day after work for two weeks during a more relaxed part of the training cycle. For a few days I just jumped the wall in my PTs over and over and over again, practicing the other obstacles in between. Eventually I put on my kit, and eventually my helmet and boots too. Like the rope climb, most of it is technique over strength, but both are required.
The next RPAT was relatively easy after all my over-preparation. I ran one of the fastest times in the company, and was well received mostly by those who had forgotten how much I sucked at it the last time. Those who remembered just shrugged, saying “finally” to themselves.
I didn’t feel all that good about myself; it wasn’t a major win or anything. I had just brought myself back up from “you’re going to get someone killed” to “okay, you probably won’t get someone killed now.” The standard isn’t an achievement, it’s a bare minimum — a rock bottom that you can grow from once you get there. And I did grow, from that failure and many others as a gun team leader and later as a fire team leader.
The whole thing was definitely a humbling experience. While your quality of life increases over time, there is no moment in Ranger Batt where you finally have “made it.” Those who lie to themselves and figure they can take it easy in any facet of the warrior lifestyle are liable to have a rude awakening, just like I did. That’s not to say confidence is a bad thing — confidence in yourself, in your skills and in your teammates is essential in any functioning military unit, but that is entirely separate from over-confidence and hubris.
This is not a story that I am particularly proud of, but my military career was not exclusively action-adventure triumphs and harrowing moments that might bring a single patriotic tear down your cheek. There were rough days, and many failures on my part. I do not excuse them away and I only explain what I can to myself to better learn from them and push forward.
In what ways have you failed in your life? And I mean by all accounts: “this was absolutely my fault, and despite whatever ‘reasons’ lurk behind it, I was the link that ultimately failed.” If you can’t think of anything, then maybe you’re explaining it away, or maybe you’re not putting yourself out there enough and therefore have no opportunities to fail.
Once you have it: reflect upon those things, meet them head on, and bounce back higher than before.
Featured image: someone far better at wall jumping than I. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army.