For more than two months, Ranger students train to exhaustion, pushing the limits of their bodies, minds, and souls and on average, only one in three candidates makes it through the grueling course. The average student is in the rank of E4 through E6 on the enlisted side and O1 through 03 for the officers. Most are between 19 and 27 years old. Only about 21 Airmen a year graduate from Ranger School.
Then there’s candidates like 39-year-old Chief Master Sgt. William “Ryan” Speck, the first Air Force Chief ever to graduate from Ranger School.
“I always had aspirations of attending Ranger School, back when I was a much younger Security Forces member in the mid-90s, however the opportunity never presented itself, that is, until about six months ago when I got the go-ahead to attend, ” Speck said. “At the age of 39, the desire was still strong, but at this stage of my career it wasn’t just for the thrill-seeking part that comes with the training, it was more to gain a better understanding of the Ranger mission set.”
The Dayton, Texas, native is currently serving as the U.S. Special Operations Command’s J6 Operations Superintendent where he supports the Rangers on a daily basis with their communications requirements.
“I had the privilege prior to Ranger School to fill in as the deployed regimental J6 sergeant major, where I learned and experienced a great deal, to include picking up on some of the communication challenges the Rangers are faced with on the tactical edge,” said Speck. “Although the deployment was a success, I felt it was important in my position to gain a better understanding of the dynamics and experience first-hand what it’s like to be a Ranger, so I jumped on the opportunity to go to Ranger School and make my lifelong dream a reality.”
Speck started Ranger School weighing 194 pounds. By graduation, he weighed just 155. Out of 360 students, he was one of only 90 who graduated. The weight loss resulted from the daunting physical aspects of the course, but the real challenge was mental, caused by sleep deprivation and constant hunger.
“I thought the physical piece would be the toughest, but it was more of a mental hurdle for me. The long walks, especially at nighttime, were really challenging,” said Speck. “We only slept 15 to 30 minutes a night and we were starving because we were burning way more calories than we were consuming, and then having to walk seven or 12 kilometers a night in the steep mountains of Dahlonega, Georgia, and the swamps of Florida, carrying 60 to 90 pound ruck strapped to our backs was really mentally challenging. Being tired and hungry, there were times where I really had to go to my happy place. I had to think there was an end to everything, and the only thing the RIs [Ranger Instructors] couldn’t stop was time.”
According to Speck, the Ranger School gives you a complete sensory overload and can really overpower you.
“If you let it, the whole course can overwhelm you. I had to approach the course one event at a time. Whether it was the Darby Obstacle Course to the land navigation course, five-mile run or the 12-mile ruck, [my mindset was] survive today and make tomorrow,” said the Chief. “I had doubts everyday whether I would make it through. I had a saying, ‘I’ll quit tomorrow.’ Everybody who goes through that course second-guesses themselves. I learned a lot about myself. I was amazed what my body could do. I’m an older guy and I was praying every day that my body would hold up. I could trick my mind out to make it, but physically I was hoping my body would hold out.”
The Ranger School is designed as a team concept where no one individual can make it through the course alone.
“They have a saying, ‘You don’t earn your Ranger Tab; your buddies earn your Ranger Tab.’ That is a 100-percent truth. It’s a team event. Everybody has a role, and if one person fails in their role, then the team fails,” said Speck.
The most valuable lesson the Chief learned from Ranger School was to reexamine the leader and follower roles.
“As an E9 with 21 years of service, the leadership piece came naturally for me, but my biggest take away was how to be a better follower,” said Speck. “As we all know, it’s just as important to be a good follower as it is to be a good leader, and sometimes as senior enlisted leaders, we forget that.”
Being a Chief and now wearing the Ranger Tab, Speck wants others to learn from his experience.
“I don’t want to just wear the Ranger Tab, I want to give back,” said Speck. “Since my return, I’ve had numerous Airmen, including joint service members, reach out to me to gain more insight on my experiences in the hopes of one day earning their own Ranger Tab. It is my goal for those who really want it, to make their dream a reality, just like my leadership did for me.”
Featured Content: Michael Bottoms, DVIDS
Featured Image – Chief Master Sgt. William “Ryan” Speck graduated Army Ranger School at Fort Benning, Georgia, April 22. Speck is the first Air Force Chief to graduate from the Army’s premier leadership course. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Angelita Lawrence – DVIDS