I met Matt Rierson at the Special Forces Underwater Operations (SFUWO) Academy on my second attempt to pass that course in Key West, Florida, in 1986. I was, at that time, assigned to Combat Dive Team ODA 155 at Ft. Lewis, Washington. Matt was attending that same course coming from 2/75 Ranger Battalion, also out of Ft. Lewis. Being thrust together into a class of some 60 students coming from any and all Special Operations units, Matt and I deemed it sensible to hang together for the simple reason that we were both from Ft. Lewis. I, being reverent toward and appreciative of U.S. Army Rangers in general, was confident that Matt would not be quitting anything anytime soon. That would be yet another good reason to hang out with Ranger Rierson.

It took less than a day to conclude that not only was Matt a bad-ass Ranger, but also an all-around solid fellow of strong character and immense courage. He was a devoted family man with a wife, and at that time, just his one son, Kaleb. Matt had no vices; I kept mine in check for those next 30 days out of respect for him. We hung together as as much as was practical, ate all three meals together daily, chilled near the barracks on the weekends, and even gravitated toward each other during class breaks for a quick sanity check and motivational ribbing.

Every morning, there was the infamous PT hazing session that lasted for only about an hour, but was designed to crush the spirit in all but the most motivated participants. I knew from my earlier experience that the two-mile runs the sessions started off with were nearly impossible to stay with as a formation. As the first run of the first morning was shot from a cannon, I found myself behind the formation by about a dozen meters. Low and behold, there was Matt plodding along at my same pace, his feet slapping the ground loudly, reminding me of Frankenstein’s monster running alongside me. We didn’t talk, we just maintained our pace. By the time the two miles were up, we found the formation slowly collapsing back on us from the front. We ultimately always finished with the formations, and we always shook hands quietly at the end of each run.

We both graduated that course and flew back to SeaTac, Washington together, where I briefly met his wife, Trish. We shook hands a final time and returned to our respective units to resume usual duty, now qualified as combat divers. I soon requested an assignment as a cadre member at SWUFO a couple of years later, as I was due for a mandatory Special Warfare Center (SWIC) levy to serve a term as an instructor in one of the many Special Forces training venues. I moved to take charge of my fate and make the best of the levy. After all, what duty could be better than that spent as a combat dive instructor in Key West?

I was stuck in the force-muliplying SFUWO when the first war in Iraq broke out. There came news one day that a local Key West man, MSG Eloy Rodriguez, had been killed in-country, and that there would be funeral services for him on Wednesday of that week. Rumor was, MSG Rodriguez had been a medic attached to Delta when he was killed in a Blackhawk helo crash during a sandstorm. I chose to attend the funeral service for the man, and what’s more, I would do it right and get dressed in my Class-A uniform to show some respect for a great American.

Black Hark Helicopter Downed in Somalia (Image Courtesy: NPR)
Black Hark Helicopter Downed in Somalia (Image Courtesy: NPR)

At the funeral, I noted that the front two rows of pews on one side were filled with civilian men of a particularly rigid stature, decked out smartly in tasteful business suits of worsted wool and subtle pin stripes.

Whispering near where I sat suggested that those were Delta operators from the assault squadron that MSG Rodriquez was attached to. My attention was drawn to an individual in particular who I found to be oddly familiar, although I couldn’t draw a conclusion as to who it could be. When services were over and the church crowd dispatched, I heard my name called from behind. I turned to find the mystery suit-clad individual standing in front of me—none other than Ranger Matt Rierson holding his hand out to greet me. “When are you coming over, George?” is all he asked. As I shook his hand, I stumbled with some trite excuses for why I had not tried out for selection: the bone in my leg, the Mrs. and her new job, the trick ankle I had developed in high school doing jack shit…in retrospect, it sounded like my mouth was falling down a flight of stairs.

In my three years assigned to SFUWO in Key West, I watched as the cream of the crop of the cadre tried out for and were accepted by Delta: There went big Dan K.; there went Michael Scott S.; there went Samuel Booth Foster and Kevin “Speedy” W. My rub with the latest commander at the academy coaxed me into the realization that perhaps it was time for me to finally try out, if not to actually make it, then at least for a much-needed break away from SFUWO and the old man.