Wednesday 10 April 2019

The Ranger’s Path: Van Shaw and Becoming an Army Ranger

In my new book MERCY RIVER, former US Army Ranger Van Shaw travels to a remote Oregon town to help a friend accused of murder, only to find that the town is playing host to hundreds of Special Operations veterans like himself.  The former and active Rangers have gathered for a huge charity drive and—not coincidentally—the kind of party that threatens to destroy property and people alike.  

While previous Van Shaw novels have touched on his service in the 75th Ranger Regiment, this was the first book with flashbacks to Van’s path to becoming a Ranger.  MERCY RIVER shines a light on his experiences during the pair of intense training programs for this unique branch: the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program (RASP), and Ranger School.  These two programs are often confused, and I’m not a veteran, so I relied on research and contacts within the Ranger community to ensure Van’s adventures were accurate, clear, and especially exciting for new readers.

First, a bit about the Rangers themselves.  Rangers are a branch of the United States Special Operations Forces, which includes among others the Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces (Green Berets), and Marine Force Recon.  The Rangers’ mission is that of a light infantry strike force: Ready to travel anywhere in the world within eighteen hours, typically dropped in by parachute or helicopter to accomplish a specific objective, then ex-filtrating before the enemy can respond.  As a friend and Special Forces veteran of mine put it: “Knocking down doors and blowing stuff up”.  Exactly the kind of work that would appeal to Van Shaw at age nineteen.

As such, Ranger selection focuses heavily on the requirements of expert infantry: fitness, marksmanship, tactical execution, medical training, and related skills. The RASP program is the entry point for any soldier who wishes to serve in the 75th Regiment.  The program is eight weeks long and designed to push candidates to their mental and physical limits.  Wind sprints, marches and runs with heavily-loaded rucksacks, and almost constant drills combine with a deluge of information and tactical instruction that candidates must master if they are to serve.  

It is not uncommon for half of the initial RASP candidates to have dropped—voluntarily or literally—by the end of the first two weeks. The objective of the trainers is to identify those few candidates whose minds and bodies can adapt to the pressure, soldiers who refuse to quit even under the toughest of circumstances.  Those who make the grade and graduate from RASP don the tan beret of the Rangers and are awarded the Regimental Scroll, which is the shoulder patch that identifies the new Ranger’s battalion within the 75th. A regimental motto is that the Scroll must be earned every day; the standards for remaining an active Ranger are as uncompromising as RASP itself.

Ranger School is something different, though no less arduous. A leadership course, the School welcomes students from all branches of the US Armed Forces, and some allied forces as well.  It’s common for active Rangers in the 75th Regiment to have a deployment or two under their belts before applying for Ranger School.  

The sixty-one days of Ranger School are divided into three phases: Benning (named for the fort which is home to the 75th), Mountain, and Florida.  Much like at RASP, the Benning Phase weeds out those students who cannot maintain a brutal pace.  Benning is where students become acquainted with the infamous Darby Queen, an obstacle course more than two miles long; students must work in teams to overcome the hazards. Mountain Phase focuses on leading missions in tough terrain and even harsher conditions.  Food and sleep are at a premium during all weeks of Ranger School, and students lose weight at a shocking rate due to the non-stop activity. Finally, the Florida Phase, also known as Swamp, expands on mission and assault skills and has students lead training operations directly, working through their exhaustion to complete the objective.  Students are evaluated constantly by both their instructors and their peers – the ultimate test of whether they can be counted upon in a crisis. 

Graduation rates for Ranger School vary by class, but numbers below fifty percent are typical.  The physical demands are such that most students require an adjustment period to regain their full health and a regular diet following the course.  All graduates earn the Ranger Tab, a simple patch that denotes the graduate as Ranger-qualified regardless of their branch of service.  Many graduates consider receiving the Tab as the most rewarding moment of their careers.

My research into Ranger service has given me tremendous respect for the men and women—both RASP and Ranger School have opened to women candidates during the last few years, with successful graduates from both courses—who can conquer the trials of these programs and who serve accordingly. I’m proud that Van Shaw is a Ranger, however fictional.  He too can be counted on to lead the way through the toughest of challenges. 

Mercy River by Glen Erik Hamilton (Published by Faber & Faber) Out Now

Helping a fellow veteran accused of murder, Van Shaw is drawn into a dangerous labyrinth involving smuggled opioids, ruthless mercenaries, and deadly family secrets that will challenge his notions of brotherhood and justice.  When his friend Leo Pak is arrested on suspicion of murder and armed robbery, Van Shaw journeys to a remote Oregon county to help his fellow Ranger. Van had been Leo's sergeant when they served with the 75th Regiment in Afghanistan, and back in the States, Leo had helped Van when he needed it most.  Arriving in the isolated town of Mercy River, Van learns that his troubled friend had planned to join a raucous three-day party that dominates the place for one weekend each year. Attended by hundreds of former and active Rangers, the event is more than just a reunion; it's the central celebration of a growing support network called the Rally, founded and led by a highly decorated Special Operations general named Macomber.  But there's more going on in Mercy River than just a bunch of Army hard cases blowing off steam. The murder victim--the owner of a local gun shop where Leo worked part time--was dealing in stolen heroin-grade opiates. Worse, the town has a dark history with a community of white supremacists, growing in strength and threatening to turn Mercy River into their private enclave.  The cops have damning evidence linking Leo to the murder, and Van knows that backwaters like Mercy River are notorious for protecting their own. His quest to clear Leo's name will stir up old grudges and dark secrets beneath the surface of this secretive small town, pit his criminal instincts against his loyalties to his brothers in arms, and force him to question his own belief in putting justice above the letter of the law.

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