I was never close to being a Ranger. There was that one week segment of Infantry Officer Basic Course at Ft. Benning in 1982 wherein we practiced suffering in simulation of the stressors of Ranger School. Our IOBC class commander was a young captain without a Ranger tab. I, being 35 and far and away the oldest in class, asked him once why he did not have one? He’d decided not to try any more. He’d been accepted three times and, through no fault of his own, been progressively more crippled each time as a result. Example: smashing some ribs against a jagged rock during the mountain phase, at night in freezing weather, sliding down a slope. He quit the heal-and-reapply cycle, correctly assessing he could be seriously disabled for life. Some Ranger students are. Great guy, fit in all ways, and would probably not advance too far in Infantry Branch without the tab.
Flash forward to 2010. On a misty grey morning I’m walking away from the visitor’s center by Pointe du Hoc toward the cliff edge. I’m wearing the Gore-Tex camouflage patterned jacket I could not afford when still active in the Reserves but, ironically, could after retiring. It would help keep me less cold on the way back to the States aboard a C-17. A few days earlier I’d worn it when being hugged and air-kissed by Madame Arlette Gondrée Pritchett. Madame was, as a little girl, one of the first four French liberated around the midnight before D-Day by the British raid on what is now called Pegasus Bridge, named after the British 6th Airborne Division and echoed by Stephen Ambrose’s best seller. She’d hugged me because I looked US Army in the green camo jacket and squeezed a little harder when I whispered, “I’m Airborne.” Madame’s mother had grabbed and kissed each of the British fighters that fearful night so long ago and did not wash her face for a week after – she was proud her face was smeared with the dark camouflage the Brits had worn on their faces. Madame told me three coach loads of West Point cadets arrive at her café each March to walk the ground of the famously successful operation and to speak with her.
As I, clearly associated with the US Army by the ubiquitous Gore-Tex, proceeded down the path toward the edge of the cliff purchased at such magnificent effort by elements of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, I saw a gentleman making his way back. He was apparently German. Just take my word for it: physical appearance, jacket, even his cane. He paused as we met. Evidently to compose something appropriate to say in English.
“Bravo!” The German man spoke just loud enough for me to hear.
We both smiled in that tight-lipped way older men do when serious and thinking the same thing. We then continued walking, each our own way, into the remainder of our own lives.
Excerpt from Peggy Noonan’s 1984 D-Day speech delivered at Ponte du Hoc by Ronald Reagan:
“The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers — the edge of the cliffs shooting down at them with machineguns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After 2 days of fighting, only 90 could still bear arms.”