EGLIN AFB — It isn’t every day that civilians get to take a peek behind the curtain at Camp James Rudder, home of the Army’s 6th Ranger Training Battalion and the notoriously difficult “Swamp Phase” of Army Ranger Training School.
Nestled out in the middle of nowhere on Eglin Air Force Base’s vast reservation, Camp Rudder is a place where soldiers go to test their mettle. On Saturday, however, it played host to the wives and other family members of the school’s instructors during the annual Ranger Wives Swamp Walk.
“We want to give you a behind-the-scenes view of what your husbands do every day,” battalion commander Col. Bart Hensler told the visitors as they gathered for an early-morning briefing. “This is one of the few times a year when we open our doors to the public.”
As in actual Ranger School, the women and children of the Ranger instructors, or RIs, were divided into platoons as they began their rigorous adventure. In this case, there were three groups: the Swamp Foxes, the Gator Gals and the Rattlers.
First on the agenda was a briefing on the types of reptiles the platoon members might encounter in the swamp. The RIs deftly demonstrated a wide array of live examples of a wide variety of snakes, ranging from harmless to extremely venomous.
“Oooh, no thanks!” one little girl said when an RI offered to let her touch a large constrictor he had draped around his neck. Other people bravely extended their hands to feel the scaly creature.
Like all Ranger School students, the wives and children had to undergo fundamental training to safely participate in the day’s events. They quickly learned how something as seemingly simple as tying a knot can be the difference between success or failure.
“This is why they’re Rangers and we’re not!” Michaela Marsh said as she tried to secure a heavy rope around her waist. The rope would be used later to connect her to a rope bridge she and the other participants would use to shimmy across the Yellow River. “It’s harder than it looks!”
Before hitting the river, however, the members of the Swamp Foxes platoon were able to try their hand at some of the weapons Ranger students use regularly.
“That really had a lot of power!” 12-year-old Brandon Ross said after firing an M240B machine gun. “It was a lot louder than I expected it to be.”
After posing for a group photo with the concrete version of the 6th Ranger Training Battalion's mascot, the platoons loaded into the back of Army trucks and began the long, circuitous and bumpy ride to a rendezvous point on a bank of the river. There, the students put their newly tied rope connectors to the test by clipping onto another rope that bridged the river’s muddy water.
“I’m a little nervous because I can’t see what’s on the bottom,” Karlee Fletcher said as she prepared to take her turn.
“She’s VERY nervous,” one of the other wives said with a broad smile.
Fletcher managed to make the river crossing without incident, and soon was boarding one of several small, inflatable Zodiac boats. Accompanied by four RIs, the participants grabbed paddles and began to make their way downstream.
Some boat crews were more successful than others. Sgt. First Class Karl Muller manned the safety boat that followed the platoons down the river. He couldn’t help but notice that the boat immediately in front of his 20-foot Carolina Skiff had fallen behind the other Zodiacs.
“I’ve never gone this slow,” he said with a laugh. “I feel like I’m in reverse.”
Eventually, all nine boats made it to the landing point, where the final challenge of the day awaited: a walk through the notoriously mucky swamp.
“There’s barbecue waiting for you after this,” one RI told the group. “Don’t give up!”