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Apologia

Hunger

On Army Ranger school.

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When I began U.S. Army Ranger School in 2014, I was twenty-two and just becoming aware of my own mortality. I was also becoming increasingly convinced that the Catholic faith in which I had been loosely raised might be the true one. Those two things are related: completing Ranger School defined my professional trajectory, and it also proved to be essential for my journey back home to the Church.

Ranger School is hard. That’s an understatement. It takes sixty-two days to finish, unless you “recycle” and repeat one of the three phases: the test of endurance, the leadership training, or the military tactics portion. The test is distinctively grueling because Ranger School students do not typically sleep more than fifty minutes every night and only eat two Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs) every twenty-four hours. (I personally lost about thirty-five pounds.) Because of these conditions, hallucinations are common. I remember routinely falling asleep standing up, and at one point during a nighttime simulated combat mission I became convinced that I was stuck in an elevator in the middle of the woods. I do not remember where I thought the elevator was taking me, but somehow I thought its shaft was between two trees.

Ranger School begins with RAP Week, a barrage of physical assessments and equipment inspections, accompanied by the fear of failure. Each task is intended to measure performance during the calculated imposition of stress. Students can eat plenty, assuming they can shovel an MRE into their faces under time constraints. (Seven minutes was my record for an entire team, and I always used the heater for the main entrée.) The failure to line up properly for those meals often meant dozens of push-ups performed in cadence.

I crashed at the end of RAP Week. It had sharpened my mind and helped me sustain motivation, but when we left for the woods of Fort Benning, I lost my sense of daily accomplishment. Success in this next phase of Ranger School was contingent on my performance in a leadership position during combat training missions, but I never knew when my opportunity would arise, and I did not know how many chances I would have to receive a passing grade on a mission. Those two weeks were the hardest part of Ranger School.

At some point during the first phase (Darby, in the lingo of the program), we had the chance to attend religious services. By some miracle, Catholics got to attend Mass. I call it a miracle because although about a third of soldiers are Catholic, Catholic priests only account for about seven percent of military chaplains. Looking back now, I think of the words attributed to Saint Ignatius of Antioch: “I hunger for the bread of God, the flesh of Jesus Christ.” These words could easily be applied to a starving prospective Army Ranger, who, during that two-month trial, is also hungering for the Blessed Sacrament.

Everyone who went to that Mass in December was hungry. The Protestants were rumored to have eaten a lot of extra food during their service, but the Mass still drew a large crowd because it took place indoors on a frigid night. I almost certainly fell asleep. I probably received Holy Communion. I know I left with no recollection of the homily. But I do remember that, in addition to distributing Communion to the corpse-like Ranger student, the chaplain’s assistant distributed illicit peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as some sort of indulgence for our choice to attend Mass. I had been this close to the Real Presence, but I had other things—and other calories—on my mind.

The next phase of Ranger School took place at Camp Dahlonega in the mountains of northern Georgia. Mountains Phase is more remote than the previous phase in every sense, even the liturgical one. It included a much longer combat exercise, where we spent ten days in the field traversing Appalachian peaks with more equipment and less food. This phase is considered the toughest, and it is the breaking point for many. It was in these mountains that I hallucinated forest elevators and other Ranger buddies tried to order from vending machines or wrestle tigers.

Mountains was so demanding and so remote that we did not have the same access to chaplains as before. Our one encounter with a religious service occurred on Mount Yonah, where our class spent a few long nights learning advanced mountaineering skills. About one hundred fifty of us gathered in the middle of the night in the freezing rain. A Protestant chaplain preached a raucous sermon to our silent class. We Catholics, not to mention the irreligious members of the group, had no choice but to sit and listen. I have hardly any recollection of what this pastor preached to us. Almost certainly he said something about the ninetieth Psalm: “Thou shalt walk upon the asp and the basilisk: and thou shalt trample under foot the lion and the dragon.”

This seemed to me like a bland and unconvincing means of connecting Christianity to the art and science of ground combat. For much of my young life, my Catholic faith had been an accessory to whatever I happened to be doing at the time. I lived in high school and college as if sin were no matter, and, after all, I joined the Army. When I started my journey back home to the Church of my baptism and Confirmation, I suppose I could have considered some form of Protestantism instead. But that path closed to me after that worship service on the top of Mount Yonah. After the sermon, we were given “communion” in the form of a pre-made package of a few wafers and grape juice. Given how emaciated we were, any bit of extra food should have been seen as a godsend. I could not have been more disappointed.

While I did not receive the best education in Eucharistic theology, I knew that Christ offered His Real Presence in the accident of bread. I knew he commanded the Apostles, and their successors, to “do this in memory of Me.” In the middle of the night, amid freezing rain and real hunger pains, the representation of a symbol was pitiful and insulting. I did not touch the juice and crackers. I was so hungry for so much, but a symbol never meant less. If Christ risked losing His disciples over His Body and Blood, certainly I could discard the poor imitations of the source and summit of Christian life.

After finishing Mountains, our class traveled to the Florida panhandle for Swamp Phase. This two-week sprint to the finish was an exercise in patience. We were a well-trained unit at that point, but we had to endure the longest stretch of continuous field time, daily slogs through neck-deep swamp water, boat movements in the Gulf of Mexico, and even more hallucinations. My platoon’s missions went strikingly well and a larger-than-normal share of our students passed our leadership evaluations, setting us on a path to graduation, where we would receive the coveted Ranger Tab to wear on our Army uniforms for the rest of our careers.

We had forty-eight hours between the end of our simulated combat exercise and our return to Fort Benning for graduation. A priest from the local diocese was on hand to offer Mass for the Catholic students. About three dozen of us gathered on splintery wooden benches under an overhang on a crisp, sunny Florida morning. Still wearing dirty fatigues and underweight from a long few months of living in forests, mountains, and swamps, we sat through a Novus Ordo Mass said by a priest who (thankfully) did not skip parts of the liturgy. I was more intent on showing off my serious faith than actually practicing Church teaching, so I surely must have received Communion on my dirty, sinful hands with a sullen look on my face, as if to convince my Ranger buddies I was a legitimate Catholic in ultimate control of his life.

Mass ended when the priest picked up an acoustic guitar and played a beautiful rendition of The Beatles’s “Here Comes the Sun” as the recessional hymn. When I think back on that Mass, after having undergone a more considered study of liturgy and the Traditional Latin Mass, I wince at the song choice, but it gives me something to consider. My love for the Blessed Sacrament is what it is today because of Mass. As the priest sang, we considered the dawning of the sun for what seemed like the first time in over two months. We saw our life anew, with a sense of accomplishment and wonder at what the future years of war, losing friends, and searching for God in the Real Presence would bring. I wish I had known then to pray for the souls of men like Brent, Connor, Josh, and Cam, who would return to Our Lord needlessly soon. I still wish I had known what it meant to receive the Bread of Life.

Later, in an encounter with the miraculous, I would receive Holy Communion from a Chicago priest in northern Iraq, and from German Army chaplains before a mission when the Americans could not get a Catholic priest to our outpost. My wife and I would be guided to marriage by an old Irish priest on assignment in the mission fields of Columbus, Georgia. Despite wavering degrees of commitment and adherence to the faith, I was always proud to list “Catholic” on my dog tags, ever hopeful that my remains would have been cared for properly if I ever met an unrecognizable end.

My fellow Rangers and I fought in the waning days of the American misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, for a cause that was exciting at the time, but tragically pointless in hindsight. These days, I cannot fathom allowing my sons to serve in a U.S. military so gravely abused in faraway lands. But it was in these times of strife and loneliness that I met Our Lord fully present in the Blessed Sacrament. For even one of those instances, I would never change a thing.

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Will Thibeau is an Army veteran who lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and four children.