JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- The average American male takes in just about 2,500 calories a day, sleeps about seven hours, and engages in sports or physical fitness activities much less than the recommended two hours and change per week.
In the U.S. Army's Ranger School, trainees are ruck-marching day after day, sleep in rare 45-minute increments when possible, and get two meals-ready-to-eat each day, for a grand total of about 2,400 calories.
It's a 61-day marathon of punishing physical exertion combined with sleep and food deprivation. The attrition rate has hovered around 50 percent since 1980.
Sometimes, qualified Airmen are selected to attend the prestigious Army school, but only 257 have completed it, making a Ranger tab a brass ring in the Air Force.
Senior Airman Stephen Becker, a native of Minerva, Ohio, graduated from the grueling course Jan. 24. His Ranger tab was pinned on by his father, Mike Becker, a former Green Beret who advised his sons to join the Air Force instead of the Army. (Stephen's brother Jarrod is also in the Air Force.)
Stephen Becker had been at the course since late August, since he'd repeated the first two phases of the school. He was one of only three Airmen in the course at the time, and all made it through.
"It took a while to be accepted by the Soldiers," he said, although he wasn't often spotlighted. Once the training began, though, they were all one team.
Becker said he originally wanted to be a pararescueman, but failed the water portion of the course. While he could swim, the Airman struggled with being underwater and unable to breathe.
"That was a kick in the face, that failure," he said.
Instead of giving up, Becker decided to try Ranger School. Initially, it was something he wanted to do to maintain the family tradition of his father. That mindset soon shifted.
"It completely changes you," Becker said. "Why I was there became about the men to my left and right. I stopped focusing on myself and focused on them and how to meet the commander's intent (for a mission). I learned to spot-check those guys, and how much it really takes to get things complete."
Becker has been proactive since he enlisted as a security forces specialist three years ago and was stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Here, he was a president of the Airman's Council, trounced the physical training challenge at the Air Mobility Command rodeo, and was a PT adviser in his unit.
That drive and motivation drove him to his chief's office on a regular basis to check up on his application to the school, he said. When he showed up, his leadership knew what he was about to ask.
When he was accepted to the course, his father laughed at the news.
"'It's a whole new world of suck,'" his father told him -- and he wasn't wrong.
It rained constantly through his training, Becker said.
"We never wanted to take our rucks off," he explained. "It was raining, and even carrying 100 pounds, plus carrying ropes and all the extra rainwater ... we'd keep them on, because it's like having a personal heater. I'd do a rucksack flop, just lie down with it still on my back, sleep for 45 minutes, and then we'd get up and do it all over again."
Once, he recalled, he laid on his rucksack, only bothering to pull his "woobie," or poncho liner blanket, over himself partially.
"I woke up with frost all over my boots, icicles hanging from my nose," he said. "I'm never going to complain about the cold again."
While the course is exhaustively physical, it's largely concerned with building small-unit leadership skills. Rank becomes immaterial as trainees leave the course or are "fired" from their positions and another trainee takes the reins. As a senior airman, Becker often was a platoon leader, a position that in the Army is usually filled by a second lieutenant.
"It was crazy to be in charge of people who outranked me," he said.
One of the men in his squad was a sergeant first class, a Green Beret from the 10th Special Warfare Group. His experience was invaluable, Becker said.
"He was really good about critiquing us E-4s," he said. "He'd talk with us about leadership, and kept his critiques within the squad of about 10 guys. He was one of the guys I got closest to; he was always telling us stories."
The course spans three phases starting with the basics at Fort Benning, Ga. Trainees then move to Camp Merrill, near Dahlonega, Ga., for the mountain phase, where they learn mountaineering and how to maneuver a small unit through mountain combat. Opposing forces are never far away and thick fog made surveillance difficult, Becker said.
"We'd be rucking 10 klicks (kilometers) a day and we'd come up to the top of a hill and there's the OPFOR (opposing forces)," Becker said. "We'd be graded on how well we reacted to that contact."
Students then move to Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., where they learn to conduct the same types of missions, this time through swamps.
"I remember one mission, I saw the guy ahead of me sink down into the swamp," he said. "He was up to his chin, pushing his way through the water, with his weapon above his head. And I was carrying a (M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon, which weighs about 20 pounds) and just thought 'Ohhh, maaan.' It was no fun."
During a short hiatus at home over the holidays the former high-school wrestler and mixed-martial-arts enthusiast weighed himself. His wife, Gina, was shocked when he weighed in at only 110 pounds.
Just after his acceptance to Ranger School, Becker received orders to F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo. He was scheduled to graduate in early November, so the couple made their plans and purchased a home near Cheyenne. Stephen was planning to do much of the work of moving. Instead, he was still in training. Rather than risking his orders for an extension, his wife handled everything.
"She told me 'Don't come back without that tab,'" he said. "'I've worked too hard now.'"
In the first phase, Becker was too trusting of the people he was leading, he said.
"I had guys screwing up, people writing letters or sleeping," he explained. "I learned you've got to check on people, see where they're at."
Operations orders were his downfall in the second phase of training, Becker said. While trainees who are officers generally have done countless OPORDs before going to Ranger School, Becker had no experience with them.
"I should've gone to the officers and asked for help," he said. He didn't make that mistake again.
A foundational take-away from the course was something familiar to Soldiers -- the harping on "task, condition, standard," which lays out the mission to accomplish, the conditions under which it must be done, and a standard for time or amount.
"For example, you tell a troop 'I need you to do this, this is how I want it done; I need it done in five minutes, so I'll see you in five minutes," he said.
In school, due to food and sleep deprivation, spot-checking subordinates was even more critical, because people forget orders in such conditions.
Only keeping everyone working as a team made graduation possible.
In the future, Becker hopes to go to Officer Training School to pursue a commission, he said.
While Ranger School may not be something that appeals to most Airmen, Becker wholeheartedly recommends it.
"Yes, it's setting a whole new bar for suck," he said. "But when someone's been through it, there's no question whether they know what to do or how to do it. You know they can accomplish whatever mission you give them. It changes your whole mindset, your whole leadership style. You focus solely on the mission."
For Airmen who are interested in the course, Becker recommended the information available at www.benning.army.mil/infantry/rtb/.
"They have everything," he said. "Training videos about tying the different knots, workout plans, all of it. If you focus on those videos, you'll know those tasks and you'll be able to focus on other things."
Being in top physical condition, before starting pre-Ranger School at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., is critical, he said, but other than that, those hoping to go can only learn some of the necessary tasks.
"It's just one of those things you have to experience," Becker said.