POPE ARMY AIRFIELD, FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- The Army Ranger School students were all looking forward to the few hours of precious sleep they were about to get after a long day of training on Mount Yonah, a mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia.
Their instructors instead rounded them up and marched to a rocky outcropping and threw a 150-foot rope over the edge. The students began to rappel into the darkness one by one, aided by night vision goggles.
Senior Airman Brian Musum, 14th Air Support Operations Squadron tactical air control party member, gazed into the night for a moment before he went down the rope. The darkness turned into a purple glow in his goggles, and he could see the faint movement of car lights far below him while the stars stood out more intense than he had ever seen.
He then clipped onto the rope and jumped into the darkness.
This is one of many unique moments that a solidier may experience in the Army Ranger School, but not something the average Air Force Airman gets to experience. More than 4,000 individuals attend the course each year, but just over 300 Airmen have ever graduated and earned the Ranger tab.
Musum and another TACP Airman from his unit, Senior Airman Austin Hairfield, both joined that extremely select group of Airmen this year.
"It was one of the best and worst things I've ever done," said Musum. " It sucks 95 percent of the time, but it's something to be proud of. Graduation day sneaks up on you, and suddenly you're looking to your left and right at Victory Pond thinking, 'I can't believe we're done.'"
The 61-day long course is a constant test of the physical and mental strength of each student. The fail rate is usually around 40 to 50 percent. The soldiers are pushed to the absolute limit of what they can endure.
"The most challenging aspect of the course was the lack of control," said Hairfield. "The students have no ability to feel 'comfortable'. One must simply endure months of rucking, mission planning, eating very little, and lack of sleep to graduate. Over the months it starts to weigh more and more heavily on us."
The course is broken into several different sections in areas spread throughout the country, including long periods in Georgia and New Mexico.
The students must work together to overcome the challenges they face, and everyone is put in the spotlight at some point.
"At ranger school, you're either a good leader, or you learn to be a good leader real fast," said Musum. "Using sleep and food deprivation combined with physical and environmental challenges, and heavy doses of [Ranger Instructor] inflicted stress, the school breaks you down to the lowest functioning level most of us have ever been. This is when you're asked to lead, perform, and complete the mission."
Although seeing an Airman in ranger school is rare, the uniform each student wore back home made no difference during the training.
"A student is so tired and hungry that to succeed, you quickly learn that the only way you are all going to graduate is if you work together," said Hairfield. "The humbling aspect of ranger school, coupled with the fact that once the soldiers learn that the Air Force guys volunteered to be there, really helped to create a healthy environment of mutual cooperation and teamwork."
The two Airmen have returned to their squadrons, and they are ready to share the wealth of new knowledge and tactics with their TACP counterparts.
"I've been tested mentally and physically beyond what I've encountered before, and proven myself," said Musum. "It's a great feeling. I'll share the skills, techniques, and knowledge I learned at ranger school with my teammates at the 14th ASOS. Nobody is a hundred-percent efficient at small unit tactics; it takes continuous practice and refinement."
The most memorable moments of the course just happened to be the worst for some people. Marching through the swamps of Georgia while water moccasins slid by, or getting caught on a mountain during a hail storm are two things that Hairfield will never forget.
Being one of the few Airmen to earn a ranger tab is the ultimate reward for these two Airmen, and they understand the responsibility that comes with it.
"It's an extremely humbling feeling," said Musum. "A couple of the memorial pushups we do for the fallen comrades in the TACP career field are dedicated to specific 'Airborne Rangers in the sky.' Some of the greatest Airmen who've ever served have worn the Ranger tab, and my walk amongst these elite men has only just begun. There is pressure to exemplify the Ranger Creed every day, and I'm immensely proud to uphold that standard."