U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- A long, silent line of men march in darkness late one night in October on a training range at Creech Air Field, Nevada, carrying 60 to 70 pounds of tactical gear under the blaze of a starry sky.
Senior Airman Joseph Massoglia, a 10th Security Forces Squadron evaluator at the Academy, marches with them. There is little sound but the steady tramp of boots on the crusty Nevada soil.
Suddenly, Massoglia is cornered by two instructors.
"They grabbed me, because they thought I was going to fall over," he said. "And the first one yells, 'Ranger! What are you doing?!'"
Massoglia had fallen asleep mid-step, succumbing to the sleep deprivation he'd lived with for almost two weeks as part of the U.S. Army Ranger Assessment Course, a preliminary course to Ranger School.
"If they hadn't both seen me fall asleep, I wouldn't have believed them," he said.
This was the last night of patrols before graduation. Massoglia, exhausted beyond anything he had imagined prior to the training, was determined to make it through.
"We probably got around two hours of sleep a night, at times," he said. "You just have to prepare for the suck."
The lack of sleep is not all Massoglia and his fellow Airmen dealt with. They were expected to work and train up to 23 hours at a time, living off two Meals Ready to Eat a day, containing about 2,400 calories.
"We did a PT test on our first day," he said. "That's two minutes of strict push-up, two minutes of full sit-ups and a five mile run. Once everyone was done, we did six straight chin-ups, we couldn't swing at all. From there, we did the combat water survival test, then a bag drag. We started with 21 people, but at that point one of the guys quit on the spot."
Ranger School develops the combat skills of officers and enlisted men by giving them turns as unit leaders in a simulated tactical environment, under physical and mental stress similar to actual combat.
Ranger candidates are tested on placing Claymore mines, assembling and disassembling firearms and programing radios.
"The instructors would give us a brief overview of how to do it, and we would perform it and be evaluated," Massoglia said. "One of the early days also was line navigation (a map and compass course). They gave us each five points to find in the area, and it was a pretty large area."
Massoglia hoped the course would be just an assessment before Ranger School, but it proved challenging in and of itself.
"It's intense from the get-go," he said, adding the first morning of training began at 3 a.m. "You could relate it to basic military training as well -- we had to get on the bus very fast, and then get off the bus very fast. Then we didn't meet the time requirement, so we had to get back on and off again."
Physically pushing himself while extremely sleep-deprived was not what Massoglia wanted when he first joined the Air Force in February 2012, he said.
"I ended up with security forces because my recruiter said it was a job that left every month, and I just wanted to get in," Massoglia said with a laugh, adding that attempting to become a Ranger was never something he saw himself doing. It wasn't until he heard about an open slot for pre-Ranger School during a commander's call that he seriously considered it.
While Ranger School is an Army program, there are six slots reserved for Airmen every year. To secure those slots, Airmen must apply for and finish the Air Force-run pre-Ranger School.
Once an Airman completes pre-Ranger School, he appears before a board to receive performance critiques. At that point, he will be given either a "go," a "no go" or a "conditional go."
"I got a 'go', so I can go straight into Ranger after pre-Ranger," Massoglia said. "A 'conditional go' means you need more training, so they decide what you need more training in and then your training needs to be signed off by a certified Ranger. And then a 'no go' is you can't go to Ranger this time, but you can go to pre-Ranger again."
Massoglia does not currently have a date for the 61-day Ranger School, but hopes to enter in May 2015. Until then, he is focusing on preparations.
"I'm trying to gain weight while remaining in shape," he said. "I actually haven't been able to run for the past two weeks -- I got runner's knee while I was at pre-Ranger School from all the physical activity. But I'll be running again, and running longer distances."
Despite how challenging Ranger School may be physically, Massoglia doesn't rank it among his top concerns.
"Sleep deprivation is probably the number one challenge," he said. "Number two is being Air Force and going to Ranger School. A lot of the instructors told me, 'You'll get extra love, being there and being Air Force.'"
Massoglia credits his motivation to personal and professional reasons.
"My wife is a big motivator in my life," he said. "The fact that I have her behind me gives me so much more determination. I called my supervisor, Tech. Sgt. Ashley Umstead, after I got my 'go' from the board, and she was ecstatic for me. Having so many people be proud of what I did was a huge motivator."
Umstead has little doubt Massoglia will succeed.
"I know Senior Airman Massoglia is one of the hardest working and most dedicated Airman I've worked with," she said.
Despite the small number of Ranger-qualified Airmen, only 263 Airmen have completed Ranger School since it began in 1950, Massoglia has still found ties to the group at the Academy.
"I was in the gym the other day, and there was an Army pre-pre-Ranger course going on," he said. "A few Ranger-qualified sergeants were putting Airmen through a PT test. They were saying the Ranger Creed, and that made me happy because I know it and it's something I can connect with. That's a big drive, that brotherhood."