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Connections, challenges push Faith graduates through brutal Army Ranger school

Rachel Bohnemann, Luke Daley, Austin Ellis

LEFT: Rachel Bohnemann, a 2015 Faith Academy of Marble Falls graduate, successfully completed U.S. Army Ranger School in June. Staff photo by Alecia Ormsby RIGHT: Austin Ellis (right), a 2014 Faith Academy of Marble Falls graduate, pictured with Luke Daley, was awarded his Army Ranger tab in 2020. Courtesy photo

For two graduates of Faith Academy of Marble Falls, training and earning the status of U.S. Army Ranger is a family affair. 

In June, 1st Lt. Rachel Bohnemann become the 108th female graduate of U.S. Army Ranger School since 2015, when women were first allowed to participate. That was also the year she graduated from high school, one year after fellow Faith Academy student Austin Ellis, class of 2014. Ellis earned his Ranger tab along with the man who was to become Rachel’s husband, John Bohnemann of Kansas, in 2020.

Rachel and John are the 12th Army couple to complete the most challenging training program the U.S. military has to offer. They met while students at Baylor University, where they graduated in 2019 — he in May, she in December. They are currently stationed together at Fort Hood in Killeen. 

John’s brother Jacob and father Ed are also Rangers. Jacob earned his tab in June along with Rachel; Ed got his tab in 1990. 

Ellis is also a legacy soldier, marching in the bootsteps of his father, Col. Bryan Ellis of Kingsland. No graduation ceremonies were held in his year — 2020 — because of the pandemic. The first family member Ellis saw after being away for over two months of assessment was his father.

He experienced the same exact hell that I did,” Ellis said. “It felt so great to continue the legacy. He almost broke into tears, and he’s not the type of guy to do that a lot.”

While over 400 students enter each class, only about half of them graduate and are awarded tabs to proudly display on their uniforms denoting them as U.S. Army Rangers. For all of them, it was a hard-fought battle through brutal physical assessments, including combat training, sleep deprivation, and starvation.

“I wanted to go to Ranger School because I thought it would be really challenging,” said Rachel Bohnemann, who is no stranger to the extreme. 

She participated in the Bataan Death March Memorial Marathon in 2019 across desert terrain at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. She carried a 35-pound pack the entire way.

“Whenever I first started ROTC (in high school), women weren’t even allowed to go to Ranger School,” she said. “I remember hearing about the first female passing and thinking that was so cool.”

For Ellis, who is stationed at Fort Drum in New York, joining the military was simply an extension of his father’s military legacy, a retired colonel with 28 years of service.

“By no means did he push me in the direction of joining the military, but I always thought in some form or another I was going to serve,” Ellis said. “I joined Stephen F. Austin (University) ROTC, and it’s been a ride ever since.”

The first leg of the journey for any Ranger wannabe begins at Fort Benning in west Georgia. The historic fort was established in 1918 to provide basic training for World War I units. The fort was the early stomping grounds of military heroes such as Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lt. Col George C. Marshall.

The first challenge students endure is the Ranger Assessment Phase, also known as RAP week, 96 hours of physical exercise that test the limits of the human body.

On the first day of RAP week, Ranger hopefuls are expected to do 49 push-ups in less than two minutes, 59 sit-ups in two minutes, a 5-mile run in under 40 minutes, and six chin-ups. 

“I didn’t really ever doubt myself,” Rachel said. “I was just nervous the entire time because anything can happen. You can get dropped for a lot of different things. There’s lots of awesome people who don’t get through because of silly mistakes.”

Day two begins at 3:30 a.m. with the night and day land-navigation test. Already, soldiers must fight sleep deprivation if they hope to advance through the program. Land navigation is a combination course through rough terrain that begins in the dark. Hopefuls must locate a set number of stakes within a prescribed time period.

The final test during RAP week is a 12-mile ruck marchin under three hours while carrying a backpack with an average load of 35 pounds and no water. Ellis still remembers how he felt when he saw the finish line.

“You come off of a turn, it’s about a quarter-mile, and you can see the finish line from it,” he said. “I almost broke down into tears to be totally honest.”

After RAP week, the class size shrinks by about half. The elite group that survives elimination then begins the Darby, or patrol phase, of Ranger schooling at nearby Fort Darby. This phase includes following fast-paced instructions, conducting demolitions, and basic battle drills.

Before applying these new skills, students must rapidly conquer the Darby Queen obstacle course, which consists of 20 obstacles stretched over one mile of hilly terrain. 

Those who survive the Darby phase are shipped off to Camp Frank D. Merrill deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains in northern Georgia, where the altitude and elevation push bodies to an entirely different extreme.

“I’m a mountains guy,” Ellis said. “I’m a huge snowboarder. I built even more of an appreciation for the mountains. It was the most humbling by far. You’re not moving incredibly far. You may only be going three miles, but within those three miles, you’re going up 1,700 or 2,000 feet of elevation.”

Students are expected to master a number of tactical exercises while also ascending mountain trails carrying backpacks filled with ammo, MREs, and weapons systems. Prospective Rangers must endure hunger and sleep deprivation if they hope to continue to the next phase of camp.

Bohnemann remembers the feeling of devouring the ready-to-eat meals while using every ounce of strength she had to persevere to the next phase.

“You’re so hungry that it’s one of the most delicious things you’ve ever eaten in your life,” she laughed. “I remember eating them and thinking I would make this at home when I got back because it tasted so good.”

After the mountain phase, Rangers move to the final step in the program along the coastline of the Florida Panhandle at Camp Rudder near Elgin Air Force Base. There, they perform intense physical feats while enduring the brutal, humid heat of the Florida swamps.

The young men and women who try out for the U.S. Army Rangers work together, bunk together, and face challenges together. Genders are not divided when it comes to Ranger drills. They are devoted to serving their country and pushing their physical limits to achieve their goals. 

“I had wanted this for such a long time,” Bohnemann said. “I knew it was going to be challenging going into it. If anything, I was prepared for it to be the worst experience of my life. It wasn’t that at all. In the end, it was a super-positive experience.”

Ellis agreed. 

“If you go to Ranger School, you’ll look at yourself differently in the mirror every day,” he said. “You’ll know what that feeling of reaching your ultimate end is. You’ll know what it feels like to be completely smoked. You’ll meet it at Ranger School.”