Tom Cotton lied about serving as an Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here's why it matters.
Ranger School is not Ranger Regiment. For many reasons.
On Saturday, Salon reported that Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) put out literature during his first campaign for Congress and otherwise made several statements claiming to have served as an Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The problem is that although he did serve tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and he did graduate from Ranger School, he did not serve as an Army Ranger during those deployments. That distinction is important because it describes two very different experiences. This is not a little goof or misunderstanding. Cotton intentionally lied because he didn’t expect civilians to pick up on the difference.
I served at the same time as Tom Cotton in the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment for a few years. He was an officer, and I was enlisted. We were in different companies. I didn’t serve under him, but it’s a smaller unit, so I recalled seeing him at details or around Ft. Myer because his nametape (“Cotton”) stood out to me. Our interactions never went beyond the basic salute you give an officer in passing.
The reason that’s germane is because I served under infantry officers that definitely knew Tom Cotton and to whom he reported. These were professionals who did not tolerate nonsense and who certainly adhere to what I’m about about to put in context here for those who don’t know.
Okay, what the hell is the difference?
Civilians understandably get confused on Ranger School versus Ranger Regiment, and what’s key is that the former is basically a leadership course and the latter is a way of life.
Ranger School is a two month combat training course that’s considered the premier leadership school in the Army. It is utterly grueling. Candidates will go weeks with very little sleep or food (some days none at all) but nonetheless be required to constantly push themselves physically and meet the academic standards. If that weren’t enough, they’ll also be graded by their peers, so sound leadership and teamwork are paramount.
If you ask any given Ranger School graduate about their experience, you'll get some variation of “It really sucked.” That sentiment is the most common refrain.
There is a respect for the course that’s hammered home repeatedly, particularly for junior enlisted infantry soldiers. I did not try to attend Ranger School because I sure as hell knew I wasn’t ready, and before I could get to that point, I was medically retired for health problems.
The graduation rate is usually around 50% from those who start the course. Many candidates will fail one of the three phases of training (or be medically rolled back) and opt to start that phase again and many of those will go on to graduate with a later class.
So, that failure rate is already jarring, but it’s even more significant because the vast majority of candidates who arrive on Day One are in peak physical condition and have specifically prepared for the course. These are not folks who just wake up one morning and decide to go. The commitment is there long before the course starts.
That’s all to say that graduating Ranger School is a hard-earned accomplishment and worthy of praise. It’s an enormous test of character and commitment.
Those who graduate Ranger School receive the Ranger Tab, the iconic yellow version of which is traditionally safety-pinned to their uniform at graduation, and they are deemed “Ranger-qualified”. This is a big deal.
And if Tom Cotton had simply left it here, he would have been fine. He could have put “Ranger-qualified” on his literature if he wanted (albeit some of his military peers might have thought that corny) OR said something to the effect that he graduated from Ranger School and went on to serve two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan in non-Ranger units. That’s a perfectly valid description. And it’s still a big deal!
Instead, Tom Cotton laid claim to the experience of what it means to be an Army Ranger, or someone who has actually served in the 75th Ranger Regiment, which is considered the most elite light infantry force in the world and a component of the U.S. military’s special operations apparatus.
This is a process completely separate from Ranger School.
First, you must specifically volunteer for the 75th Ranger Regiment.
To do that, you have to achieve a high score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (simply passing is not enough), qualify for Airborne School, have no outstanding physical limitations (so, no waivers that would otherwise be granted for other units), be able to obtain and hold a Secret security clearance, pass the Ranger Fitness Test (in case you’re wondering, that’s really difficult), and have a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) that’s needed for the 75th, among other things.
For officers like Cotton, the standards are even higher: the ability to obtain a Top Secret security clearance, meet the need for an officer billet in the 75th, and be between a 1st Lieutenant and a Major in rank (O-2 to O-4).
It’s much harder for officers to get into the 75th because there are far, far fewer slots (particularly for infantry officers, which is obviously competitive), and doing so may not meet conditions for their Year Group, a dynamic I will not get into here.
That’s all to say that even if Cotton had been qualified just to apply for the 75th Ranger Regiment, it’s far from certain if he would have been invited to take the assessment course.
The Ranger Assessment and Selection Program (RASP) is the gateway to the 75th Ranger Regiment. And it completely sucks. They put you through the wringer. Even if you complete the course all the way through, there’s a decent chance you still will not be selected for entry into the 75th. A lot of good, hardworking soldiers—some of the best in their home units—have failed to be selected despite completing RASP.
It is not a mere formality. They take it very seriously.
Successfully graduating RASP (being selected) is what makes a soldier an Army Ranger. Graduates receive the iconic Tan Beret and 75th Ranger Regiment unit patch (known as “the Scroll”). [Special Forces, a completely different thing, wear the Green Beret.]
Today, Democratic Congressman Jason Crow (CO-6) tweeted out a pic from his time in the 75th and took a well-deserved shot at Cotton:
Now, to be fair, the journey doesn’t end there for graduates of RASP. Yes, they are now members of the 75th Ranger Regiment and have technically earned the right to call themselves “Army Rangers” but they will not be leaders in the unit until they’ve either completed Ranger School or served a combat tour with the 75th.
The politics of that can be very internal. There are purists within the 75th who believe that only those who are selected into the unit and complete Ranger School and deploy and engage in direct combat can call themselves “Army Rangers”.
Some of these purists believe that the only true Army Rangers are infantry soldiers, not the supporting occupational specialities, even if they graduate from Ranger School and are selected from RASP.
As with all families, that’s a debate for the folks in that unit.
But what they can all agree on is that someone who graduates from Ranger School but is not selected for the 75th Ranger Regiment is not an Army Ranger but merely “Ranger-qualified”.
This is common knowledge, specifically in the wider U.S. Army Infantry. You got your tab, which is certainly great, but that’s a different thing from serving in the 75th.
And that’s because the 75th has a very high operational tempo that requires constant grueling training and preparation. Their deployments, to put it mildly, are far more dangerous than usual. They’re taking on missions not given to other light infantry units. They’re in special forces territory.
The lowliest infantry private who hasn’t completed Ranger School but has completed a combat deployment with the 75th Ranger Regiment has earned the right to call themselves an Army Ranger long before a Ranger School graduate like Tom Cotton. Hell, even by the standards of the Commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment, a private who hasn’t deployed but completed RASP has that right where Cotton does not.
Why? Because the life of a junior enlisted soldier who’s not “Ranger-qualified” in the 75th Ranger Regiment is hell. Think of it like basic training on steroids and then lit on fire. Their life is completely focused on embracing the suck and preparing to graduate Ranger School and end the pain. It’s tradition, and everyone who applies to 75th knows to expect it.
Tom Cotton didn’t experience the lifestyle of the 75th Ranger Regiment. He deployed with other infantry units, but he has not known the soul-crushing nonsense that forges Army Rangers who must meet ridiculous standards of physical fitness and combat tactics.
And he knows this. Because every infantry soldier knows this. It’s beaten into our heads from Day One of basic training that there are levels of infantry soldier and earning that Scroll with the Ranger Tab below it—especially earning the privilege of wearing it on your right shoulder following the completion of a deployment—is one of the highest honors in the infantry.
Tom Cotton has a perfectly respectable and honorable military record. He served in combat as an infantry platoon leader. That is all to his credit.
But claiming an honor he never earned is absolutely stolen valor, and he should apologize for it.
Is any of this illegal?
No, Cotton has done nothing illegal. It’s just dishonorable and weird and tacky and completely ludicrous and shameful. He blatantly misled the public with the implication that he deployed with the 75th Ranger Regiment.
And it’s especially shameful coming from a conservative who is thoroughly situated in the absurd mindset that anyone who “misrepresents” or “dishonors” the military by protesting white supremacy has betrayed our country, whether that be Colin Kaepernick kneeling against systemic racism during the National Anthem or Black Lives Matters activists against whom Cotton advocated deployment of the 82nd Airborne last summer.
For conservatives like Cotton, decorum and respect for service and country apply to other people, not to them. Everything is a means to an end, right down to fabricating a service record.
Hi, I’m Charlotte Clymer, and this is my Substack. It’s completely free to access and read, but if you feel so moved to support my writing, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription: just $7/month or save money with the $70/annual sub. You can also go way above and beyond by becoming a Founding Member at $210.
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