The wind whipped through the helicopters opened cargo doors and into its cabin like a screaming tornado. Inside, Walker Suthers and his 23-man special ops team rocked to and fro in the rickety compartment. The Afghanistan mountains blurred by below at breakneck speeds. Suthers positioned his night vision goggles, and scanned the compartment. His team, decked in black ops gear, was illuminated in a bright neon green hue.
Trailing behind his plane was a Osprey plane – CV-22. He watched through the open cargo doors as it sliced through the midnight sky. A beautiful beast, he thought, even in the dark. For the twice-deployed Army Ranger the mission was routine. A caravan of the U.S. military’s most elite soldiers was returning to base after yet another successful but classified mission. It was 2011, and just another night at work in the pits of a war-torn region.
That’s when the night sky lit up. ‘That’s odd’, Suthers thought. He adjusted his safety strap and took a harder look at the trailing Osprey. Its moves were sudden, jerky and uncharacteristic. He watched it dipped hard right, then back hard left. It was as if the pilot was making an evasive dodge maneuver. Something was wrong. Very wrong, he thought.
Before he could comprehend the situation, a bullet suddenly burst through the aircraft’s floorboard, whizzing up and past Suthers and his fellow Army Rangers. Through the whipping winds and roaring engine his team could barely hear the bullet case at it clinked against the metal siding.
For a moment, bullets seemed to being flying up from their feet in every direction. Every step could be their last. Staying still could be deadly too. There was no way to tell where the next shot would explode up from the floor. As the barrage continued, confusion soon melded into certainty. The helicopter pilot wasn’t deviating off course at all.
The caravan was under attack. War, as typically the case, had suddenly and violently burst through the door.
“Somehow, someway those bullets came through the bottom and got stuck in the roof of the aircraft,” Suthers said. “But they never hit anyone. It was surreal.”
Suthers glanced out toward the back of the plane’s open doors and watched as a soldier darted toward one of the aircrafts many guns. He scanned for enemy shooters in the mountains below. There is always a tail gunner attached to the transport vehicle. This guy was already on the gun scanning for targets. CV-22s have one weapon that sits on the back ramp – typically a 50 cal or mini-gun. This one was a 50 cal.
“The tail gunner starts lighting them up,” Suthers said, as he recalls watching through his night vision goggles the bullets’ tracers flash bright green neon as they sliced down to the ground. “It was a very vulnerable time. We actually could have been shot out of the sky. And couldn’t just jump out of the plane either.”
Suthers recalled this experience last month while speaking to VIPSEEN for its Veteran’s Day issue, sharing an insight so unique, yet so similar to thousand of servicemen and woman living throughout the region. With a population that so selflessly shares itself, supported by loving families, this issue is their issue. These stories resonate here because our freedom resonates with them –– all 20.5 million of them as of 2016, according to the Pew Research Center’s latest figures report.
Today, the majority of those veterans are Gulf War-era veterans, a population that recently surpassed those from Vietnam. As of 2015, 6.8 million American veterans served in the Vietnam era versus 7.1 million serving in the Gulf era. Meanwhile, World War II veterans number about 771,000 compared to 1.6 million who served during the Korean conflict, the VA estimates. And while these numbers are no doubt large, today the share of the U.S. population with military experience is declining, dipping from 18 percent in 1980 to just 7 percent in 2016. All said, the 20.4 million veterans in America make up just 10 percent of country’s citizens.
It’s a population worth memorializing and, from the military’s perspective, its all about protecting them too.
When Suthers and his crew were taking fire from hidden enemies in the Afghanistan hills, its important to note precautions were nearby. Although considered some of the baddest, most elite, most trained, and one of the most successful soldier corps the U.S. military has ever produced; the Army Rangers aren’t immortal. Accidents happen. Things go wrong. In fact, part of their training is to remember the story of a solider killed in action so well they feel a part of that soldier’s immediate family. It’s a way to carry on a fallen comrades legacy. It’s also a way to ensure these special ops teams remember bullets don’t care if you’re special ops.
Circling nearby was a cannon cache on wings, known in other circles as the AC 130, a fighter plane the Smithsonian Channel called the “world’s biggest artillery gun.” As one of the military’s tried and true weapons of fight and flight at night, the AC 130 is a flying destroyer, a gunship so deadly, so feared, that the sound of one can shudder enemy plans before they’re even hatched. The threat alone can change the enemy’s battle logistics on the fly. Enemies have dubbed it “hell in the sky.” Rangers, meanwhile, call it the “angel in the sky.” Despite its moniker, one thing is certain; it’s a flying tank on steroids packed with enough firepower to make an arms dealer drool.
On one side of the winged beast sits a 25mm Gatling gun, aka the “crowd pleaser” capable of pumping out a 350-round burst of fire, or “12 continuous seconds of a fireball” blazing toward enemy camps. Toward the plane’s rear is a specialty gun: the deadly and ferocious 105mm Howitzer, the biggest gun on a plane full of big guns. Pull the trigger and 10 rounds per minute are unleashed. Its recoil for each shot alone packs enough force to bench press 20,000 pounds, roughly the equivalent of 10 tons or five adult size walruses. These are the “penetrating” guns, used on buildings, bunkers and other structures typically thought impenetrable by traditional weapons. However, the most used gun on the plane is a 40mm.
With such backup protecting these Army Rangers, who are near universally considered amongst the most prized investments within the military, the Taliban on the ground must have known, Suthers said. The enemy’s radio communications had previous lit up the monitors with constant chatter. Now, there was virtual silence.
Suthers was, in a sense, disappointed.
“We were excited for sure,” Suthers said. “We were ready for a gunfight. We were actually looking forward to it. Those are the moments you live for.”
Welcome to the Army Rangers where sometimes you win just by sheer reputation alone. Sometimes, just sometimes, the enemy even retreats before the fight even begins.
A MIND BUILT LIKE A TANK
But this sort of reputation isn’t just granted. It’s earned. Blood. Sweat. Tears – candidates pour it all out in the pursuit of becoming a member of the most selective fraternity on the planet. “Anyone can apply, but only a sliver make it more than a few days. You pour your whole being into the Ranger Indoctrination Program (RIP),” Suthers said. You live it. You die by it. You give all of yourself and then some. It’s a time when brotherhood takes shape. An introduction to a fraternity of soldiers who ultimately wind up being the only other people on earth that truly understand the sacrifice it took to be indoctrinated.
“People call it ‘hell on earth’ for a reason,” Suthers said.
The Ranger Indoctrination Program is designed to break you. Trainers don’t just want you to fail, but they also expect it. It’s 61-days, 19.6 hours a day of the most intense intensity one could ever face. It’s where you’re pushed to what feels like death, then pushed more, and then some more and when you can’t take it anymore, you’re pushed more, day after day, week after week. Rinse. Repeat. Skip the lather.
The constant onslaught of sleep deprivation, physical exercise, coupled with a hunger that borders starving sends most packing after just 72 hours. In fact, according to the military itself, nearly 7 out of 10 fail within first three days. And this is the goal. It’s dashed more dreams than it’s fulfilled, with estimations of up to a 65 percent fail rate, many self-inflicted, opting out because they simply can’t carry on.”
“You don’t have to be the biggest, the fastest, or the strongest,” Suthers said, “But you have to be able to control your mind. That’s it. That’s all it is. It’s a mind game. It’s mental. Once you realize they’re trying to break you, and once you tell yourself you won’t be broken, you’ve already one.”
According to the military’s own statistics, a majority of Army Ranger candidates who fail out of (RIP) training do so in the first three days; while others fail due to academics, medical issues, problems with peers, and more. For Suthers’ class the failure rate was more extreme. Of the 140 or so, roughly 30-35 graduated, he said.
“There was a point where I was like this is ridiculous,” Suthers said. “I could tell they were trying to break me.”
In one exercise, Suthers was tasked with strapping up a 40-pound sack, one he couldn’t put down, ever, and running 20 miles or so. “I was tore up,” he said. “My whole foot was a blister.”
The taunts and temptations never stop. After so long, Suthers started to think trainers targeted him personally, getting singled out as he plowed forward.
“A lot of it is mental fortitude. Once I learned that, I had to master it,” he said. “I can’t quite. I won’t quite. Had to continue.”
Then one day two months later, long after you’ve lost count of the days and part of your sanity, and once its evident to instructors that after treading through hell long enough you’re not going to break, It’s all over. You emerge, like Suthers, 25 pounds lighter, leaner, smarter, tougher and wiser. Your body is built like an ox; your mind built like a tank. You’ve become an Army Ranger.
After graduating high school in 2005, attending college and earning a physical therapy degree, Suthers found himself bored with life. A large man with thick legs and even thicker arms, Suthers is no doubt physically fit but there was more to life, he thought.
“I wanted to do something I wouldn’t regret,” he said recalling his decision to enter the armed forces. “I wanted a full life.”
Somewhere along the way, the Army entered his world. He met a recruiter. Who pushed him toward the medical side with his physical therapy degree. Been there, done that, he said. He wanted something bigger than him. He wanted to make an impact.
That’s when he saw the promotional video – a series of shots with fit men jumping out of airplanes and firing automatic weapons. “Now that looked good,” Suthers said.
He had found his calling. In March 2009, a naïve young college graduate with just a year of work experience under his belt, found himself at Georgia’s Fort Benning.
HIGH VALUE TARGETS
As an Army Ranger, one doesn’t do patrols. They do raids. Targeted raids. Special ops. When a target needs eliminated, the Rangers parachute into the scene, do their job and exit as swiftly and as suddenly as they entered. They’re ghosts and they like it that way. This isn’t mom and pop work. This is work that changes democracies, countries and policy.
While many missions are confidential, Suthers was able to hint at some of the good he’s done in uniform. When Osama Bin Laden was more than a high value target, when he was THE target on everyone’s mind, the FBI released the infamous Deck of Cards, essentially a most wanted list spun into a media happy medium. The faces of terrorists and criminal masterminds worldwide were attached to the face of playing card, the higher the value of the target, the higher the card. Bin Laden, for instance, was listed on the face of an Ace card. Lieutenants were the kings and queens of the deck. And one day, Suthers got to play a hand.
In a host of secret mission, Suthers was front and center during mid night raids and gunfights that seemed to never end. Through the course of his two deployments, he and his fellow Army Rangers scratched two faces of the Deck of Cards, targets that might not mean much to general population, but targets that nonetheless had profound impacts on criminal and terrorists groups.
It’s a rush like no other. “Once you get it in your blood, and you see it, taste it, its hard to get it out,” Suthers said. “This is why so many go on to be firefighter or cops. It’s hard to normalize.”
For many, the dark, intoxicating, forces of war are rush like no other. The calm after the chaotic crackle of a gun fight when one realizes their life could have ended just moments earlier, is thrilling beyond thrilling, soldiers and war journalist have recounted in depth over the years. The satisfaction of knowing it was you, boots on the ground, that led the invasion mentioned briefly on the evening news that burst into a high-value target’s home, and in one swift pull of the trigger, eliminated the threat forever. Then there are the secret missions and a familiar fraternity of brothers that nobody can quite understand unless you’ve lived it. On some basic, primal level of life vs. death, war is enthralling. Knowing you’ve cheated death is the rush of all rushes. Suthers is the first to admit it. He loved his work in that regard.
But at some point, Suthers said, you’ve got to look beyond the battlefield.
His wife Casey, two boys; Lane, 3, and Luke, 8, are his mainline rush now. He can’t imagine leaving them again. The first and second times were hard enough.
“During Luke’s birth I remember how rough it was. It was the first time I’ve ever seen my husband physically upset,” Casey said referring to the time her husband left for his first of two deployments. “It was such a terrible feeling during a time that was supposed to be the happiest. The scary part is I never knew if he was going to come back. Those things are always in the back of your mind.”
Eight years ago, Suthers got the call that he would be deployed. Although physically prepared, he had priorities at home. Casey was pregnant with Luke and she was due in about a week. The couple had thought it through. When the call came for deployment, a call went out to Casey’s doctor. Within a day, she was induced for labor. It was important Suthers was there to see the birth of his first-born.
Each day raced by, knowing it was one less with his new family and one more toward deployment. The days flew by and nights ticked on forever.
Finally, a week later, it was time to depart. Suthers snuck in to Luke’s room alone. There on the floor was this little creature Suthers and his wife had made. The tough Army Ranger still remembers it vividly. Luke was wrapped in diapers, playing with toys. Cute as babies are.
“I just picked him up and hugged him,” Suthers said. “But putting him down, those were hard moments. Really hard. I knew the dangers going forward, but this just gave me a reason to make sure I came home.”
In the back of his mind the nagging thought continued. What if this is the first and last time Suthers ever spent with his son? What if Casey needed help? What if this happened? What about that? His mind raced. But he channeled that mental toughness honed during the RIP selection process. He had a job to do. He volunteered for this and had worked so hard to become one of the country’s most esteemed soldiers.
The ride to the airport was long. The flight even longer. Not a second went by where Suthers didn’t think of his wife and child. They got him through the trip.
Then he arrived in the Middle East. His focus shifted. It was game on. War awaited the Rangers’ help. “You have to leave it behind. You have to. You won’t survive if not,” Suthers said.
Meanwhile, Casey stayed back at home, watching their child grow daily. It would be eight months or so before Suthers would reunite with his family, and often a month, maybe even two, before she could even hear his voice over the phone or catch is infectious smile on Skype.
“It had to be tough on him,” Casey said. “It was his first time away and he was thousands of miles away from his family.”
But it wasn’t just Suthers fighting a war abroad. Casey was doing her part in the states too. “I had to put my career on the backburner,” Casey, a social worker, said. “I had to do my part and sacrifice so he could fight. I tell you this: It’s made me so much more patriotic and aware of the freedoms we have and the sacrifices every member of the family offers when just one is in the military.”
Walker is still busy at work and continues to serve, albeit in a different way than before. Suthers serves the Warfighter through his work at BAE Systems and through his work at the Holston Ammunition Army Ammuniction Plant.