FORT POLK, La. (Fort Polk) — Spc. Darren Hopes, a horizontal construction engineer or “earth mover” with the 687th Engineer Company, 46th Engineer Battalion, is still getting used to his rank. He was private first class last week. But on the 17-month anniversary of his date of enlistment, July 27, Hopes was officially promoted to specialist because he added a Ranger tab to his uniform, a feat few young engineers achieve.
“It is unusual for an engineer, especially one so young in his career, to go to Ranger school,” said Command Sgt. Major James Mitchell, 46th Eng Bn command sergeant major. “For a young man to be that focused speaks volumes about what he is going to become in the future.”
The promotion is in line with an Army program that grants automatic promotions to privates that successfully complete Ranger school.
“We are doing the promotion today (July 27) in front of the whole battalion. It’s fantastic and we are excited,” said Mitchell.
Command Sgt. Maj. David W. Bass, Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk command sergeant major, attended the promotion ceremony, demonstrating how important Hopes’ accomplishment is to the installation command group.
“I want to point out the significance of this Soldier’s accomplishment,” said Bass. “Not many engineers have a lot of exposure to small unit tactics, which is what Ranger School is all about, but to do it as a private first class — meaning he didn’t have a lot of experience in the Army yet — shows that he wants to do better for himself. He stepped out there, took a chance and was successful.”
Bass said earning the Ranger tab means Hopes will get more opportunities to lead Soldiers, likely in positions of responsibility that exceed his peers.
“People will see that tab and know this Soldier has the leadership skills it takes to handle greater responsibility. I’m sure he will be successful in his (future) leadership roles.”
Mitchell said Hopes is “extremely mature,” and physically fit — attributes that undoubtedly aided him during his trials at Ranger School. “He is one of the top physical fitness testers in the battalion. He scored more than 340 out of 300 points, so he is above standard scale. He’s not your average young private — he is very focused and highly motivated.”
Ranger School is held at Fort Benning, Georgia, and is 62 days long. Sometimes Soldiers get “recycled,” which means they have to start the course over, and that was the case for Hopes, extending his time at Fort Benning to 90 days. The setback did not affect his determination to finish.
“This opportunity was offered to me, and I thought it was just too good to pass up. Plus, I’m young, and I believed I could do it, and I wasn’t sure I’d get another chance to go,” said Hopes.
Master Sgt. Andrew Messick, the only Ranger and Sapper (elite engineer) qualified NCO in the battalion, is Hopes’ former first sergeant. He said he saw something in Hopes that made him sure he was a good fit for Ranger School.
“As I was once told by Command Sergeant Major Bass, the (Ranger) tabs on my shoulder stand out like a billboard, and it is my duty to sell the product for the betterment of the Army. I instantly recognized this Soldier’s potential and was fortunate enough to guide him in the right direction so he could stand out from his peers,” said Messick. “I take the military education of my subordinates seriously. I do my best to instill a competitive attitude within my formation, with a heavy emphasis on physical fitness.”
Being a newly tabbed Ranger has given Hopes a new sense of purpose, he said. “I feel like I know a lot more now, and with the (Ranger) tab, I feel like I have a purpose to instill motivation in others,” Hopes said. “Now I want to be the Soldier that others see and think, ‘well, he made it through and was a private, why can’t I do it too?’”
Messick said while some Soldiers may still see Hopes as an equal, those with greater aspiration may regard him in another way. “I think those Soldiers who are motivated to achieve great things will most certainly see him as a role model,” he said.
Bass said some Soldiers in the Army don’t challenge themselves by doing things like attending Ranger School for fear of failing, but Soldiers like Hopes can serve as an inspiration.
“I’m optimistic that Hopes’ success will show others that this is an attainable goal, that they can prepare themselves to go to this course,” said Bass. “We need more Soldiers and leaders in our Army to go through this because it teaches you a lot about leadership in a stressful environment. It teaches you how Soldiers respond when they are tired and hungry, and at the brink of breaking down. If you see these things happening, and you know and understand them, you can take better care of the Soldiers inside your organization.”
Hopes said he kept his motivation up during Ranger School by thinking of all the people he might let down if he failed.
“I thought of how disappointed people would be if I came back without (the Ranger tab). (My leadership) had enough faith in me to send me to the school, so I had to believe myself because others believed in me, and I didn’t want to let them down.”
The most challenging part of Ranger school was keeping that motivation and positive attitude going, said Hopes.
“You have to keep a good head on your shoulders, and not dwell on how much it sucks and how much you hate the position you’re in, you have to stay positive and keep your head on straight,” he said. “I just pushed through. I saw a lot of people L.O.M. — loss of motivation — and that’s how you get removed from school and you can’t ever go back.”
Losing motivation is the greatest detriment to passing the course, said Hopes, and can affect other students in the course.
“Physically, it hurts, yes, but as long as you don’t quit, you can do it. But the mental aspect is what gets to a lot of people,” he said. “Once you check out of the game, not only does it affect your time there, you affect your battle buddies next to you — if I’m slacking, and not in a graded position, but my buddy is being graded, my slacking can cause him to get a no-go.”
Hopes said his favorite aspect of the course was the “DogEx.”
“At the end of every phase, when you come back from the field, they will give you all the hot dogs you want,” said Hopes. “You are hungry the whole time, so when you get to DogEx, you feel like you really earned that meal. And if you don’t like hot dogs, well — everyone loves hot dogs on that day.”
First Sgt. Michael W. Loveless is Hopes’ current first sergeant and he describes his Soldier as outstanding.
“For being a young Soldier, he always steps up and tries to take on leadership roles and always tries to do the right thing,” said Loveless. “Since he’s been back (from Ranger School) he’s been eager to implement some of the new training he received in his squad and into the next (field exercise).”
As for his future in the Army, both the first sergeant and command sergeant major agree Hopes will attend Sapper school in the fall, a 28-day joint service course at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, that creates elite combat engineers — completion of which results in another tab for Hopes’ shoulder.
“Hopes is definitely a role model for the other Soldiers,” said Loveless. “I would encourage anybody who thinks they could go through that kind of training to give it a try. It will help your career and develop you into a leader, just as it has for Hopes.”
Brig. Gen. Patrick D. Frank, commanding general, JRTC and Fort Polk, said Ranger School provides a great opportunity to receive world-class leadership training, regardless of the military occupational specialty.
“Ranger School gives Soldiers the ability to overcome physical and tactical problems that would have been insurmountable before,” said Frank. “I regularly encounter Soldiers here at Fort Polk that say they want to go to Ranger School, and I see a momentum building. I think it is a positive thing that we want to see continue. We want more and more Soldiers to accept that challenge to go to Ranger School.”
Frank said the combination of a tour at JRTC and Fort Polk and attending Ranger School makes a Soldier stand out.
“When you come to Fort Polk, you will grow professionally, and when you go to your next assignment, the leaders in that formation will want you among their ranks,” he said. “But if you show up with Fort Polk experience and a Ranger tab, they will want you even more and it’s nice to be wanted and placed into positions of leadership.”
Messick added that all Soldiers should strive to achieve their goals and never settle for mediocrity.
“As leaders, it is important for us to establish that line of communication, identify what goals are feasible, and help our subordinates smash what stands in their path to greatness,” said Messick, who then quoted the Ranger motto: “Rangers lead the way!”