FORT BENNING, Ga. -- For two months, they were on the move constantly, ate little and slept less, pushed to near physical and mental exhaustion as they navigated the rigors of the Army Ranger School.
Yet if the recent past for the 119 latest graduates was grueling, the immediate future - possible combat in Iraq - is no less difficult.
"No one wants to go, but if we're called up we'll do it to the best of our ability," said Marine Staff Sgt. James Slife, 28, his wife by his side at the graduation ceremony Friday.
The school trains Army Rangers, some of the most storied soldiers in U.S. history, as well as other soldiers who return to their own military units and spread the Ranger ideals of perseverance under intense physical and mental stress.
During their training, Iraq was constantly in the back of their minds, but seldom discussed.
"Just focus on your training," the soldiers were told when they asked about the situation in Iraq.
They became antsy when word leaked in that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was going to let in weapons inspectors, Slife said. "We knew something was about to start going down," he said.
Without newspapers or television, and only an occasional letter to link them with the world, the trainees wondered what was going on - and when they might become involved.
"If we have to go, we have to go," said Army Capt. Jason Glemser, 30, of Colmar, Pa. "If we do go in, we go in to do the job we didn't finish the last time."
Army Spc. Daniel Zimmer, 31, of St. Louis Park, Minn., said he learned to rely on his fellow soldiers: "They will keep you alive in a combat situation," he said.
Officers and enlisted personnel became equals, each facing a peer review.
"It doesn't matter," said Lt. Col. Dave Pound. "You're both there to get through the course."
Zimmer said he lost 37 pounds during the training because some days they were only given about 2,000 to 3,000 calories. The men often moved many miles for days at a time. They were only allowed to sleep a few hours per night.
"It was 62 days of hell, and now it's finally over," Zimmer said.
The Army Ranger School is designed to spread the Ranger ideals of dedication to duty and endurance throughout the military. Only a small fraction of soldiers become Rangers, elite light infantry soldiers trained to move in small units to ambush the enemy or conduct reconnaissance missions. They are often used for missions that require lightning strikes.
The Rangers were the first soldiers to scale the cliffs at Omaha Beach on D-Day during World War II. They parachuted into Panama in 1989 and went to Somalia in 1992-93. During that mission, 18 Americans - including six Rangers from Fort Benning - were killed in a failed attempt to capture a Somali warlord.
Rangers are put through punishing training that includes five-mile runs at six to seven minutes per mile, 15- to 30-mile marches with 90-pound rucksacks and at least one parachute jump each week. They practice urban warfare in mock villages.
"If you want to go with a known quantity, go with the Rangers," said Retired Maj. Gen. Kenneth Leuer, the graduation speaker.
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