The odds of successfully completing U.S. Army Ranger School were stacked against Capt. Ryan Mortensen.
First, Mortensen is a chaplain. Though there are nearly 1,600 chaplains in the Army, only about 20 are Ranger qualified, completing the branch’s most difficult combat leadership school.
Second, he is 41 years old, well past the age most soldiers commit to the course, which physically and mentally tests students in the hills of Fort Benning, the mountains of north Georgia and the Florida swamps.
Add to that, he had no military tactical experience and he had never carried or cleaned a weapon before signing up for Ranger School.
Mortensen, who graduated last Friday, called his accomplishment “a small miracle.”
“God plants things in our hearts and when that desire starts to grow, you share it with people,” Mortensen said this week as he basked in the afterglow of his accomplishment. “Sometimes people either want to crush it or nurture it. I think through this whole journey, I realized I am relying on God. He planted an idea, a purpose in my heart. ... I made the steps physically and he carried me through spiritually.”
There is nothing ordinary about Mortensen’s spiritual or military journey that led him to the edge of Victory Pond last Friday for the most unlikely of celebrations.
Growing up in Minnesota, he experienced a variety of religious traditions. He went to a Lutheran church and then a United Methodist one before attending a Pentecostal church by the time he was in high school. He then graduated from Northwestern Baptist College in Minneapolis, an institution once led by evangelist Billy Graham.
Mortensen’s interest in the Army started when he was living in Saipan, a U.S. Commonwealth in the Pacific about 120 miles north of Guam. He and his wife, Erin, have three children — Elijah, 12, Micah, 10, and Isabella, 7. During their 11 years in Saipan, he taught school (from fifth grade to high school algebra), earned his divinity degree from Liberty Theological Baptist Seminary, started a non-denominational church and joined the Army.
The Army Chaplain Corps found Mortensen in Saipan, where he served eight years in the Reserves.
“A chaplain came out there and started recruiting, and I thought that was a nice little miracle from God,” Mortensen said. “I thought that is exactly what I want to do.”
When he reached his late 30s, Mortensen had a decision to make. He was considering active duty chaplain service, but had to commit before he was 40. He did and was assigned to Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. It was there he began to see soldiers in his unit wearing the Ranger tab.
“I asked what it was and they said, ‘Don’t think about it, Chaplain, you’re 39 years old and you don’t have any business doing it,’” Mortensen said. “Any time somebody tells me I can’t do something, I get a little bug in my head thinking I can do it. Once I learned the Rangers were the elite of the elite, it really got my attention.”
It took Mortensen almost nine months to get permission through the Chaplain Corps to attend the school and carry a weapon, something chaplains are prohibited by Army regulations from doing. While he was aiming at Ranger School, Mortensen found an advocate in his commander, Lt. Col. Daniel D. Blackmon.
“I think he saw me — I am not sure I should say this, but I will — as his little brother,” Mortensen said.
Blackmon approved the training and became Mortensen’s top supporter.
Blackmon, who completed Ranger training in 2002 and now commands the 2nd Battalion, 11th Field Artillery Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, had mixed emotions when he sent Mortensen to Fort Benning. Now 43 and slightly more than a year older than Mortensen, Blackmon understood the physical challenge his chaplain faced.
“I wanted him to go, but the No. 1 thing to me was his age,” Blackmon said. “I went to Ranger School as a 28-year-old captain and I woke up broken and sore every single morning. Ranger School is not designed for 28-year-old soldiers, much less those that are 41. ... That school comes at a cost.”
Mortensen took a demanding two-week pre-Ranger School class in Hawaii in March. He reported to Fort Benning in mid-May and started the school. After sailing through the physical assessment the first week, he hit a snag. His lack of tactical experience came shining through when he twice failed the land navigation requirement.
Instead of bringing Mortensen home to Hawaii, Blackmon kept him at Fort Benning and signed the chaplain up for the National Guard’s Ranger School training program.
There Mortensen found an unlikely teacher and ally in a Lithuanian soldier who was attending the course.
“He gave me some invaluable land navigation tips about how to put the compass to the map, seeing what direction the road is, going to the road and seeing if that is the right road,” Mortensen said.
Mortensen returned to Ranger School in June. This time he aced the land navigation portion, finding all five points in the allotted time.
“He was the one I give credit for land navigation to,” Mortensen said of his new friend. “Another miracle. God is putting people from all over the world in my path.”
Mortensen was at Camp Darby — “one step away from hell on earth,” he noted — over the Fourth of July and during the worst of the summer heat.
“Their celebration to us was they finally let us take a shower, so praise God for that,” Mortensen said, laughing.
At Camp Darby for the first of three patrol phases, Mortensen found himself in a 17-man squad in which each soldier passed the phase on the first attempt.
“They thought it was one of the more unbelievable things they had seen come through Darby — usually someone is going to get peered out,” Mortensen said of the school’s process of allowing the students to grade each other’s performances.
The chaplain was tested again when he moved to the next phase, at Camp Merrill in the north Georgia mountains. He failed patrols and got four spot reports — the Ranger School equivalent of demerits and one way to flunk the course. That earned Mortensen what is termed a recycle and a second trip through the mountains, where he experienced one of his most precious Ranger School memories.
Mortensen talked with the chaplain at Camp Merrill, and one day on top of Mount Yonah, the chaplain gave him an opening on a Tuesday morning to address the students.
“He did his spiel and he said, ‘Take the floor, man,’” Mortensen said. “I preached my little sermon on the mount.”
The chaplain, struggling like most of the other soldiers, turned to the book of James, Chapter 1, for a message that went about 15 minutes.
“I talked about when obstacles or trials come your way, consider them an opportunity to have great joy,” Mortensen said. “I was talking about joy is not the same as happiness because happiness is due to our circumstances. Joy is the ability to have it despite the circumstances.”
And he related it to what many consider the most difficult phase of Ranger School.
“Even though you are in the midst of the mountains, and it sucks — you’ve got blisters and we are not sure we are going to pass or fail — isn’t this an amazing place God has placed you?” Mortensen asked his fellow students. “... You can either sit there and grumble and hate life or you can sit there and encourage those around you, which I think the Ranger Creed is all about, making your brother stronger.”
Mortensen moved out of the mountains and into the final patrol phase in the Florida swamps at Eglin Air Force Base. It was, admittedly, his most difficult phase.
Asked if he considered quitting, Mortensen responded with a laugh.
“No, but did I ever pray that God would let me have an accident, break a foot and go home honorably?” Mortensen said. “Yeah.”
After about two weeks, he was told he had passed and was going back to Fort Benning for graduation, more than four months after he first reported to the school.
He called home to tell his family the good news. It was dark in Florida, but still midday in Hawaii. His oldest son, Elijah, answered the phone. What played out was his favorite moment of the experience.
“He asked if that was me, then asked what was going on,” Mortensen said. “I told him, ‘Daddy got a go; Daddy is a Ranger.’ He screamed, ‘Daddy is a Ranger!’ I heard my other two kids screaming, and Erin ran over and grabbed the phone. That was so special.”
Mortensen said his wife, like most, was skeptical when Ranger School was being discussed as a possibility.
“I think what really got her was you just don’t know when you are going home,” Mortensen said. “I couldn’t have done it without her, just knowing she had my back.”
Erin could not make the trip with the kids from Hawaii to Georgia last week. But Blackmon was able to get to Fort Benning. The commander was scheduled to be stateside and diverted his schedule so that he could be at the graduation, the first one he has attended since he graduated 14 years ago. It was important, Blackmon said, for several reasons.
“First, I knew Erin could not get there on short notice,” Blackmon said. “My wife, Lisa, talked to her and she was weighing, ‘Do we get braces for one of the kids or go to graduation?’ I said, ‘Go get the braces, and I will be there.’ It was also important for me and our military family that I be there.”
While Erin and the kids were not there, her parents who live in Arkansas did make the trip. When Mortensen made the decision to go from Reserve status to active duty, his attorney father-in-law, John Osborn, objected.
“My concern was about the family and knowing that he could be deployed to hotspots like Afghanistan,” Osborn said.
When it came time to pin the Ranger tab on Mortensen, the chaplain turned to his father-in-law, a man who has filled the role of father since Mortensen’s dad died seven years ago.
“I call him Dad,” Mortensen said.
By the time he reached the pit next to Victory Pond, Osborn had made an about-face on his initial concerns about his son-in-law’s decision to go active duty.
“I was blown away because I was so proud of him,” Osborn said. “This has turned into a good thing for Ryan, Erin and the family. His first duty station was Hawaii. It really has worked out so well. And I could not be prouder of him.”
Now, Mortensen looks at a very different future than the one he signed up for several years ago. Blackmon knows that his days with Mortensen in his unit are probably numbered because his chaplain will likely be in demand.
“He is in a very small group right now — Ranger chaplains,” Blackmon said. “I am going to lose him at some point, I know that and I am OK with that. Special Forces, the Ranger community, SOCOM (Special Operations Command), they are going to come looking for him. I knew that going in, but this is an investment in the Army.”
All Mortensen can do is soak it all in. Now he has “my Ranger tab to go with my Jesus tab.”
“This is an amazing, eclectic life I have lived,” he said. “Can you believe it? I earned the Ranger tab.”
Now, Mortensen must put his new distinction and the experiences it took to earn it to use.
“If I have the opportunity to use this tab to show the love of Christ and his mercy and giving people hope,” Mortensen said, “I am excited about that.”