FORT DRUM, N.Y. (May 25, 2017) — When people attend leadership courses, the instructor will often talk about what it means to be a good leader. Often leaders are described as well spoken, fit, always in front.
But what about the one who grabs his or her rucksack and joins you on your way to one of the toughest schools the Army has to offer — often saved for the young and elite — Ranger School?
For Command Sgt. Maj. Rob Fortenberry, 2nd Brigade Combat Team senior enlisted adviser, leading Soldiers meant more than just inspiring words, it meant action. In July 2016, at the age of 45, he became the oldest Ranger School graduate in the history of Soldiers to pass through the school.
Fortenberry said he had always wanted to be a Ranger, but with his career flying by and never really finding time to set aside to go to school, he had come to terms with not ever achieving that goal. Or so he thought.
At his previous unit, 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, the motto was “Deeds not Words.” After six months of telling his Soldiers about the importance of going to Ranger School, Fortenberry sat his wife down and told her that he needed to stop being a hypocrite.
“It was the hypocrisy of standing in front of them, trying to message the importance of it in their career, knowing that they are looking back at me saying, ‘but you don’t have yours, Sergeant Major,'” Fortenberry said. “It goes back to about the most honest thing in the Army, and that is ‘Lead by Example.’ That’s why I did it.”
Fortenberry intentionally locked himself in a corner so that he couldn’t let anyone down, by messaging it to everybody. He pulled down the 60-day Ranger physical training plan off the 4th Ranger Training Battalion website.
“Initially, I was trying to juggle intricacies of being a forward (command sergeant major) in Iraq and setting up systems and ultimately following the physical training program by myself, being self-disciplined,” he said.
There were no shortcuts. Fortenberry followed the Ranger School path as all Ranger candidates do.
“As a CSM, I could have just gone to Ranger School without doing all the pre-qualifications, but my thing was that it was important that I go through every personal and financial sacrifice that every Soldier would go through,” he said.
On a personal level, “I’ve got a daughter and a wife that I would miss,” he said.
“I went through all the pre-Ranger gates,” Fortenberry continued. “At the time, I was in Iraq, and coming back early for Ranger School is about $1,000 a month loss of deployment pay, plus paying for all the kit to go to Ranger School.”
Most Soldiers need to buy additional equipment and uniforms that they were not initially issued.
“I needed to face every hardship of every Soldier that has to go Ranger School,” Fortenberry explained. “I had to get up extra early for five-mile runs, and during battlefield circulation, I would bring my ruck and use every chance I had to prepare. Every spare moment I had was dedicated to training myself.
“I had to be able to look Soldiers in the face, and they had to know that I faced every challenge they did, whether that’s going home and telling your wife ‘I’m about to go to Ranger School’ or sacrificing pay for equipment,” he continued. “The other part of it was, I had to leave three months to conduct every single part of training.”
First Lt. John Lintner, a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear officer with 2-22 Infantry, attended Ranger School during the same cycle as Fortenberry. Lintner said that he was not surprised to learn that Fortenberry had decided to go, nor that he had refused to forego a single pre-qualification.
“In the brief time I knew him before Ranger School, I could tell that he was a man of action,” Lintner said. “He leads from the front in everything he does, and his ability to motivate Soldiers while he does it makes him a rare breed.”
Once at Fort Benning, Ga., the 62-day course begins, and typically, of the 4,000 candidates who attend training yearly, only about 50 percent will graduate with the coveted Ranger Tab.
Ranger School is divided into three phases lasting 19 hours each day, seven days a week. Fortenberry passed every single phase with a first-time go.
Lintner said that it was inspiring to watch Fortenberry as they both progressed through the school.
“Seeing a command sergeant major who was willing to put his body and mind through those challenges just to motivate other Soldiers really says something about who he is,” he said. “Younger Soldiers probably don’t have that much interaction with (their) command sergeant major, but knowing that someone with that drive and determination is making decisions has got to feel good.”
For Fortenberry, the people who inspire him and push him the most every day are his Soldiers and the people who tell him “you aren’t the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
“They had the wherewithal to show me my shortfalls,” he said. “It’s been the NCOs who have the intestinal fortitude to tell you where you aren’t so good and where you can improve. What it ultimately does is (it) humbles you and makes you a better leader.”
As most command sergeants major do, Fortenberry offers advice to Soldiers.
“Stop dipping your toes in the water and jump in. Just go for it,” he said. “Use your sacrifice to inspire others to go through Ranger School, especially as a leader.
“The Ranger School tab is a metaphor for whatever in your life you are scared of achieving,” Fortenberry continued. “Whatever you are scared of, go for it. If that is getting your graduate degree, if it’s going to Airborne School, if it’s Ranger School, whatever the hell it is. You’ll be surprised at the outcome.”