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When Spc. Bridger Van Ness asked his mother to pin his Ranger tab during his graduation ceremony Friday, it signified the beginning of a new career and possibilities for future Infantry Soldiers to enter Ranger School through a new training initiative.
Van Ness, of Wasilla, Alaska, was the first Soldier to go from one station unit training to Ranger School, a feat he said was a challenging and rewarding experience.
"It feels surreal," he said. "I wanted to do this because of the training and to do missions that every Soldier wants to accomplish."
Col. Bill Butler, deputy commandant for the U.S. Army Infantry School, said the Infantry School started an initiative to add more Rangers into the force, especially in brigade combat teams.
"Our brigade combat teams are only manned at 20 percent of all the Ranger requirements and the greatest shortage on Ranger requirements is at the sergeant level and below," he said. "That has been an issue since the war started in 2001 and something we've been trying to address to mitigate the requirement and the need."
The program will allow Van Ness and future Soldiers to select the duty stations of their choice throughout the Army wherever there is a brigade combat team, Butler said.
"He set a very high bar, so hopefully he will be able to motivate some of his peers when he shows up and tells them the only formal training he had was one station unit training," he said. It's challenging, but it is something that anyone can do if they put their mind to it."
Van Ness, 23, graduated from Norwich University in Northfield, Vt., in May 2013 with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. He joined the Army on Oct. 1 and completed one station unit training in January. During his training, Van Ness was approached to be a test subject for the pilot program.
"As he went through OSUT, his chain of command identified stellar performers' abilities to accomplish the task based on physical fitness and their intellectual capability and maturity," Butler said. "He was a star performer and exceeded all of the course standards."
Van Ness said he was sent to pre-Ranger School after completing basic training, which helped him to make it through the Ranger School on the first try.
"I thought that I would possibly have to do another phase over but I made it straight through with the help of great peers and training," he said. "I hope it's a big step for the Army in getting this program approved."
Butler said the 198th Infantry Brigade will continue to identify individuals who exceed course standards and show maturity and the physical and intellectual capacities to complete Ranger School. Using Van Ness' experience will also help to identify potential challenges Soldiers may face.
"Not everyone is going to be able to come right off the street, join the Army, finish OSUT and go right into the Ranger course, so you have to select the right individuals to succeed," Butler said. "If we can identify five guys per company that's great and even better if we have more. We want to get Rangers out to the brigade combat teams so they can adhere to standards and set a great example for their peers. We want to set as many people up for success as possible."
Preparing for his next duty station in Italy, Van Ness said he hopes to advance his education and use his knowledge from Ranger School to train future Soldiers and help improve the program.
"If a young Soldier has the right mindset, he could definitely accomplish this," Van Ness said. "I think the Army has the potential to make this program a big hit ... it could be a huge success."