FORT BENNING, Ga. (Christian Examiner) – Never tell Capt. Ryan Mortensen he can't do something.
The 41-year-old is one of 1,600 chaplains in the U.S. Army and now one of only 20 who are graduates of the prestigious Army Ranger School at Fort Benning, Georgia, the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer has reported.
Mortensen is twice the age of most soldiers who cycle through the school, but his persistence helped him overcome its daunting challenges – many of them caused by his own lack of experience.
Although he's been in the service for nearly a decade, he'd never carried a weapon or worked with a compass and map before attending the school (both of which are key skills needed to graduate).
After his graduation, Mortensen called winning the Ranger tab to wear on his uniform "a small miracle."
"God plants things in our hearts and when that desire starts to grow, you share it with people," Mortensen said. "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."
Mortensen joined the Army Reserves while serving as a school teacher in Saipan, 120 miles north of Guam. While he was there, he earned his master of divinity degree from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary (now Liberty's Rawlings Divinity School).
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"A chaplain came out there and started recruiting, and I thought that was a nice little miracle from God," Mortensen told the paper. "I thought that is exactly what I want to do."
Before long, Mortensen and his wife, Erin, along with their three children – Elijah, 12, Micah, 10, and Isabella, 7 – were in Hawaii. He was stationed at the Army's Schofield Barracks. There, he came into contact with soldiers wearing the Ranger tab just above their unit shoulder patch. He started asking questions.
"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."
That was two years ago.
After fighting for permission to carry a weapon – which chaplains don't normally do, even in training – he was allowed to enroll in the school. His commander, Lt. Col. Daniel Blackmon, also a Ranger, was a strong supporter.
Blackmon, who completed Ranger training in 2002 and now commands the 2nd Battalion, 11th Field Artillery Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, said he wasn't sure Mortensen could cut it.
"I wanted him to go, but the number one 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."
But Mortensen passed the physical training course for Ranger School in Hawaii and sailed through the physical assessment during the first week of the school in Georgia. Despite some setbacks – he failed the land navigation component twice (before a Lithuanian soldier coached him through it) and was recycled through the mountain phase once in North Georgia – Mortensen eventually found his way through the first phases of training.
He headed out to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, home of the Ranger School's "swamp phase." The final phase of training wasn't any easier though.
Asked if he ever wanted to quit, Mortensen said:
"No, but did I ever pray that God would let me have an accident, break a foot and go home honorably? Yeah."
After two weeks in the swamp, Mortensen got the word that he needed to head to Fort Benning, Ga. He had a graduation ceremony to attend. His first call, deep into the night in Florida, was to his family in Hawaii.
His oldest son, Elijah, answered the phone.
"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."
Blackmon, who attended Mortensen's graduation at the end of September, said the new Ranger chaplain will likely be in high demand as one of the Army's elite chaplains. He said he believes the Ranger Community, Special Operations Command, or perhaps Special Forces (the famed Green Berets) will "come looking for him."
"I knew that going in, but this is an investment in the Army," Blackmon said.