EAST GRANBY, Conn. –
A Connecticut Air National Guard C-130 maintainer recently accomplished a feat only a select few in the military achieve: graduating U.S. Army Ranger School.
Senior Airman Jonathan Petersen, 103rd Maintenance Squadron electrical and environmental systems specialist, was the lone Air National Guardsmen in his graduating class, which completed the course Feb. 5. Three other Airmen from the total force were among his fellow graduates.
“I always wanted to go to Ranger School, even before I joined the military,” said Petersen. “The Air National Guard is one of the more indirect routes to get there, but I did it anyway.”
Petersen was able to attend Ranger School by submitting an application package to a National Guard Bureau panel as part of its annual Enlisted Development Opportunities portfolio. The Air National Guard typically receives five seats per calendar year for Airmen to attend the course, and Airmen of any rank from any career field may apply.
“The hardest part is getting there,” said Petersen, who was selected in 2019 and began Ranger School on Oct. 11, following a standard two-week quarantine upon arrival and a 16-day Ranger Training Assessment Course. “Once you get there, you just have to stay tough.”
According to the U.S. Army, “Ranger School is the Army's toughest course and the premier small unit tactics and leadership school. … For 62 days, Ranger students train to exhaustion, pushing the limits of their minds and bodies.” Students perform training missions such as raids, ambushes and reconnaissance.
Petersen’s background as an aircraft electrician was atypical among a group of students mostly comprised of special operators, including U.S. Army Rangers.
“Some of my classmates’ initial reactions were, ‘What is this guy doing here?’” said Petersen. “But once they realized, ‘Oh, he pulls his weight, he knows what he’s doing, and he’s a contributing member of the platoon,’ we were basically one cohesive unit during the course. By the end of it, it’s really a brotherhood with all of the guys.”
Ranger School comprises three phases: the Benning Phase at Fort Benning, Georgia, the Mountain Phase at Camp Frank D. Merrill near Dahlonega, Georgia, and the Swamp Phase at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, before graduation back at Fort Benning.
“For me, the most difficult phase was Mountain when we were in the Appalachian Mountains. There were days where my rucksack was 120 pounds, and we would walk for hours and hours,” said Petersen. “But there’s a big mental aspect to it – knowing when to switch it off and on. When you’re in that mission mindset, it’s time to go, and everything else just fades away and you complete the mission.”
Maintaining this mindset and a team-driven approach is key to advancing in training, said Petersen.
“At the end of every phase, we peer-evaluate each other, and those evaluations can be the cause of someone getting dropped from the course,” said Petersen. “I saw it happen to other guys that either didn’t pull their weight or didn’t perform when it was time to be a leader.”
These tasks can be especially challenging given the environment trainees operate in, said Petersen.
“There was a four-day stint in the field in which I got a total of 20 minutes of sleep for those four days,” said Petersen. “We ate 2,000 calories a day but burned at least 6,000, so some guys lost as many as 40 pounds.”
By learning leadership skills in a physically and mentally demanding environment, Petersen gained unique knowledge and experience he plans to apply to his career at Bradley Air National Guard Base.
“Since I will be a noncommissioned officer soon, I want to use my leadership and mentorship skills to help younger Airmen in any way that I can,” said Petersen. “I’ve been approached by a few Airmen already that have said, ‘What you did was really cool, can you help me get there?’”
Petersen’s supervisor, Master Sgt. Paul Rathbun, who began his role shortly before Petersen’s departure for Ranger School, said Petersen has set a positive example for everyone in the wing.
“I think it’s an amazing opportunity that needs to be shared to set the stage for everybody to set their own dreams and realize that it’s not just Bradley where they’re going to work,” said Rathbun, 103rd Maintenance Squadron accessories supervisor. “They have an opportunity to attend schools even outside of our service.”
The foundation of that is performing well in your primary job before taking on those additional opportunities, said Rathbun.
“Focus on your primary job, learn it and learn it well, be a subject matter expert, and while doing those tasks, reach out to the mentors you’re looking up to and take a look at what’s out there,” said Rathbun.
Petersen encourages Airmen to pursue their goals and seek mentors who can help guide them. He credited Lt. Col. Neal Byrne, current 103rd Operations Group commander and Petersen’s then-squadron commander in 2019, as well as retired Senior Master Sgt. Tony Dultz as mentors who advocated for his Ranger School attendance.
“Don’t let other people’s ideas or what they consider to be ‘normal’ stop you from doing what you dream to do and stop you from accomplishing something bigger,” said Petersen. “You have to make it through some things to get there, but if you’re willing to put in the effort, the reward is invaluable.”