UW-L alum learns leadership the hard way

Ranger graduation at Victory Pond, Fort Benning, Ga. From left, Church’s father, Colonel David Church, Second Lt. Jason Church and Church’s mother, Barb Church.

Ranger graduation at Victory Pond, Fort Benning, Ga. From left, Church’s father, Colonel David Church, Second Lt. Jason Church and Church’s mother, Barb Church. Jason Church says he grew up with a strong role model — his father — who serves in the military and inspired him to do the same.

UW-L Alum Jason Church will be deployed to Afghanistan in April. It’s his first military deployment, but the 22-year-old officer is already considered an elite member of the U.S. Army.

Church, 22, is an Army Ranger. It’s a title he earned after graduating in December from Army Ranger School, the most physically and mentally demanding leadership school the U.S. Army offers. Only one percent of all soldiers go through ranger school and pass.

“It’s designed to stress you on every level imaginable — physically, mentally and spiritually — to teach leadership,” says Lt. Colonel Mark Johnson, who heads UW-La Crosse’s ROTC program.

It’s so stressful that only about 50 percent of those who attempt ranger school finish. Some have even died trying.

The challenge of Ranger School didn’t deter Church. He started in September 2011 after graduating from UW-L in May with a political science major and being commissioned an Army officer from UW-L’s Army ROTC program. Church drew from his background working hard physically as a fullback on UW-L’s football team and studying late into the night as a dedicated student.

In ranger school, based in Fort Benning, Ga., he spent 80 days working through simulated casualties and combat zones. With an 80-pound pack strapped on his back, he moved nearly 20 hours a day whether climbing Georgia mountain ranges or sloshing through Florida swamps. Despite the physical demands, he was only allowed 2,000 calories a day and 2-3 hours of sleep each night.

The best part of Ranger school was finishing, he says.

“There really weren’t that many great times,” he says. “Great times were getting fed and getting to sleep — to be honest with you.”

Church says the challenge of ranger school is not just being physically exhausted and deprived of sleep and food. It’s being in that stressful situation and having to lead others. He recalls leading a platoon of 40 men during mountain phase in northern Georgia. In the scenario, they were ambushed in the middle of the night and had to carry the injured person on a stretcher up hill. Besides lifting 230 pounds of dead weight, the group was walking through thick brush in the rain. Church describes it as miserable, but he said it didn’t cross his mind to quit. He was focused on how he could inspire the platoon to keep going.

 Lt. Colonel Mark Johnson, who heads UW-La Crosse’s ROTC program.

Lt. Colonel Mark Johnson, who heads UW-La Crosse’s ROTC program.

“A certain part of Ranger school is teaching students how much they can actually endure,” says Johnson who graduated ranger school in the 1980s. “I came out of it realizing I could accomplish a lot more than I thought I could.”

He says over his 25-year-career in the Army, he has never encountered the level of physical challenge he did in ranger school. But it prepared him for the heavy level of stress — physical and mental — in combat.

Church graduated Ranger school in December. He’ll wear a Ranger Tab on the left shoulder of his uniform when he leaves for Afghanistan. The Tab earns him a certain level of respect, says Johnson. People who wear it are “expected to be a very demanding and exacting leader,” he notes.

The experience helped Church see more clearly who he is and what he is capable of, physically and mentally. And it pushes him to be even more.

“It serves to remind me of the standard I have to uphold,” says Church.

UW-L’s ROTC program

The Reserve Officer Training Corps program at UW-L offers students the opportunity to develop leadership traits for success in both the military and civilian sectors. Students learn firsthand what it means to lead and manage; gain keen analytical skills; use short-and long range planning techniques; and learn interpersonal management skills.

Students from a wide variety of academic majors participate in ROTC, from information management, business, and finance to biology, exercise science, and education.

Learn more about the Army ROTC.