What I Learned at Ranger School Helped Me Through a Mental Health Crisis


After graduating from West Point and the Basic Engineer Officer Course in 1979, along with over a hundred classmates, I volunteered for the Army Ranger School, which is recognized as the toughest and toughest leadership school in the Army – if not the entire US Army. It is a 9-week school, jokingly known in the military as the ultimate “suck fest”, which pushes students beyond their mental, physical and emotional limits. Significant sleep and food deprivation are integral to this grueling experience in small unit, commando training, tactics and operations.

During our Ranger class, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The Ranger Instructors, or RIs, rounded everyone up and told us the course was canceled and we would all return immediately to our assigned units for deployment and the war with the Soviet Union. We had loaded trucks to begin returning to home stations when the RIs canceled their false alarm. But the message was clear: this training is for real war, and its lessons for real combat. Pay attention to details, work hard, take care of your buddy, be a team player – training Rangers may very well save your life and be the difference between victory and defeat on the battlefield.

After that dramatic lesson in the cold, dark Georgia woods, we unloaded the trucks and began our training again, with a grim new sense of the harsh reality of the world we lived in and would soon lead the Americans into. soldiers. Probably the biggest relief – even more so than not going to actual war and potential death – was that we wouldn’t have to cut short our Ranger training and start over later, jeopardizing all of our course achievements. current. Above all, each of us was hungry to earn the coveted Black and Gold Army Rangers tab. We would forever be allowed to wear this little piece of “magic cloth” on our uniforms, instantly earning the respect and credibility of our subordinates, peers, and superiors.

The RIs zeroed in on me for my unusually upbeat attitude. The IRs were a little harder on me, because Ranger School isn’t supposed to be fun or enjoyed. It’s supposed to suck – totally – what he did. In addition to coming out of the abyss of my infernal bipolar crisis, Ranger School was the most physically and mentally difficult experience of my life, but I loved it. My team of 12 Rangers also developed a dynamic and positive attitude which enabled us to overcome all obstacles with enthusiasm as a team. Unexpectedly, some of us really enjoyed it, at least once in a while.

An unforgettable memory is climbing a long, steep ridge in the Appalachians of northern Georgia, in total darkness and freezing cold, trudging through snow and ice, deprived of sleep and food, carrying nearly 100 pounds of combat gear. Like many of my fellow Rangers, I slipped into a state of exhausted delirium and soon found myself floating above the column of Rangers, looking down on them as they plodded forward. I saw myself down there and, like in a cartoon, I had bubbles coming out of my head, which formed into a cloud just above me. Inside the cloud was a large hot plate of spaghetti and meatballs, with parmesan cheese, golden garlic bread and a mug of frosty draft beer with a perfect head. I could not only see the meal, but I could also smell and taste it. Years later in my career in the military, while manic in Iraq and Washington, D.C., I also had out-of-body hallucinations where I was floating above and looking up and down at myself. action, part of my bipolar psychosis.

I now know that in addition to my exceptional physical conditioning, my mental preparation, my will and the strength of camaraderie provided by fighting and suffering through hardships with my group of brothers in the army, a great Part of my success and exceptionally positive attitude during the extreme challenge and grueling nature of Ranger School was my underlying mental state of hyperthymia, a kind of “pre-bipolar” or “sub-bipolar” disorder. Completely unknown to me, my hyperthymia elevated my performance for decades, until it turned into bipolar disorder at age 47, which marked the beginning of the end of my career in the military.

Hyperthymia is a nearly continuous state of mild mania (not to be confused with hypomania, which is characterized by episodic instances of mild but not continuous mania). Below the threshold for mental illness, hyperthymia causes the brain to produce excessive amounts of dopamine and endorphins, the natural chemicals that provide the recipient with higher than normal levels of energy, drive, enthusiasm, positivity, happiness, optimism, etc. If it elevates performance and amplifies natural talent, it also puts the person at a higher than average risk of full-blown depression or maniaie when people tend towards the bipolar disorder label, basically what happened to me.

My hyperthymia rose steadily for decades, getting closer and closer to mania, until my brain finally tipped into mania and bipolar disorder during the war in Iraq. This is where the intense stress of leading a brigade of thousands of soldiers into battle triggered my genetic predisposition for bipolar.

After going through “bipolar hell” in my 50s and early 60s, I have now been healed, healthy and happy for over five years. Lithium and medicine have been essential, as well as the foundation of life and the help of the “3P– People (positive relationships with my wife, family, friends, and co-workers), Place (moving to and living in wonderful Cocoa Beach, Florida), and dedicating myself to a meaningful purpose (my life purpose is to sharing my bipolar story to help stop the stigma and save lives.) With this, combined with the expert and compassionate medical care of my Veterans Administration care team, I recovered and rebuilt my bipolar broken life.

The Rangers spirit of ’embracing the bullshit’, never giving up and pursuing to the goal, has been key to my recovery and building a new life full of meaning and purpose. In fact, when asked why – like so many wives – she didn’t leave me during our years of bipolar hell, my wife replied that it was because I never gave up and that I was still trying to recover. I believe Ranger School had something to do with it!

With the healing, my pre-bipolar mood, personality, and hyperthymia returned. I am again energetic, enthusiastic, positive, driven and outgoing. Now, with the help of the right meds like lithium, and based on the ‘3 Ps’, I’m trying to keep it that way. I must continue to effectively fight and manage my “eternal war” against mental illness.

Rangers lead the way!! A strong army!! Whoah!

Gregg F. Martin is a 36-year-old Army veteran, retired two-star general, and bipolar survivor. A former president of the National Defense University, he is a trained Airborne Ranger engineer and strategist, who has commanded soldiers in combat. A graduate of West Point, MIT, and Army and Navy war colleges, he is a full-time mental health advocate. He lives with his wife in Cocoa Beach, Florida. His forthcoming book is titled: “Bipolar General: my ‘forever war’ with mental disease.

These views are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense or the US government.

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