While bartending at a country music joint in Wisconsin, Travis West decided to become a United States Army Ranger. After chatting with a few Vietnam vets, a brief stint in politics, and basic training at Ft. Benning, he was off to Ranger School. Then September 11th happened and Travis’s war began. He continues to support the warfighter in his post-military life as President of the US Army Ranger Association. Here is this week’s #YOUAREGOVX member profile.
On the road to Ranger School.
I would like to say that there was something noble that led me to become a Ranger, but it wouldn’t be true. In my case it was pure chance and circumstance. Although I have a number of relatives who have had service oriented careers, I had very little exposure to the military. Neither of my parents served, and all of my grandparents remained state-side during WWII. I knew very little about the military, let alone the Rangers.
I grew up in a family steeped in community service. My father is a retired police officer and my mother continues to work as a med tech at St. Michaels Hospital in Stevens Point – the small Wisconsin town where I grew up. During my junior year of high school I had an opportunity to serve as a page in the US Senate, which helped to convince me that I wanted to do something meaningful for my community after I graduated. I served on Senator Feingold’s staff starting in 1999. In total I worked in politics for almost five years, but never really found it as fulfilling as I had believed I would back in high school. As I thought about the individuals in history that I admired I recognized that most of them had one thing in common: military service. In 2000 I decided to explore the idea more seriously, shortly after I was off to Ft. Benning for basic training and infantry school.
I was moonlighting as a bartender at a country music bar called the Dry Bean in addition to working at the Senator’s office. During happy hour a handful of Vietnam vets would sit at the end of my bar. When they found out I was thinking about joining the service they opened up to me about their experiences and offered me all sorts of advice. From their chatter I took away two important points: First, the officers that they respected most had typically served as enlisted personnel first. Second, there was this school in the Army called Ranger School, and that it was challenging.
Ranger School was the best, most miserable experience that I am proud to have undertaken but never want to repeat. We had the same challenges as every class—little food, less sleep, impossible time hacks, and more. But we also had an added distraction caused by something that occurred shortly before Ranger School began:
Ranger School was the best, most miserable experience that I am proud to have undertaken but never want to repeat.
In late-August of 2001 I started the pre-Ranger course, intended to ensure that the Regiment was only sending students to Ranger School that it believed had a high likelihood of passing. One of the hallmarks of pre-Ranger was (and still is) the hellish field problem conducted at Cole Range. One day while at Cole Range the instructors were later than usual coming out of the tactical ops center. The lull grew longer, until it caught our attention. The cadre rarely missed an opportunity to cause us stress. Suddenly, we’re were called to gather around a television in the TOC. The attack on the World Trade Center was playing over and over again on every channel. The mood in the course become very serious after that, as we all realized that there was a high likelihood we would be sent off to combat in the very near future.
After graduating from pre-Ranger I had an afternoon off to refit my equipment before reporting to Ranger School the following day. I dug through my wall locker in the squad bay looking for equipment when my squad leader walked in. I gave him a line about how the squad better come get me from school if a deployment came up. He told me they wouldn’t leave me behind, but of course, he had no control over that. The Regiment deployed to Afghanistan a few weeks later without me. This was, at least in part, an effort to keep secret the fact that the Rangers had even deployed. That didn’t stop word from filtering to those of us in Ranger School through the rumor mill. First we heard a rumor that our buddies had all deployed. Then we heard a rumor that they had performed Operation Rhino, which was the first Ranger combat jump since Operation Just Cause in 1999. I still remember the RIs poking fun at the Batt Boys (a common term for Rangers who served in the battalions of the 75th Ranger Regiment) during rappelling training in the mountains phase – if a student performed the exercise correctly the cadre would mark the student’s helmet with chalk; however, if the student was a Batt Boy the cadre would use the chalk to draw a pair of jump wing with a combat star on his helmet instead.
The rumors and teasing from the cadre were irritating, but a few days later I received some very difficult news. My student-platoon was working on drills for clearing vehicles when I was pulled aside by a cadre member. He informed me that team leader, Jonn Edmunds, and one of my fellow platoon-mates, Kris Stonesifer, had been killed in a helicopter accident in Pakistan during Operation Rhino. They were the first two Army casualties during Operation Enduring Freedom.
The news proved to be a significant distraction to me, causing my completion of Ranger School to be slightly delayed. I got my act together though, and graduated in December as part of Class 02-02. A few days prior to my graduation, my unit returned from Afghanistan and my squad leader attended the ceremony. I walked up to him and let him know that I was pissed about being left behind. He was quick to let me know that I would get my chance. We were going to deploy again in a few months.
“Stay off the pavement. And the local militia outnumbers us.”
I deployed twice while a member of 3rd Ranger Battalion. The first time was to Afghanistan during the summer of 2002, and the second time was to Iraq in the summer of 2003. These days the stories I share are generally the light-hearted, humorous ones:
These days the stories I share are generally the light-hearted, humorous ones
One of my favorites happened during my squad’s first mission during the deployment to Afghanistan in 2002. My squad and several attached teams were tasked with securing a parking apron at the Jalalabad airport so that another unit could use the site to transfer personnel and equipment off of helicopters and onto trucks. I was the Bravo team leader, and prior to departing we had been told three important facts: First, the area was supposedly littered with unmarked landmines, so we should avoid stepping off the pavement if possible. Second, higher believed that the local militia that controlled the airport was friendly, but wasn’t really certain. Third, the local militia probably consisted of about two-hundred men.
When our Blackhawks landed my buddy Pat’s team secured the left half of the apron while my team pushed to the right. When I reached the edge of the pavement I saw the reflection of two eyeballs glowing in my optics about twenty-five feet in front of me in some tall grass. I called out to the man in the grass, using both English and some phrases in the local dialect that we’d been taught.
He neither replied nor moved.
I recalled the three pieces of intel we had been told: Don’t step off the pavement; we think they’re friendly, but don’t know; and there’s a lot more of the locals than there were of us. I remember telling Jimmy, our squad leader, that “I have a guy in the bushes. He’s not responding to anything, but I can’t see his hands so I have no idea if he’s a threat or not.” I had been hoping Jimmy may have heard additional information from the antenna farm that came with us on the mission about whether the locals were friendly or not. He apparently hadn’t. Jimmy’s response reflected his confidence in me, but wasn’t particularly helpful: “Assess the situation and do what you have to do.”
I called to the guy one more time, with greater urgency, and he still didn’t move. My thumb moved to the selector switch on my M-4 from safe to fire.
No sooner had the switch clicked, the guy stood up, finished wiping his ass, straightened his robes, and walked away.
Shortly thereafter we made contact with the head of the militia and it turned out that the locals were just fine with us.
Always Leading the Way.
My wife wasn’t very excited about my post-army career choice of lifeguarding by day and bartending by night, so I went to law school.
In 2003, I received a call from my wife while I was in Iraq. She let me know that she had landed an incredible job with Sony back in Wisconsin. I left the army the following summer when my contract ended. My wife wasn’t very excited about my post-army career choice of lifeguarding by day and bartending by night, so I went to law school. I graduated in 2006 and spent the first part of my career doing primarily commercial and business litigation. Although that type of work has its merits and is certainly rewarding in its own way, I wanted to use my skills to give back to the community and that desire has led me down two paths.
First, I began to develop a VA disability benefits law practice in addition to my commercial litigation work. I started by representing veterans before the Court of Appeals for Veterans claims, and have now grown my practice to also include representing veterans before the VA’s Regional Offices and Board of Veterans Appeals. The work has been very rewarding on a personal level. It is extremely satisfying to be able to assist veterans obtain the benefits that they deserve, and to do so for no out-of-pocket fees (at the administrative level) or no cost at all (at the court level) to the veteran.
I have sat at a table for hours listening to a WWII veteran swap stories with a young Ranger who spent time in Iraq.
Second, in 2011 I took a position on the US Army Ranger Association’s board of directors, and ultimately was elected as the Association’s president in the summer of 2014. Over this time I have worked with a number of other great Rangers to help USARA create an international community for Rangers, their families, and their supporters. Although the Association currently operates four major programs, my favorite of these programs is our hosting of regional and local events. USARA divides the United States into seven domestic regions. Each region is responsible for hosting a minimum of two events for Rangers that live within its geographic area. These are often done informally in the form of perhaps a cook out at a local park, dinner at a steak house, or even a happy hour after work. From an outsider’s perspective they often seem like casual social events, much like any group of friends or co-workers might host. Sometimes that’s true. Many times, however, they turn out to be something much more special to the men and their families that attend. I have sat at a table for hours listening to a WWII veteran swap stories with a young Ranger who spent time in Iraq. Similarly, I have seen the catharsis experienced by a Ranger vet who had felt isolated in his home town for over a decade before showing up at one of our events and reconnecting with a community of men who understood his past experiences.
I am firmly convinced of the value and benefits of camaraderie and shared experiences, not only to individuals but to communities as well. I feel very privileged to play a small part in helping to foster that in our Ranger community.