FORT HOOD — Among soldiers dressed in Army Combat Uniforms, body armor and helmets, prepared to conduct a live-fire training exercise, Old Ranger stands out.
Wearing a green, Vietnam War-era jacket and pants, a green patrol cap with a Ranger tab on the front and black boots, the pieces are remnants of his nearly 20-year Army career. They’ve been dusted off after two decades of retirement and worn again to do what Old Ranger loves best — help soldiers succeed.
He’s been adopted as part of 1st Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, and can be seen in the field, almost every day, at physical training — where he matches soldiers in a “Tiger Squadron” T-shirt.
Occasionally, a young soldier will challenge Old Ranger. That’s when he challenges them with “Ranger push-ups” — push-ups done in a handstand using just fingertips for support — which he said he can still do. That usually earns their respect, he said.
“You see a guy running, who’s been retired 20 years, that’s motivational right there,” said Spc. Christopher Lake, 36th Engineer Brigade. No one wants to fall behind Old Ranger in formation.
The veteran is more than just a special visitor. He’s become a steady figure for the troopers in Tiger, and for many others in the regiment — someone to talk to, someone to joke with, someone to share accomplishments and setbacks, someone who will just listen.
Or in his words, “I’m just trying to keep their heads screwed on straight.”
Old Ranger, whose real name is James Wright, began hanging out around Tiger Squadron as the unit returned from a deployment to Iraq in 2011. He spends most of his time within the Brave Rifles regiment, but said he does try to get over to the 1st Cavalry Division or the 36th Engineer Brigade at least once a week.
He chose the nickname “Old Ranger,” because it’s easy to remember. When units give him one of their physical training T-shirts, he has the name put somewhere, with “Ranger” written as it is on the tab qualified soldiers wear on the sleeve of their uniform. And he is just that — a 58-year-old, former Airborne Ranger.
He served nearly 20 years in the Army after being drafted out of high school in 1972, but never served in Vietnam. As a sergeant, he attended Officer Commissioning School and was pinned a 2nd lieutenant in 1980.
“When I got here, I focused on just the enlisted, but I realized I could work with all three,” Old Ranger said. Officers and noncommissioned officers seemed to have just as many questions and concerns, so he began sharing his three-time command experience.
“I didn’t realize 40 years ago this would happen and I’d still be using that experience,” he said.
Capt. Garrett Close, Tiger Squadron’s Headquarters and Headquarters Troop commander, described Old Ranger’s mentorship as invaluable. “A lot of soldiers feel the same way. He has something to teach all of us,” he said. “If he sees something messed up, he talks to us about how to fix it.”
Old Ranger retired in 1992 as a major at the former Fort Sheridan, Ill., and for nearly two decades, he said he never set foot on an Army post. One morning he was plowing snow at his home west of Chicago, and asked himself, “Why deal with this?”
In June 2011, he and his wife of 40 years packed up and moved to a warmer climate — Killeen — where he could also take advantage of his retiree benefits. The couple chose to buy a bigger home, in case soldiers needed a place to stay or visit, and the space has been well-used, he said. Most evenings after dinner, soldiers visit, mostly to talk.
Soon after moving, he began attending services at the Spirit of Fort Hood chapel.
“The III Corps chaplain said he wanted to draft me again to teach a singles class,” Old Ranger said.
He liked giving back to young soldiers, so he began going out to physical training and to the dining facility for breakfast.
“I know when their dead time is,” he said. “I run over and see them before 9 o’clock formation.”
Sometimes, during morning formation, the commander will let him give an “old school safety briefing.”
“He brings a little bit of old flavor back to the regiment,” said Brave Rifles’ Command Sgt. Maj. Patrick K. Akuna Jr. “He allows me to see the regiment deeper. He’s not a threat to soldiers.”
Where Akuna said he can’t just sit down and ask a soldier how they are doing, Old Ranger can, and they respond.
Old Ranger said he’s even got his own pass out to dusty training grounds, and the uniform he wears to the field and other events, are the bits he hasn’t already dispersed among his three children. His youngest daughter followed in his footsteps and is currently a sergeant at Fort Belvoir, Va.
Between training and the morning formation, Old Ranger sits in the Roosevelt Dining Facility to join soldiers for breakfast.
Capt. David Hilling, Tiger Squadron’s Bandit Troop commander, said he decided to sit with Old Ranger, just to find out who the old guy was in the dining facility. Now he sits with him nearly every day and enjoys listening to his perspective on the challenges of being in command.
“Soldier problems haven’t changed in the last 20 years. He can tell me what he did,” Hilling said. “I appreciate his generation mentoring another generation.”
But Old Ranger’s day doesn’t end there. He often heads over to ceremonies or other parts of post to visit with leaders and chaplains.
“I’m pulling 10 hours a day and I’m supposed to be retired,” he said. “It’s getting to where there’s not enough time. ... I can only do what I can do, but I have a lot of fun doing it.”
Contact Rose L. Thayer at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7463. Follow her on Twitter at KDHmilitary.