Some families are born in the loving care of two parents, and some are built through friendships in college or work. Still others are born out of shared hardship — the military, for example, often uses the word “brotherhood” to describe the bond shared between service members. Brothers and sisters not by blood born, but by blood shed.
Among the U.S. armed forces, few are closer to one another than the units who work in the world’s most harrowing environments. U.S. Army Rangers of the 75th Ranger Regiment (sometimes known as “Batt Boys”) execute some of the most dangerous missions in the world. They work outside the protective umbrella of the larger, conventional military, behind enemy lines with little more than the men at their sides.
It’s understandable that, after their selection process, grueling yearly training, and multiple deployments, these Rangers would grow into family.
Rangers come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some hail from wealthy families with empires in their grasp, others come from poor families who are constantly scraping for their next meal. Some come from no families at all.
There are a number of foster children who have found a home among the Army’s three Ranger battalions. Some of them were only able to shape their definition of a family after finally donning their tan beret and assimilating as a Batt Boy.
The abuse suffered by Curtis Albers started prior to his experience in foster care at the age of six. “My mother would leave me and my siblings in a locked two bedroom apartment while she went out in search of drugs and alcohol,” he said. “My upbringing was filled with starvation, isolation, and loneliness. I did not have a father, and I would not see my mother for days, sometimes weeks at a time. I had to survive by rummaging through garbage cans for food.”
His transition into the foster system did not offer a reprieve. He was neglected, forced to live in a backyard shed during a Minnesota winter, made to lick a toilet clean, and fed rotten bananas — the list is extensive. After years of this, Albers knew he would be homeless upon his 18th birthday. His foster parents were ready to get rid of him as soon as they could, and “I realized I had nowhere else to go.”
So he joined the Army.
The drill sergeants in basic training “were the first people to believe in me,” Albers said, and they pushed him to go through the rigorous selection process to become an Army Ranger. He went on to pass Airborne School and the Ranger Indoctrination Program (RIP); in 2004, he was assigned to the 3rd Ranger Battalion.
While Albers excelled in the military, the effects of his childhood abuse still followed him every step of the way. On top of his diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Albers was denied the opportunity to learn things that most children learn early in life. However, his fellow Rangers swiftly identified and addressed those problems.
“Brushing my teeth correctly wasn’t something I learned how to do until my team leader showed me in Iraq years later,” Albers said. “After my squad leader found out that I had been severely abused in foster care, they started teaching me how to do that kind of stuff. They even taught me how to tie my shoes like everyone else does.”
“‘Family’ was always something I didn’t have,” he continued. “I heard people talk about it and I saw it on television, but what I was seeing was nothing like my own experiences. After being in Battalion for a year, the squad became the only family I had ever known. The idea of family was no longer a dream for me but honestly became something real and tangible. I didn’t have to spend the holidays alone — my squad invited me into their own homes and treated me like family.”
After separating from the military, Albers took these newfound ideas of family and applied them to his civilian life. He married a German woman and now travels across Europe with her and their daughter.
Christopher Gathercole’s childhood was spent with his older brother, Edward, drifting from foster home to foster home, rife with neglect, undernourishment, violence, and abuse of all kinds to include molestation and drug-entrenched environments. All before Christopher was in kindergarten.
As the brothers grew older, they began to spiral out of control. Edward was homeless at 18; Christopher was involved with gangs and other illicit activities. “In as few words as possible, he joined the military for the structure, security, and stability,” Edward said. “He saw the struggles I was enduring with homelessness and lack of support without family.”
When he became a Ranger, Christopher began to realize what a family was.
“His longing [to connect to his biological family] became more expressed when he would come over to visit while enlisted,” Edward said. “He would want to connect with estranged family and build on those bonds. This didn’t really exist in a positive light before his enlistment. The bonds he was making in the military encouraged him to fortify his bonds back home — I directly experienced this as I saw a side of care and concern from my brother that I didn’t have anywhere else in life, and that grew as he became a Ranger.”
As Christopher developed these feelings about family and the importance of his brother, he also began to relate more to those who were deploying alongside him.
“After his first deployment in 2nd Batt, we grew closer but also more distant,” Edward said. “He was going through things that he couldn’t readily express to me, so his connections to his Ranger brothers was crucial and necessary. Joel ‘Rudy’ Rodriguez would often come down on leave with Chris and is like a brother to me, just as many other Ranger brothers are.”
When Christopher was killed in action on May 26, 2008 — Memorial Day — Edward realized that Christopher’s newfound family now extended to him. He was a Gold Star brother, and therefore a new brother to every Ranger who served with Christopher.
“The brothers made it feel like we were family, and that continues to be reinforced,” Edward said. “No matter the time or distance, there are brothers I can call who would drop everything for me. In his passing, I felt more support and connection to his Ranger family than biological family that really wasn’t in the picture.”
Ryan Mimna’s parents suffered from substance abuse. When that relationship continued to spiral downward, he and his brother were thrust into the American foster system.
Mimna described those years as a struggle with a profound sense of “loneliness and uncertainty.” Some of his earliest memories are of leaving his birth mother for the last time and the doomed nights filled with tears while he nervously flattened the wrinkles on his sheets.
When he was 8 or 9, Mimna was finally adopted and lived the rest of his childhood in New Jersey with his adoptive family.
Still, due to his tumultuous upbringing, he struggled with the idea of family. “I was rather aloof to such ideas of the world,” he said of his time in foster care. “I had my one brother that I went through foster care with, and I would see my birth family on the holidays. So family was a bit of a fractured concept to me at that time — I had my brother and, to be honest, was aloof as I could be to the rest.”
When he joined the 75th Ranger Regiment, Mimna began to find deliberate value in his actions. “It was the most significant accomplishment I had achieved in my life at that point,” he said. “It has been the one I am most proud of thus far. Even though I was teased relentlessly, often due to my sometimes own socially awkward graces, the nature of selection creates this very odd family dynamic within the battalion.”
Like Albers, the concept of family was hammered home during the holidays. Before Mimna’s second deployment to Afghanistan, there wasn’t enough time for their command to allow them to return home for Christmas. “A Ranger’s parents were down visiting their son, and they hosted all of us for Christmas,” Mimna said. “It was one of the loveliest brunches I have ever been to, and where I learned about bottomless mimosas. I spent many holidays away from home, but it was my Ranger buddies and their families who took me in.”
He credits the Rangers for redefining his concept of family. “Those friendships have followed me through life as I have confronted my own demons about my ideas of family,” he said. “One of my goals transitioning out of the military was to confront some of my other personal demons — I wouldn’t have even been able to put up a fight without my Ranger buddies. When you’re doing something scary, it is good to know that someone has your back.”