Tab or Scroll: Inside the contentious debate over who’s an Army Ranger

It's settled... Or is it?
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A U.S. Soldier assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment moves across a ridgeline during task force training Jan. 22, 2014, at Fort Hunter Liggett, Calif.

There is no quicker way to stir up controversy among current and former service members, especially Army veterans, than to point to someone with a “Ranger tab” on their uniform and call them an Army Ranger.

(Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional information after publication to reflect that the U.S. Army does not have an official policy on who is officially considered a U.S. Army Ranger. Our follow up to this story can be read here.)

In military circles, this is nothing new and comes up frequently, often where you least expect it, like when the producer’s behind ABC’s The Bachelorette mistakenly published a bio saying one of their contestants was a former Army Ranger.

Well, the debate over who can officially call themselves a Ranger is again back in the news, and this time it’s not on reality television.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is under fire for purportedly misrepresenting his military service after Salon published a profile that took a close look at his credentials as a “battle-tested leader,” something he campaigned on. In addition to raising a few eyebrows about the decision to prominently highlight his award of a Bronze Star Medal (without a “V” device) as part of his combat-creds, the recent article zeroed in on Cotton’s claims that he served as a Ranger.

The story generated immediate and widespread push-back from current and former service members, and even from one of Cotton’s peers, Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), who served in the elite 75th Ranger Regiment.

The debate around Cotton’s “Ranger” status — like so many of these controversies — hinges on the fact that while he graduated Ranger School at Fort Benning, Ga., which is often called being “Ranger tabbed” or “Ranger qualified,” he did not serve in the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, a special operations unit that falls under the purview of the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command.

Serving with the 75th Ranger Regiment is often referred to as being “Ranger scrolled,” a reference to the unit patch worn by members of the regiment.

And so, it’s with this recent news in mind, and with an eye toward future controversies, innocent missteps, errors by way of omission, or flagrant embellishments and outright lies that we here at Task & Purpose decided to reach out to the folks at U.S. Army Special Operations Command and the 75th Ranger Regiment to ask them to settle this for us once and for all.

They did, by the way.

When is someone officially considered an Army Ranger?

Ah yes, the part you’ve all been waiting for. Well, here it is: Currently, you need to have served in the 75th Ranger Regiment to be considered a Ranger, which means you must complete the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program (RASP), which is different from Ranger School.

“Attending the U.S. Army Ranger Course, which falls under U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, makes an individual Ranger qualified,” Tracy A. Bailey, the deputy public affairs officer for 75th Ranger Regiment, told Task & Purpose. “Volunteering and successfully passing the 75th Ranger Regiment’s Ranger Assessment and Selection Program 1 or 2 makes you a U.S. Army Ranger.”

According to Bailey, RASP 1 is an 8-week course that trains privates through sergeants “in the basic skills and tactics required to operate in the 75th Ranger Regiment.”

After completing the course, those soldiers “will have the advanced skills, training, and confidence to be a member of the 75th Ranger Regiment, capable of conducting operations as a member of a Ranger strike force or command element,” Bailey said. 

U.S. Army Rangers assigned to 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, fire off a Carl Gustav 84mm recoilless rifle at a range on Camp Roberts, Calif., Jan 26, 2014. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Rashene Mincy/ Released)

The second assessment, RASP 2, is a 21-day course for staff sergeants and above and all officers volunteering to serve with the 75th Ranger Regiment.

“This course assesses the suitability of mid-and senior grade leaders for assignment to the Regiment and teaches them the operational techniques and standards of the Ranger Regiment,” Bailey said. “This course provides training in the special tactics, equipment, and missions that make the Regiment unique. Upon successful completion of this course, applicants will be assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment.”

Once a soldier has successfully completed RASP 1 or 2 “he or she has then earned the right to bear the scroll and wear the tan beret,” Bailey said.

However, following publication of this story Task & Purpose received a response from Army’s Office of the Chief of Public Affairs stating that the service did not officially have a policy on who is, or is not, considered a Ranger:

“There is no official U.S. Army policy regarding the use of the term ‘Ranger,’” Lt. Col. Gabriel J. Ramirez, a spokesman with Office of the Chief of Public Affairs, told Task & Purpose. “The designation ‘Ranger’ has been associated with Soldiers who either graduated from Ranger School or are assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment.”

‘Tabbed’ vs. ‘scrolled’

Now, let’s discuss the difference between being “tabbed” and “scrolled.”

After a service member has successfully made their way through the 62-day U.S. Army Ranger School at Fort Benning, “they have the right to wear the Ranger tab on their uniform(s),” Bailey said.

While it has “Ranger” in the name, Ranger School is a leadership course that is open “to all members of the military, regardless of whether they have served in the 75th Ranger Regiment or completed RASP,” Bailey added.

Above: An image of the ‘Ranger tab’ received by graduates of the U.S. Army Ranger School at Fort Benning, GA. Below: An image of the ‘Ranger scroll’ worn by members of the 75th Ranger Regiment.

It’s worth noting that while graduating from Ranger School does not make you a Ranger, members of the 75th Ranger Regiment — who are already Rangers — will eventually have the opportunity to attend Ranger School.

“All infantry, field artillery, and Armor military occupational specialties in the ranks of E-6 and above and all officers must have a Ranger tab to apply for RASP 2,” Bailey said. “All other officers do not need a Ranger tab to apply. However, upon completion of RASP 2, at some point during their time at Regiment, those without a Ranger tab will be sent to the U.S. Army Ranger Course and expected to successfully complete the school.”

Alternatively, “one who has served or is currently serving in the 75th Ranger Regiment is considered ‘scrolled,'” Bailey said.

And there you have it: Graduating Ranger school makes you “Ranger qualified” or “Ranger tabbed” and passing RASP and serving with the 75th Ranger Regiment makes you “scrolled.”

How did the debate over who gets to be called a Ranger start?

Now, it’s worth noting that this confusion didn’t always exist, especially during World War II, and in the years immediately after its end, explained Mike Krivdo, the deputy command historian at U.S. Army Special Operations Command.

“The creation of a central Ranger School on Sept. 15, 1950, at Fort Benning had a lot to do with changing the discussion of when an individual became a ‘fully trained’ Ranger,” Krivdo told Task & Purpose.

During World War II, Rangers were trained and qualified as units, Krivdo explained. However, as combat took its toll, replacements who were sent to the units were often trained up by the senior guys prior to going into combat.

“Very little distinction was made between those taught collectively vice those who joined the unit later in the war,” Krivdo said. “There were always plenty of combat actions for them to prove themselves to their peers.”

This began to change during the Korean War, though not all at once. Initially, the training of Rangers went on much as it had in the previous war, with whole units of Rangers going through training collectively, either at the newly created Fort Benning Ranger Training Center or at one of two Ranger Training Centers in Korea or Japan, with the occasional replacement getting schooled up by more experienced members of the unit.

But this all changed dramatically on Oct. 1, 1951 when the Army deactivated its Ranger Infantry Companies (Airborne) in response to the static nature of combat along what would eventually become the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Korea, which didn’t require a maneuverable raiding force.

“The Army nonetheless decided to keep the Ranger Training Center to teach those valuable skills,” Kvrido said.

And on Oct. 10, 1951, the Ranger Training Center transitioned to the Ranger Training Command in order to train individual soldiers — in lieu of whole units — in raiding and reconnaissance so that they could serve as elite infantrymen and bring those skills back to their units so that hardwon knowledge wouldn’t be forgotten.

“Sometime soon after the distinction of having passed the school became the defining mark, as there were — with the exception of some short-lived company units during Vietnam — no Ranger units,” Krivdo said.

And then it changed once more, paving the way to our current situation and the confusion at hand.

With the activation of the 1st Ranger Battalion, on July 1, 1974 at Fort Stewart, Ga., the debate over who gets to call themselves a Ranger began to emerge.

“Members of that unit had to wrestle with the issue of ‘fully qualified,’” Krivdo said. 

Though there was now an official Ranger Battalion, there were likely hundreds if not thousands of other soldiers across the Army who had been trained individually in those same skills, or had served in Ranger companies during the Vietnam War, and were considered fully qualified Rangers in their own right.

“The Ranger School could never provide the throughput to get everyone school trained, particularly when the Rangers grew from one battalion to two, and then to a whole Regiment with three line battalions. With not enough throughput from the school to ensure every member of the unit was school-trained, the focus became ensuring that at least all the leaders met that threshold.”

In conclusion: Having a Ranger tab ≠ a Ranger, at least according to the 75th Ranger Regiment.

“To put all of this another way, the Ranger tab means you graduated a U.S. Army leadership school,” Bailey told Task & Purpose. “Earning the 75th Ranger Regiment scroll is a way of life.”

Update: This article has been updated with a statement from the Army’s Office of the Chief of Public Affairs, stating that the service does not have an official policy regarding who is, or is not, considered a U.S. Army Ranger. Our follow up to this story can be read here.