A handful of airmen are breaking the Air Force's "chair force" stereotype with their appetite to graduate from the Army's elite Ranger school. The latest airman to do so is (drum roll, please) 39 years old.

Chief Master Sgt. William "Ryan" Speck, is the first Air Force chief to graduate the 61-day combat leadership course at Fort Benning, Georgia, according to a recent release.

Speck, who graduated last month, regularly supports Rangers as the U.S. Special Operations Command's J6 operations superintendent running tactical communications. But to better understand his mission, Speck said he needed to be more clued into the hard-ball training that shapes the world's A-list soldiers.

"I felt it was important in my position to gain a better understanding of the dynamics, and experience first-hand what it's like to be a Ranger, so I jumped on the opportunity to go to Ranger School and make my lifelong dream a reality," Speck said in the release.

"At the age of 39, the desire was still strong, but at this stage of my career it wasn't just for the thrill-seeking part that comes with the training, it was more to gain a better understanding of the Ranger mission set."

Even as a former Security Forces member, he said the training almost took him to the breaking pointpoint of no return. Speck started Ranger School weighing 194 pounds, but by graduation weighed 155. 

"I thought the physical piece would be the toughest, but it was more of a mental hurdle for me. The long walks, especially at nighttime, were really challenging," he said.

Speck said his group only slept 15 to 30 minutes a night, hungry. They were burning away "more calories than we were consuming," he said. "Then having to walk seven or 12 kilometers a night in the steep mountains of Dahlonega, Georgia, and the swamps of Florida, carrying a 60- to 90-pound ruck strapped to our backs was really mentally challenging."

Speck was one of only 90 who graduated. The class started out with 360 members. 

But his mindset was that, no matter what  — the Darby Obstacle Course, land navigation course, 5-mile run or the 12-mile ruck — he would "survive today and make tomorrow," he said.

"I learned a lot about myself. I was amazed what my body could do," Speck said. "I'm an older guy and I was praying every day that my body would hold up. I could trick my mind out to make it, but physically I was hoping my body would hold out."

In December, Airman Aaron Inch also joined the elite graduate cadre. Roughly 300 airmen to date have made it through the grueling course. The Air Force has about 40 actively serving Ranger-qualified airmen.

For these airmen, it's not just a checked box. Inch, like Speck, said he hopes his new Ranger tab will help him achieve his goal of becoming a Joint Terminal Attack Controller, or JTAC, with a Ranger battalion.

Speck wants to take this experience back with him to the Air Force.

"As an E-9 with 21 years of service, the leadership piece came naturally for me, but my biggest take away was how to be a better follower," Speck said. "As we all know, it's just as important to be a good follower as it is to be a good leader, and sometimes as senior enlisted leaders, we forget that."

Oriana Pawlyk covers deployments, cyber, Guard/Reserve, uniforms, physical training, crime and operations in the Middle East and Europe for Air Force Times. She was the Early Bird Brief editor in 2015. Email her at opawlyk@airforcetimes.com.

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