First Published October 2021
Is ULTIMATE HELL WEEK the best show on Irish television right now? The answer to that question isn’t simply a resounding YES, it’s yes by a hell of a way. And one man who plays a major role in making this possible is DS RAY GOGGINS, the Chief Instructor on the hit show. But the Corkman isn’t just a presenter brought in to front the show, far from it.
With more than a quarter of a century’s service to his credit in the Irish Army, and seventeen of those years spent in the Army Ranger Wing (ARW) as both an operator and leader in a Tier 1 Special Operations Unit, Goggins is the kinda guy that Hollywood’s biggest male stars would fight over to play in the movies. The big difference between them all, of course, is that when RANGER 22 – his number in the ARW – served in war-zones around the world or operated as a bodyguard in Europe, Eurasia, the Middle East and Afghanistan, the dangers he faced on an hourly basis – and sometimes minute by minute – were all too real.
While situations like those leave little room for error or re-takes if the lighting isn’t just right, they’re definitely the kind of experiences that teach you a thing or ten along the way. And, given that the wisdom gleaned from all of those trials and tests can be applied just as much to everyday life, sports, business, and even politics, they also provide a unique insight that’s worth sharing. That being so, Goggins has gathered it all together to tell the story of his life in RANGER 22: LESSONS FROM THE FRONT, published by Gill Books.
Mark my words, this is a contender for book of the year and will top many’s a Top Ten list come the year’s end. Whatever you do in life, this book will help you to do it better. That’s just a fact. And, it’ll make you laugh along the way too, because that famous Cork sense of humour doesn’t just disappear when you sign-up to serve your country, ya know. If anything, it just dries out a little bit more and attains an even sharper edge at the same time. And lucky for us, because that helps to make books and TV shows all the more entertaining!
With the nation glued to their TV sets for Ultimate Hell Week every Wednesday night, I had the pleasure of spending some time in conversation with the man leading the DS as they prove to celebrities like Ryan Andrews, Laura Nolan, Peter Stringer, and Rory O’ Connor that hell can, in fact, be a very real, wet, and cold place on Earth.
Something I picked up on early on in reading Ranger 22 is that there are many attributes a Ranger needs that most people probably wouldn’t think of straight away. Two that really stood out were a sense of calm and a sense of humour. At the end of Ranger 22, Ray lists a few more of the qualities that have become constants in his own life, so I asked him to tell me a little bit about another one of those – of his own choosing – that people might be surprised would be important to being a good Ranger.
“Yeah, look, I guess the calm one is kind of straight-forward, and the humour, they’re huge in anything you do in your life. I suppose…I’m trying to stay away from resilience, integrity, people would associate all those [with being a Ranger]…I suppose empathy is one that people mightn’t realise is a huge part of it. Not even just when you’re training guys, or when you’re training yourself, but on operations and missions you need to have a cognitive empathy as to what’s going on, but for yourself and outside of what you’re doing, so your teammates and even people you’re dealing with, like villagers, or people who are under a lot of pressure and so on. They could be starving, they could be in awful conditions altogether, and you need to be able to understand that. It’s a hard kind of game to play, because you have to be able to know when to step in, and when not. It’s easier with your team guys, to be able to do that, to be able to read them. So if a guy needs a helping hand, you can give it to him. So I think empathy is a big one there.”
Is there ever a fear or a doubt that a quality like empathy might be seen as a weakness, or become a chink in the armour, so to speak?
“No. Empathy and kindness are incredibly important in special operations. I know for a fact that through the years where I got a helping hand from somebody when I badly needed it, I never judged that as being a weakness. Yeah, I get what you’re saying, some people might misconstrue kindness for weakness, but a switched-on person won’t. They’ll realise that you’re putting your hand out for a reason, and it’s to help them out. It doesn’t have to be a huge input, it could be something very simple. You could just give someone a minute or two of your time. Or, give them the right word, or the right direction, and that means then that they’ll do something better and work harder at it.”
And might empathy ever be seen as a weakness by anyone outside of the team who you might be dealing with?
“It depends. Some people, because of their own failings, maybe. But you’ll find that people who won’t give empathy, or don’t use empathy, are usually weak, and not very good at what they do anyway because they can’t relate to other people. I think personally, from my experience of being in special operations for nearly twenty years, you’d see guys being empathic in all kinds of ways, on a daily basis. And it can be just the smallest little thing, like pulling a fellow up off the ground, or giving a fella a kind word, or just stepping into a situation for thirty seconds but that means that situation completely changes. That person that you’re stepping in to help, you’re basically taking the pressure off them for that thirty seconds, and that could mean the difference in them being able to carry on for another twenty-four hours or forty-eight hours, or a week or whatever it is. because you made that small little gesture.”
Back around January 2019, I didn’t listen to my gut-instinct on something, and it ended up costing me, both in a business and a personal sense. While I may have thought that was a disaster for me at the time, where it rates on a scale of actual life-or-death problems is brought into sharp focus by the fact that at that exact same time, Ray was being blown-up in a suicide bomb attack on the compound where he was stationed in Afghanistan. But when it comes to something like gut-instinct, is there any place for that in the Rangers, given that training for the ARW is so intensive, so comprehensive, and almost always on-going?
“It’s a good question. You have the processes and procedures that are trained into you, so it is second nature, and when you do make that decision to flip the switch you carry out whatever you need to do very quickly. But your gut has a role to play, as in what scenario you carry out or where you go from a situation. Do you defuse it by being less aggressive? Or do you make that call to be completely aggressive and end the situation by violence, or whatever it is you’re doing. Gut has an awful lot to do with it. And experience only can teach you that. It’s all well and good to have these drills and routines that you slot into, but you have to KNOW then what drill to slot into and when to do it. It’s like that knowledge and wisdom piece. Knowledge comes from the book, but wisdom comes from the experience.”
I mentioned in my last question how Ranger training always seems to be ongoing. And in the book, Ray talks about doing a diver course, followed soon after by a recon course, a perfect example of how Ray and the Rangers constantly challenge and transform themselves. In life away from the AWR, has he found ways to continue to challenge and transform himself, I wondered – his book, Ranger 22, being one, of course – but are there others apart from that?
“Yeah, so the book and the show are two of those things. I have a training business now as well, that I started this year. I wanted to do something different. I had still been involved in security and bodyguarding to a certain extent up to last year, but I decided to do something new. Well, it’s not new, I’ve been training people all my career, I guess, but I wanted to do it on my own and step out into that world. I always find that if you’re learning something new, or you’re doing something new, it’s always good to challenge yourself. If you’re sitting on your arse scratching it, you’re learning nothing. You always have to test yourself a little bit. And whether that means stepping into a new type of career or just edging towards something a bit different, it’s really important. It just keeps you going, keeps you effective, keeps you happy. And it keeps you alive too. There are three things I try to feed every day of my life. I feed my body by training, [looking after my] health, and so on. I feed my mind by learning new things, new challenges. And the most important, is to feed your soul, doing stuff that really makes you happy on the inside. Sometimes I get to do all three together in one event. Other times I don’t. But I try to focus on those three things every day. Not just once a week or once a month. Every day.”
You’ll often hear about professional footballers who come to the end of glittering careers but, while still relatively young, end up needing hip or knee replacements because of what they’ve put their bodies through. Ray mentions in his book that he eventually had to have laser surgery on both knees, because they had never been right since back when he went through the ARW selection process. So what kind of shape is his body in now, after so many years of testing it to so many different extremes?
“It’s actually pretty good, I still train away. I’m fifty now, I turned fifty this year, and I do a couple of 10ks a week. I have my own gym here out the back of the house, that’s where I train. But yeah, there is a lot of punishment on the body, on the knees and back in particular from the lifestyle I’ve chosen. But I’m probably fitter…actually no, I am fitter than most of my peers my age. I have no serious injuries that have incapacited me. I’m probably operating at about 95% of my best, I’d say, at the moment. I’ll take that.”
Does Ray have any fear that his desire to, or his willingness to train, might wane as the years go by?
“No. There’s a saying I heard once, about [training] keeping the old man away! And that’s what I’ll be doing! You’re only as young as you feel. And there’s no reason why I can’t be physically fit up until the day I die. There’s no reason why not.”
Mindset, which is what Ray was talking about there really, is so often mentioned as being vital to everything, both in Ranger 22 and on Ultimate Hell Week. In one promo for the show, Ray is heard declaring to the recruits not long after the course has begun, that the DS will be “in your souls in one hour!” Darran O’ Sullivan, the Kerry All-Ireland winner, said in an interview that it only took them about eight minutes to get into his! However, because of the way that training can break people down but then build them back up again with a greater sense of self – and, a clearer sense of something bigger than just the self, the team in the case of the show – would Ray think that there might be a place for something like this – or even some kind of national service, maybe – in Irish life in general, or in our justice system?
“So you’re saying some sort of penal, hard-labour thing, or something like that, something along those lines?”
Not so much in a punishment kind of way…
“More in a building way? And even as a national service for young guys to go in and do eighteen months? Well, again, look…that’s a kind of a grey area. I used to think that it would be a good idea to do that for guys and girls, eighteen to twenty-one, do national service for a year. But you won’t get that special forces training for people who are conscripts or have to do a year, a year and a half in the military. What you’d get is regular army training, which is pretty good, but to be fair, it’s not at the level that special ops is. It would be very hard to manage that, and expect people to go through that type of training in a year and a half. But look, there probably is scope for a version of it maybe, something that could even be done in secondary school, training days, teams. A lot of the facets of it that are very applicable to normal people. There’s a lot of what I do in my corporate work and with teams, where I bring in some of the mindset of teamwork and effectiveness training that I’ve learned, and I can bring that across to people in the private sector. Not like a Hell Week type of event, but some of the mindset of it. But it’s not as effective. If you get someone stripped down to their bare soul, you can put so much more information into them then where it’s better for them to build.”
In the ARW Ray and his colleagues would spend so much of their lives operating – so living, in other words – at such a high level of intensity. Now, I know from sport or music events that it can take a few hours to come down from the adrenaline of an event or a gig, and yet none of those things would even come close to comparing to the levels of intensity Ray would be used to experiencing. How does he go from being so switched on to being able to switch off in a short time? Is it just a process that he has to go through like the rest of us?
“It’s one of the side-effects of the training. You have to get yourself in a position where you can go from zero to one-hundred miles an hour instantly. This is why when you sleep on an operation, you sleep with all your kit on. When you get up you’re ready to fight straight away. On the show, the DS staff, we can take it from being super-calm to being super-aggressive within seconds. But that doesn’t mean that we lose control. It’s all controlled aggression. You bring it up to a level where you’re controlling it, it’s not controlling you. And you can bring it back down as quick. It’s quite similar in operations then, you can step up to be in that mindset quite quickly, and you can step down quickly as well. Now, it doesn’t always work, but it will work most of the time.”
From reading Ranger 22, and other interviews that Ray has done, as well as watching UltimateHell Week and chatting to a good mutual friend of ours, there’s a part of me that sometimes feels a little bit jealous of the adventure, the excitement, and the challenges that Ray has known in his life. Or, perhaps a better way of putting it is that maybe I regret not trying more different things along the way myself. But has Ray ever regretted joining the Army over the years? Is there any other profession that curiosity would draw him in the direction of if he could try it for a day or a week?
“I think I’d like to have been an ice-cream man or something like that if I hadn’t been in the army [laughs]. No, I’ll tell ya, I never for one second regretted joining the army, even in the really bad days or when things when absolutely pear-shaped, when your body and your brain are sayin’, ‘What are ya doin’ here?!’ I always had the answer for my brain. This is why I’m here, because it was something I always wanted to do. I know I’m doing different stuff now, but that’s still all based on what I learned and what I did as a soldier. It’s all the same. I’m still doing the same thing I was doing thirty years ago really. I’m just doing it in a kind of instruction mode now, and there’s more eyeballs on it compared to what I used to have. No, I have no regrets. I couldn’t even contemplate being in another job, to be honest. I know I have a training company now, and I’m doing this kind of stuff, but I’m still in instructor and army mode when I go and meet people. It’s the same thing.”
I’m lucky enough to be speaking with both Ultimate Hell Week recruit Number 1 Laura Nolan, and Number 18 Ryan Andrews in the coming weeks as well. Having interviewed them both before, I wasn’t in the least bit surprised to see how well both have been doing on the show so far. Some recruits on Ultimate HellWeek can probably surprise the DS by eventually revealing a resolve that may not have been apparent straight away. But what I wanted to know was are there any little signs or ‘tells’ that usually let the DS know straight away – or very early on – if someone definitely doesn’t have what it takes?
“I’ve had this question before, and as long as I’ve been doing this show, and even running the real military courses, yeah, you might get a vision of someone on the first night or first day, good or bad, but bar someone being absolutely completely out of control and flapping so much that they can’t even make a decision…those are obvious signs of someone who probably isn’t going to last too long, unless they learn to control it. But in general, I find that it’s very hard to pick up on anything, unless there’s a blatantly obvious sign with someone in the first twenty-four hours, someone breaking down or not being able to cope immediately, that’s a red-flag. You’ll see those. But other than that, it’s quite difficult. I’ve heard other people talking, saying they can do it, but I’ve never seen anyone who could, realistically. You might have an idea about someone in your head, but that’s the whole beauty of the process. Someone might be completely on their belt-buckle and weak, but then four hours later they’re the best candidate in the group because of a particular thing you’re doing, or they’re just committing to it better, or they’re more suited to it. That’s the beauty of it for me. So to answer your question, it’s hard to pick someone that’s going to finish or not. It’s really hard to do.”
Again, returning to a recent interview I remember seeing somewhere where Ray spoke about his time in Afghanistan, and in it he talked about learning to switch off his emotions. There’s a moment in Ranger 22 where Ray is talking about the suicide bomber attack that I mentioned earlier. A lady called Shipra had been killed in that attack. But while Ray was coordinating the evacuation of their compound, he and his team not only made sure to take Shipra’s body with them, but Ray writes about, “…gently placing her in the ambulance with as much respect and dignity…” as they could. I found that passage particularly emotional to read, so I can only imagine what it must have been like to live through. But what I wondered was, was his being able to treat Shipra’s body in that manner – in the midst of so much chaos – also down to his Ranger training? Or, was that a moment when the man himself, just Ray Goggins from Cork, happened to shine through?
“It’s probably a bit of both, to be honest. Again, as I say in the book, I didn’t know that lady at all, she’d only come back the night before, late, and I hadn’t seen her. And when I came in before that at Christmas, she’d already gone home on leave. My point of view is that it’s about everybody else. A lot of those other people had probably known her well, and they probably knew at that stage what was after happening to her, even though we tried to keep it from them as much as possible. Not because we wanted to keep it a secret, but they didn’t need to see that at that particular time because they were going through enough. This was six or seven hours into the event, and they were frazzled at this stage. I just needed to get them out and get them somewhere safe at that stage. And it wasn’t just me. There were two or three other guys with us, so it was all of our decision. The medic had fixed her up and made her more presentable, and we got her into the [body] bag then, and marked that respect for her. I’m not a religious man, but I’m definitely a spiritual kind of person. It’s good to protect people even when they have passed away, but you still have them [with you]. You still need to protect them.”
Ultimate Hell Week is obviously a very personal and individual journey for everyone who takes part, but is there any one thing that Ray has seen everybody learn about themselves, regardless of how far they make it?
“Yeah, people understand their reserves of strength. People don’t realise there’s always something left. Even when you think you’re completely spent, you have a reserve if you can just get into it. And that’s of power, of stamina, of anger, whatever it is to keep you going. A lot of people say, ‘I’m at 100%’, but they’re nowhere near it. Most people operate at about 50% in their average day, and they think that’s 100%. But there’s a lot more in our mind and soul to keep us going. It’s rare enough that we get into it. It’s only those extreme events and those extreme cases that get you into it. Then you realise you have that well. And when you know that well is there in your normal day – like for me, for example, having been involved in madness in different parts of the world – I know that well and how to get into it. So I can tap into that on a daily basis for something possibly innocuous. That gives you that amazing ability to be calm and composed when people think it’s chaos. But it’s not really.”
~ RANGER 22: LESSONS FROM THE FRONT, by RAY GOGGINS, published by Gill Books, is OUT NOW and available at all good bookstores nationwide. ULTIMATE HELL WEEK airs every Wednesday night at 9.35pm on RTE 1.