Ranger Up Interviews: Ricky Schroder – Starting Strong
The decision to enlist in the military can be one of the most daunting experiences in one’s life. In the who, what, where, and why of the enlistment issue, the most pressing question a potential enlistee can have is in regards to the training he or she may face—something they’ll never truly know until they’re knee-deep in basic training, hundreds of miles from home, with an angry drill sergeant inflicting well-calculated physical and mental pain upon them.
But what happens when you give an enlisted prospect the opportunity to get a glimpse of real military training before he or she signs the dotted line?
Filmmaker/actor Ricky Schroder answers that question in his new FOX reality show, Starting Strong, premiering on June 2nd.
The much anticipated show pairs young prospects with active-duty military members and veterans alike, giving them a hard glimpse into the military occupational specialties they have an eye on. After a week of grueling training and one-on-one mentorship, the potential enlistee must a make the important life decision whether he or she wants to join the military.
Ranger Up recently got on the line with Ricky Schroder, the show’s creator, and discussed the world of military training, working with the Army, filmmaking, and shootin’ pool.
Ranger Up: Everyone at Ranger Up really likes Pool Hall Junkies. So can you really shoot stick or is that just special effects?
Ricky Schroder: I can shoot a decent game of pool. Obviously it depends on the nerves that day. I don’t think I’ve ever run a table, but I’ve been known to knock six balls down without, you know, making a mistake. I can shoot, but I’m not that guy in the movie.
RU: Going into your role, were you doing a lot of preparation?
RS: I grew up with a table. There was a table in my basement as a kid, so I shot a lot of pool. Played a lot of Ping-Pong, too, and played a lot of foosball.
RU: We were going over your accomplishments over here at RU. Do you have a particular role that was your favorite throughout your career?
RS: Well, there’s a couple of highlights. I don’t know if there’s one. I like the movie The Lost Battalion which was based on a true story from WWI. I liked NYPD Blue a lot, Lonesome Dove, I liked Silver Spoons. I like this last project I just created for the US Army.
RU: Prior to this project, have you ever worked with the US Armed Forces outside of acting roles?
RS: I’ve never worked on any projects, but I’ve supported a lot of projects. I visited the guys down in Landstuhl, Germany. I went out there in support of those guys who were recovering. But never work related stuff. This is the first.
RU: From what I recall in a previous interview about Landstuhl, you said these were wounded guys coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan?
RS: Yeah, these were the guys who got hurt. They don’t go to Walter Reed, they go to Landstuhl first. I went out there a couple of years ago and comforted them as best as I could and said hello. I’ve never done anything like that until then. But that was a pretty awesome experience.
RU: As far as the Starting Strong project, what was your favorite part of the experience? Was there anything in particular you learned?
RS: Yeah. Getting to know these NCOs, these guys who have been in the Army for twenty, twenty-five years, with all the experience they wanted to pass on to their younger soldiers. Getting to know them and see how much they cared about those soldiers beneath them and how badly they want to prepare them for what they may face. I got a real sense of the family vibe in these platoons and companies, even the battalion and brigade level.
I didn’t understand how things were structured until I worked aside and lived with soldiers for several months. The thing I can tell you I’ll walk away with is how professional the soldiers are when it’s time to do their job.
RU: You’ve mentioned that you’ve always been a big supporter of the military. When did you get the idea to do this project?
RS: After 9/11, I wanted to use my services to help. I reached out to the Army asked what I could do to help. They said maybe you could use your creative skills to tell stories about our soldiers and our Army and emotionally connect Americans to their Army. So that’s how the genesis of Starting Strong began. It went from me reaching out to them and helping out in a way that was unique where I didn’t have to necessarily wear a uniform.
RU: Out of all the episodes you shot, was there one episode you thought epitomizes what the show was supposed to be about or did you take something equally from every episode?
RS: Every episode is about a different MOS. So every one of them we did was interesting to me.
The sapper episode was a two-parter and a pretty good representation of what the program is. The prospect there really had a tough decision. His family was divided whether they wanted him to go in or not.
But combat medic was a pretty amazing episode, as well as light wheeled vehicle mechanic. The prospect got to meet some Army guys who had retired and had gone into hot rods, so they were top fuel dragster mechanics.
RS: Yeah, they were NHRA top fuel dragster mechanics out of the Army. So Starting Strong shows how the MOS you get could translate into a civilian career if you don’t do twenty years.
We did MP, civil affairs, infantry, Stryker, forward observer. I really learned a lot about indirect fire and how important it is.
RU: Oh, yeah, on the battlefield it makes—
RS: All the difference. Until I really learned about that MOS, how vital that is, the edge that it gives our Army over our adversaries, it’s just huge.
RU: Yeah, a lot of people don’t appreciate that you have to have pretty intelligent and capable people down there doing that kind of work. It’s not dumb-dumb work by any means.
RS: No way. The math that it involves, and not getting detected. And knowing the enemy is looking for you.
So I got to meet a lot of soldiers—hundreds of soldiers—over the course of filming. I only heard a few complain. 99.9% of them were motivated and glad to be doing what they were doing.
RU: Did any of these potential recruits’ choices surprise you? You know, whether or not they were going to join?
RS: As we were shooting each MOS, you could tell that some young people were doing better acclimating to it than others. We thought we had a pretty good understanding, as we were producing each episode, what we thought the kids’ decisions might be at the end. But what was interesting was some of the kids that chose not to enlist at that time, after a year or eighteen months later, they did.
RU: You shot this in 2010, am I correct?
RS: We shot, like, four episodes in 2009 and ten in 2011.
RU: Have you kept in touch with any of these youngsters since then?
RS: Yeah, I have kept in touch with one in particular. He went to South Korea. And there’s another who came back from his first deployment to Afghanistan.
So I’ve kept in touch with some of these kids. But they’re men now.
RU: Did this project change your perspective of the people in the Armed Forces or even the way the Armed Forces, as an institution, operates? Was there anything you gained from this experience?
RS: Oh, yeah, I learned an incredible amount. I don’t know where to begin to tell you how much I learned.
For example, I didn’t understand that every soldier, in addition to being a soldier, has a job. You know, they went to AIT and learned a skill. Most people don’t understand. They think of the Army and they think, “Gosh, everybody is just a soldier with a gun and that’s all they do is go to war.” I didn’t understand that, yeah, everybody is a soldier, but they get deployed to all sorts of missions all over the world—not just combat. They do humanitarian work and disaster relief work.
I guess I never had a real sense of how professional the organization is and the standards that are required to enlist. Especially now, they want to get the best of the best. A lot of young people don’t meet the standards. They don’t meet the physical standards, the ethical or the moral standards.
RU: And it’s shrinking day by day.
RS: Yeah, I just remember these combat medics at Ft. Sam Houston. Eight hundred combat medics on a field in formation in one of the shows. Every one of them was just getting ready to graduate and every one of them knew that they were going to get deployed somewhere into a combat zone. Every one of them volunteered to be a US Army soldier and a combat medic. And they were so inspiring as a group. It just kind of renewed my hope and faith in our future and our nation when I look at people like that. And they didn’t choose the easy MOS. They chose combat medic.
I was pretty amazed by the high-tech training that they got. Like this dummy simulator that would bleed and have high blood pressure, which was pretty cool to see.
I got to learn about these weapons systems. It’s pretty cool to be next to an M1-Abrams. It rocks your world, man.
RU: So I have to ask you, going off of that, did you actually physically partake in any of the training? Were you down there in the trenches with the potential recruits and soldiers?
RS: We got to be right next to the prospects as they were getting trained by their NCO. They had two battle buddies and an NCO that followed their prospect through their weeklong adventure. So we got to go out to the range with them and shoot Ml-17s and SAWS. We got to see them call in indirect fire. We as a crew lived, ate, and breathed that MOS for that week.
RU: Which compared to a lot of people who served in the military, who tend to just stay in their sector, you probably got a broader view of the military than most individuals who will do an enlistment and stay in one job.
RS: You know, I never thought about that, because we embedded in fourteen different MOSs for a week and really got to see everything from food specialist to motor pool to aviation to medicine. And there’s another hundred MOSs we could do that really haven’t been covered.
RU: So we expect some success with this show and we’re hoping for it, mostly because Nick and Tim are in it, but if you were to go to a second season, is there anything you’d like to cover?
RS: Yeah, for sure, I’d love to do some other MOSs. I’d love to do a dog handler MOS.
RU: Were there other jobs you entertained that you had a hard time passing up on?
RS: Well, yeah, but the Army had certain needs that they wanted to meet and recruiting goals, so they kind of helped steer us into which MOSs they wanted us to focus on.
RU: Do you see any similarities in the way things operate in Hollywood and the way they operate in the US Military?
RS: Yes, there are some similarities. Yes, on a reality television-style program or a film or whatever you want to do, it’s a team effort. It takes everybody on that team to make a successful production. From the transportation guys who get the vehicles and equipment there to the performers to everyone else in-between: the grips, the electricians, the wardrobe, the screenplay writer, the director, the producer.
And if you look at a battalion level mission, there’s those same kinds of roles. Your battalion commander is your director on a film set, your first AD is your sergeant major. Your UPM, who is responsible for making sure people know where they’re sleeping and eating, that’s your life support person within a battalion.
It’s just a lot more casual.
RU: After shooting all these episodes, what particular job would you choose?
RS: What MOS would I choose?
RS: Oh, boy. Wow. I think I’d have to go with forward observer. I really liked that MOS. I really liked the role and the responsibility. You know, being in an independent, small team. And, you know, spying on the opposing forces.
RU: Going back to the individuals on the show. How were those potential recruits received by the soldiers who were training them and the veterans who talked to them later?
RS: Some of the prospects—we called them prospects—came in with all different kinds of perspectives. Some of them came in thinking they would fail horribly at the beginning. Some of them came in thinking just thinking they would be studs and dominate. And some of them came in insecure. They all came in with a different perspective about the Army and they all left changed. Every single one of them.
Depending on how they came in, is depending on how their battle buddy or NCO treated them. If they came in with a big ego, then the NCO would just crush him. He would just crush him that first day or two… and just humble that guy.
And if they came in with a keep-your-head-down, do-what-you’re-told, ask-for-help-when-you-need-it kind of attitude, it was much better for them.
RU: As you saw people choose not to enlist or choose to, was there one discerning factor that pushed them toward one choice or another? Do you think there was something common in the individuals who chose to join the Army and those who chose not to?
RS: I think, for the most part, the parents and the friends of the potential prospect that was considering enlisting in the Army was a major influence on the decisions that the young men and women made—with exceptions, though. There were exceptions.
Some prospects were very independent, however, their friends and family have a very large influence on the decisions that the prospects would make. Especially in the moment. Like I said earlier, some of them had to go away for a year before they made their decision.
I heard someone say that joining the Army is just like dating. You don’t just marry on the first date. You explore the relationship. So some of these young people had to do that and it took time before they made their decisions. They may have said no at the moment, but later on they decided yes.
The other thing I learned is the Army doesn’t want everybody. There were some people who, for reasons I can’t go into, didn’t meet Army standards. The Army doesn’t want just anybody.
RU: So if you had one piece of advice to give any future recruits, after seeing what you did, what would it be?
RS: I would say if you want to be part of the biggest family in the world, join the Army. All the soldiers I met, they were all really in it together. They all were there. They never once let us down. Anything we needed in the production crew over the course of production, they just went above and beyond to make it happen. And I think they do that for each other, regardless of us.
My son, actually, was one of the assistant camera operators for one of the teams. Actually, my son is pursuing a career in the Army right now.
RU: ROTC? Is he in school or is he enlisting?
RS: My son, Luke. No, my son was actually accepted to West Point. He’s been accepted into the class of 2017 and he reports July 1st.
RU: How does that make you feel as a father, especially knowing what you know now? Seeing what these people go through on a daily basis and knowing that your son, especially with a prestigious school like West Point, will be pushed physically and mentally?
RS: Well, I’m so proud of him, and my wife is and the rest of our kids. And, of course, we’re going to miss him and realize the adventures on the road will be very challenging for him.
Do we worry about him? I personally believe the Army is lucky to have my son. I know what he’s capable of and I’m happy he chose that path. And believe me, he chose it. He fought for it. It actually had to ruminate in him for a couple of years before he decided. He actually went to military prep school. He chose to go to a military prep school, to leave normal college, to try and get himself in a better place to be eligible.
The last thing I’d like to say is thank you to anyone who has worn the uniform and served. I honestly want to say thank you.