Army Sgt. 1st Class Brian Thomas displays a large python during an event at Hurlburt Field, Fla., on April 4, 2014. (Photo by Staff Sgt. John Bainter/ U.S. Air Force)

EGLIN AIR FORCE Base, Fla. — Sgt. 1st Class Brian Thomas was handling a water moccasin snake here two years ago when it surprised him. The hook he used to move the poisonous reptile was too far from its head, and the serpent responded to the freedom of movement by sinking its left fang into the Army Rangerʼs right index fingertip.

The “insane” pain was instantaneous, Thomas said. It felt like burning metal rods that wouldn’t go away, and the throbbing and swelling wouldnʼt stop.

“You always preach that the first thing you do is to stay as calm as possible,” Thomas said of being bit by a poisonous snake. “I don’t know if I was in shock, or what, but I was easily able to tell myself, ‘Relax.’ I knew I wasn’t going to die as long as I got to the hospital.”

[Inside the swamp phase of Army Ranger School as women attend for the first time]

Thomas is a Ranger instructor and former member of the reptile team at Camp Rudder, the Ranger installation on this sprawling Florida Panhandle installation. He spent three days in the intensive care unit at a nearby hospital and received two shots of the morphine, another of the painkiller Dilaudid, and 21 vials of anti-venom, but ultimately recovered and returned to duty.

The story highlights one of the more unusual jobs in the U.S. military at Ranger School: Reptile team member. The Army’s elite leadership school maintains a reptile house here that is incorporated into training as Ranger students undergo the third and final phase of Ranger School. Its major functions: Teach students how to overcome their fears of snakes and other reptiles and identify them when they see them in the swampy terrain of Eglin.


Bam Bam, a 2-year-old alligator, is kept in the reptile house at Camp Rudder, Fla., where the Army holds the third phase of Ranger School. (Photo by Dan Lamothe/ The Washington Post)

Ranger instructors opened the reptile house on Wednesday to a small number of journalists visiting Camp Rudder as female students attend Ranger School there for the first time. Its inhabitants include a water moccasin, an eastern diamondback rattlesnake, a timber rattlesnake, a coral snake and alligators. They range from Bam Bam, a foot-long gator caught on Eglin by a Ranger instructor, to Vincent, a 12-foot beast that lives in a murky pool outside.

Ranger School has included a swamp phase at Eglin since 1951, and instructors there decided to trap and keep snakes there shortly afterward. They wanted students to see what they could encounter, and to know how to respond. They can earn points toward points, known as a plus, for correctly identifying them in the field.

[This Army Ranger has ALS — but heʼs still teaching soldiers in the swamps of Florida]

“The students, they see them time and time again,” said Staff Sgt. Heath Hensley, a Ranger instructor and member of the reptile team. “You’ll hear them yell out ‘Snake!’ most of the time, and that starts a tactical pause.”

No student has been bit by a poisonous snake at Ranger School in years, and Thomas was the last instructor to need treatment. That’s partly preparation: Reptile team members must undergo training and get licensed, and travel to Southern Florida to learn from Miami-Dade County’s snakebite squad, known as Venom One. The reptile team also runs demonstrations across the region for civilians.

Here’s Hensley feeding alligators on Wednesday:

And here’s a perturbed eastern diamondback in a tank inside the reptile house. It rattled the entire time visitors were nearby Wednesday:

The reptile team also demonstrated how they handle the water moccasin, also known as the cottonmouth, by hand. Here’s Capt. Matt Hepinstall doing so Wednesday:


Capt. Matt Hepinstall, an instructor and reptile team member at Ranger School’s camp at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., demonstrates the proper way to hold a water moccasin snake on Wednesday, Aug. 5. (Photo by Dan Lamothe/ The Washington Post)