See more photos of the Rangers here.
At a military training camp in the lush mountains of northern Burma, a lean, square-jawed American stood at the front of a makeshift classroom adorned with the flags of the Kachin Independence Army. Before him sat dozens of recruits from the ethnic insurgent army and other groups opposed to the central government, controlled until recently by a ruthless military regime. They listened intently from behind small wooden desks, dressed in billowy fatigues and matching green T-shirts. A sign high above them read: "Our fighting ability will be determined by how we train our leaders."
Doug, a second-generation American missionary and former Green Beret, wore a dark green baseball cap, shorts, and a snug black T-shirt emblazoned with insignias modeled after those of the U.S. Army Rangers, but inscribed with the words "Free Burma Rangers." He had come with his Christian-led organization to Kachin State, a resource-rich corner of Burma abutting China, at the behest of local rebel leaders. In June 2011, renewed fighting in the area had ended a 17-year ceasefire between the ethnic rebels and the central government.
"We are here because we all love freedom," he said, his voice reverberating off the walls of the hangar-like building. "Who gave us freedom? Where does it come from? God! God gave us freedom because he loves us."
The students, who ranged in age from 19 to 50, had already completed weeks of training at the camp near the busy border town of Laiza. The Free Burma Rangers aimed to teach them to deliver aid to civilians in remote jungle hamlets, while simultaneously evading and reporting on the Burmese army. Some students had traveled from other parts of the country, officially known as Myanmar, to learn how to use a GPS in the jungle; swim across a river with an improvised flotation device; shoot video and write reports; rappel from a bridge; treat villagers for wounds, malaria, and dysentery; and gingerly locate and remove land mines from the soil.
There is ample need for such skills: Human rights groups have long accused the Burmese military, which ruled the country for decades and engaged in the world's longest-running civil war, of abuses such as forced labor and rape.
Many of the students' instructors were Christian missionaries from the United States, among them a doctor from Michigan, a former Navy Seabee from Oregon, and a software engineer from Wisconsin. Doug himself is a former U.S. Army Ranger who had also served with the Special Forces, advising foreign militaries in Central and South America in the 1980s. He had arrived to join the students for the final phase of their training -- a two-week mission along the front line of the conflict, where rebel and Burmese soldiers eyed each other uneasily from foxholes and trenches on opposing mountaintops.
The students would test their new skills by helping some of the estimated 75,000 civilians who had fled their villages and flocked to camps along the border. They would also creep through the jungle and peer through binoculars at Burmese army camps during reconnaissance forays.
"Have no doubt, you're here for the right reason, for freedom," Doug continued. (He and the other Westerners in the group asked to be granted anonymity due to security concerns.) "In this training, learn everything you can; when you go to the front line, you will be the hero."