By Will Grant
The Army reports that the average winner of the Best Ranger Competition is 26 years old, weighs 165 pounds, stands 5 feet 10 inches tall, and is a “decathlon-caliber soldier-athlete.” What the army doesn’t report is that prior experience in the competition has proven the best preparation.
“We think this is going to be a really interesting competition because there aren’t many competitors who have experience in it,” says Elsie Jackson, Fort Benning spokeswoman. “I’ve never seen a field with this many first-time competitors, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a competition where the winners were both first-time competitors.”
A full field of 50 two-man teams started the 29th annual Best Ranger Competition Friday morning, and they’ll be sweating through tasks, obstacles, and scenarios until the competition ends Sunday evening. And not all teams will finish.
Historically, about 60 percent of the teams fail to make it to the finish line. Spokeswoman Jackson, who’s been around for 14 competitions, thinks the difference between the prepared and unprepared will become clear early.
“I think it’ll be a smoke fest from Day One,” she says. “I calculate that in the first 24 hours they’ll cover between 40 and 45 miles. And traditionally, we’ll lose a quarter to a third of the teams in those first 24 hours.”
The competition is a 60-hour test of each Ranger’s ability to move, shoot, navigate, endure and work as a team. You might think the Ranger Training Brigade would have gallons of Gatorade and boxes of energy bars on hand, but they won’t. It’s water and MREs for the soldiers. Everything they carry and use in the competition is issued.
Most of the events—jumping out of a helicopter, orienteering at night, marching long distances with a 70-pound rucksack—will be nothing new to the Rangers; they practice them with religious commitment. But doing it all for 60 consecutive hours is a call of greater magnitude. And throw in 98 other guys trying to do the events better than they are, and you have a hell of a competition on your hands.
“If you’re a guy coming in for the first time,” says Sergeant First Class Mike Dean of the Ranger Training Brigade, “it takes a heavy toll on your nerves. There’s adrenaline involved, and this is a non-stop operation for three days.”
The greenest soldier competing this year is Specialist Zachary Oja of the 75th Ranger Regiment. He’s been in the Army for two years and been Ranger-qualified for a mere eight months. Is that a little wet-behind-the-ears?
“Oh, yeah. Very green,” says Jackson. “But he’s highly motivated, and his partner is a First Sergeant. So that will help.”
The highest-ranking competitor is Lieutenant Colonel Ken Holmstrom from the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center. There are four Specialists competing, as well as a team of brothers from the 104th Division.
Every year one of the weapons events is a throwback to the good ol’ days of soldiering. In the past that’s meant throwing tomahawks and shooting bows and arrows. This year it means shooting an M1, an M14, and the historic British musket Brown Bess.
Most of the events, not surprisingly, are designed to enhance a Ranger’s performance on the modern battlefield. In that regard, a 60mm mortar event has been added to this year’s schedule.
Also new this year, the soldiers will be carrying bio-electric bandages and a rehydration solution called Oral IV, both made by Warrior Wound Care. The bandage works with a body’s natural electric charge to stimulate tissue and decrease healing time. In an event like the Best Ranger Competition, such bandages will prove especially useful for raw, blistered feet.
The Oral IV is an electrolyte- and mineral-enhanced solution that comes in a plastic 15-milliliter vial. Already in use by extreme athletes, the solution rehydrates and recharges a body quickly and effectively.
Last year, heavy storms, including tornadoes, affected the competition, cancelling the fast-rope exercises but giving the competitors extra time to rest. Fast-roping is expected to take place this year, weather permitting.
The National Weather Service forecasts high temperatures at Fort Benning to be about 80 degrees on Saturday and Sunday, and low temperatures about 60 degrees. For most competitors that will be good weather for working hard. For others, it could be taxing.
“Some of the guys coming from some of the more extreme environments,” says Dean, “like the 10th Mountain [coming from Fort Drum, New York] might find the humidity a little tough. This is South Georgia, and it has been warm.”
As a change, the Leader Challenge event will be held at the Main Post, on the Parade Grounds in front of HQ. This is a hat tip to the spectators. And there should be plenty of those on hand.
The Public Affairs Office is expecting hundreds of spectators, as the event continues to grow each year. Everyone is encouraged to come out to Fort Benning to watch the soldiers work their butts off. It’s free, and there’s plenty of parking. Everyone older than 17 years old will be required to show photo identification to enter.
For those who can’t make it, you can watch streaming live video of the competition HERE.