By Sgt. Ryan HallockMay 8, 2013
'It reminds me very vividly of Ranger School'
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. - It's nearing midnight and hunger is setting in for the warriors. Half a meal a day will do that to any soldier, stud or not. Accompanying their empty stomachs is the lack of sleep, and it's only day one of the Mangudai Warrior Challenge at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
This story begins on a cold, sleepless Washington night, but for the warriors, the journey started at 5 a.m. It's a journey that senior enlisted leaders accepted to embark on, which draws its history from Special Forces units of the Mongol Empire.
These elite warriors, dating back to the 13th century, were put through an arduous gauntlet comprised of minimal food and sleep, extreme conditions, and strenuous scenarios to prove themselves worthy of the toughest missions.
That's the exercise Command Sgt. Maj. John Wayne Troxell stayed true to during the exercise he's been through 14 times before, and that's the exercise he recruited senior noncommissioned officers for, which lasted 58 hours-straight beginning May 1.
"My intent for this exercise, and it's tough, is that these leaders understand and accept this hunger, this lack of sleep and this pain, and they still try to self-actualize and reach their untapped potential," said Troxell.
'Young man's sport'
Just as team leaders are responsible for developing their troops, Troxell is responsible for developing sergeants major who could potentially replace him one day.
The most senior enlisted leader of I Corps' says Mangudai is designed to tax and test the physical, mental and emotional abilities of senior NCOs and to get them out of their comfort zones so they can develop as leaders in ambiguous situations.
"All of these folks, the majority of them, are well into their late 30s, 40s, and some in their 50s," said Troxell. "When I call it a young man's sport, it goes back to validating our credentials. We shouldn't be asking our young troopers to do anything physically, mentally or emotionally we could not do."
The warriors spent the first day traveling by foot around the grounds of JBLM like a traveling carnival coming into town, stopping at each objective only long enough to complete it. They humped their survival gear on their backs, with some having to carry heavy weaponry in addition.
Obstacle course, confidence course; ruck march a few miles. Tie your own Swiss seat and rappel down a 37-foot tower; ruck march a few more miles to conduct a raid. This is the way it went for the warriors. The tempo was high-paced with no room between missions to properly rest or eat.
"Mangudai is supposed to suck," said Troxell during a short rest. "It's not something you do at a country club after you've had a round of golf and you're drinking a cold beverage."
Soldiers weren't the only ones seeking the coveted Mangudai Warrior status. There were some boys in blue among the sea of green all embracing the suck together.
"It's killing us," said Coast Guard Machinery Technician 2nd Class Ryan Rivera from San Antonio, Texas. "The hunger, the walking everywhere; our feet are killing us."
The second day came no sooner than did the sun that hid the warrior's cold breath from the night before. The confident pace of senior noncommissioned officers had slowed a bit with limps showing up here and there throughout the formation. Murmurs of despair also started to resonate.
"Getting old sucks, huh?" said one warrior to another. "We were studs when we were young."
Warriors tended to their feet, some which were now bloodied from split blisters.
Initially the tempo was ruck marching short mileage while carrying heavy weight.
This new day, which seemed so far from the start of the first, brought with it a combat-light tempo. The weight they now carried was lessened and the mileage increased. The lack of food stayed consistent as groups of two split one Meal Ready to Eat, containing far less calories than what they were expending.
"It plays tricks on your mind because all you think about is food while you're walking," said Rivera.
'Lay off the Beenee Weenees'
The journey brought them down to Solo Point to react to an ambush and conduct a casualty evacuation. Although a simulation, there is no simulating carrying your battle buddy on your shoulders the two-mile, uphill stretch of the Solo Point entrance. There is only one way around this dead-weight obstacle: soldier up and get to the top of the hill.
"These things are geared to be tough, to be hard and demanding," said Troxell. "The learning and growth really happens when you put leaders under arduous conditions like that. The great ones and the good ones will stand out because they will overcome all of these shortcomings."
The second night in the wilderness wasn't as cold, but being outside hours on end can chill the bones. The warriors donned night-vision optics to navigate their way through the forest. They headed towards the big, yellow moon in the sky, which led them straight to Leschi Town.
Their objective seemed routine: infiltrate a village and clear the building. Without food and sleep, adrenaline fueled the warriors. They stormed the village and reacted to direct contact. Once at their main objective, the warriors cleared the building of all possible threats and rallied up to leave town.
Not all could beat the odds and the heavy toll the exercise takes on the body as 10 warriors fell short of achieving Mangudai status due to injury. The tradition has found its way through the centuries and generation-after-generation has continued to test its leaders during three days of give-it-all-you-got intensity.
Ranger tabs, Expert Infantry Badges, Airborne, Air Assault; these leaders have been through the ringer once or twice, and they showed up to the Mangudai Warrior Challenge to prove once again that if their soldiers can hack it, they can too.
The event culminated with paddling boats across American Lake on a day with no cloud in sight. Only until after the Mangudai Warriors received their accolades from Lt. Gen. Robert Brown and Command Sgt. Maj John Wayne Troxell could they dive face-first into the barbecue prepared for their success.