JOINT BASE McGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. - When he steps up to the mat in a hand-to-hand combat tournament, Spc. Rahmad Gholston goes by his warrior name: Ghost.
Yet, standing at 6 feet 1 inch and weighing 210 pounds, he's hardly invisible.
When he grapples with an opponent, it's only a matter of time before Gholston overpowers him to the ground. He's methodical. Patient. Powerful.
But his Goliath-like stature almost hampered his chances of competing at the 2014 Army Reserve Best Warrior Competition held here.
In order to advance to this stage, Gholston won first place in the junior enlisted category for the 416th Theater Engineer Command (TEC), but he started from behind on the very first step. His last competition took place at Fort McCoy at the end of April.
Spring was a distant fantasy in the state of Wisconsin that month.
On the first day, Soldiers awoke hours before sunrise for the Army Physical Fitness Test. The early morning temperature reached just a few degrees above freezing, but it was the wind that felt most disheartening.
Record gusts reached between 30 and 40 miles per hour that day. Rain angled down from the sky. Because of the cold and the rain, Gholston wore the full physical fitness uniform, consisting of a windbreaker-type jacket and long pants. Except the jacket didn't break through the wind. Instead, it formed a sail, catching every blow of air slamming against him. Nature was a howling beast, and his every step was a battle among Warriors.
He failed the required two-mile run by 20 seconds. By Army standards, that could have disqualified him. End of the road. Go back home. You're done here. Instead, he was given zero points for the event. If he wanted to compete, he'd have to catch up.
"I was far behind ... and I was like, man, I just got to come out and win every event after this," said Gholston, currently living in Pullman, Washington.
He made up ground with each ensuing event: rifle marksmanship, pistol range, 200-meter swim, obstacle course, land navigation, six-mile road march, then, finally, the combatives tournament, where he - to put it lightly - dominated.
In the end, he took first place by less than a percent in overall points, just enough to make it to the Army Reserve level: one of the toughest competitions most Reserve Soldiers ever face.
"I don't know what to expect ... I just want to give it my best at the [Reserve] level. I'm expecting to have some great competition; some people who really push me past my limits," said Gholston, who serves with the 301st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade as an air defense battle management system operator. The unit is located near Lakewood, Washington.
He trained to square off with some of the best Soldiers in the entire Army Reserve. He knows his physical stature and strength might not be enough to cut it. He's quick to reassure others that he has a bit of David's savvy smarts in his Goliath-like physique.
"I can look physically intimidating in person ... but I can still come back to the smarts, and turn it right back on. It's like a switch. My intellectual capacity is pretty high, so I just keep going," said Gholston.
Before the TEC-level competition, he had only a week of spring break to spare and prepare. Gholston is studying occupational therapy at Washington State University full time. Once the semester ended, he set aside three straight weeks to train both physically and mentally. He's been training with Sgt. Juan Jackson who took first place in the noncommissioned officer category for the 416th TEC.
From bear-crawling drills up hills to constantly quizzing each other on Army knowledge, Gholston prepared to reach a much higher score this time. Already, he improved his run time by 90 seconds on the first day.
"I don't care if I do bad on one event because there's still a lot more to go ... No matter what comes in front of me, I'm willing to push forward and always willing to drive on," said Gholston.
At least New Jersey is not known for howling gusts. During most of the events, Soldiers have to prove how well they can endure as individuals. It's a "Soldier Against Self" battle at every turn. But once they square off on the combatives mat, they'll have to face a 200-pound ghost.