By Melody Everly, Staff WriterApril 9, 2015
Six Fort Drum Soldiers have spent the past four months preparing themselves for an event that will test their warfighter skills, in addition to their mental and physical endurance -- the 32nd David E. Grange Jr. Army Best Ranger Competition, at Fort Benning, Ga.
Named for Lt. Gen. David E Grange Jr., past director of the Ranger Department and former Fort Benning commanding general, the competition has been held at the installation each year since 1982, with the exception of 2003, when it was cancelled due to troop involvement in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Over the years, modifications have been made to the competition to ensure that it better assesses the limitations and abilities of the participants.
Initially, only teams from Ranger Battalions were eligible to compete. By 1987, the rules had been changed, allowing any unit with Ranger-coded positions to participate.
At the end of the grueling three-day challenge, one two-man team of the 52 entered in this year's competition will be named the Best Ranger team. They will return to their installations sore and tired, but also with their heads held high, for it is certainly an honor and a credit to their installation to have earned such a presitgous title.
Ranger School, a 61-day course open to members of any military occupational specialty, has often been called the "toughest combat course in the world." It is a physically and mentally demanding school that teaches leadership skills, endurance and perseverance.
The competitors explained that the vast majority of officers go straight from advanced individual training to Ranger School. It is very different for enlisted Soldiers, said Staff Sgt. Victor Haletchenko, of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment.
Upon arriving at Fort Drum after a permanent-change-of-station move from Fort Hood, Texas, Halatchenko said his unit asked who might be interested in attending the school.
"I just raised my hand and said I want to go," he said. "I was able to do the Pre-Ranger School here on Fort Drum (at the Light Fighters School). Once I graduated and met division requirements, I was allowed to go."
For 1st Lt. Seth Prosser, as an enlisted Soldier in a Ranger Battalion at the time, the pressure to attend Ranger School was a bit greater.
"The big thing about Ranger School was the difference in the way I was treated by other members of my unit," he said. "Once you earn the tab, you earn that respect."
The competitors each agreed that completing Ranger School was one of the proudest moments in his military career.
The sense of accomplishment upon completing the course was huge, said Capt. Scott Wescott, a Soldier who belonged to 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry Regiment and is currently part of the Spartan inactivation.
"Everyone was tired and really tanned -- depending on what time of year we went through," he said. "My Family was there as well as some of my friends from Fort Benning. It was like a sigh of relief to make it through."
Second Lt. Aaron Catlin of 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, said that Ranger School helped to prepare each of the Soldiers for the Army Best Ranger Competition.
"The hardest part of Ranger School was always the uncertainty," he said. "You don't know what's going to happen. I think that's part of what makes the Best Ranger Competition difficult too -- you want to make it through. You don't know when your next meal will be or when you're going to get to sleep."
To prepare for some of the elements of the competition, the six Soldiers, along with coach Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Bryan and alternate and assistant coach 1st Lt. Adam Fitterer, first worked closely with several organizations across Fort Drum.
"We've worked alongside staff from the Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness program, staff members at the Bridgewater-Vaccaro Medical Simulation Training Center -- Brian Peplinski in particular, and many members of the cadre from Fort Drum's Light Fighters School."
It was the Light Fighters School that facilitated the three-day tryouts for those 10th Mountain Soldiers who wished to participate in the Best Ranger Competition.
When the tryouts were over, those chosen had to be assigned to two-man teams. While personalities were taken into account during this process, there were many other factors to be considered, said 1st Lt. Colin Grant from 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team. Grant, who was a team member in last year's competition, knew from experience how important it was to form strong teams.
"The first thing we did was to find out who could run and ruck at about the same speed," he said. "Having a partner who doesn't move at the same speed can cause friction. We do every event together as a team, so we hope that if one teammate is stronger at a skill, they will be able to help their partner out."
Immediately, the team members began a rigorous training cycle. It was the support of each Soldier's unit and the division as a whole that allowed them an opportunity to train, basically uninterrupted, for four months.
This included nearly a month of training at Fort Polk, La., where the Soldiers worked alongside subject-matter experts, both from Fort Polk and the Fort Drum Light Fighters School, on elements such as marksmanship, urban combat and much more.
"The primary reason for going there was to begin to acclimate and have the facilities we needed to train," Bryan said. "Since it's winter here, we don't have access to everything we need to train for this competition."
The competition itself will consist of several standard elements such as pushups, an urban assault course, weapons assembly, night orienteering, a stress shoot and much more. It also will include mystery events, as well as written tests covering the material found in the Ranger handbook.
On March 30, the team left for Fort Benning, where they are continuing to train up until the day of the competition. One major reason for training in Georgia is so the Soldiers can acclimate. Coming from temperatures hovering around 30 degrees, the Soldiers will experience temperatures that range from 60-80 degrees in April.
Catlin also pointed out that they will benefit from learning the lay of the land.
"The terrain is different," he said. "There are more rolling hills in the Benning area, and the vegetation is different."
Maj. Ronald Sprang, formerly 3rd Brigade S-3 and now part of the Spartan inactivation, said that training at Fort Benning also will allow the Soldiers to get used to the course on which the actual competition will take place.
"Training in the area we will be covering during the competition is a big part of it not just physically, but psychologically," he said. "Knowing that you've completed tasks on the actual course helps to build your confidence."
Sprang also said that he thinks the Soldiers will benefit from the additional training for the jump portion of the competition, as some of them have not completed a helicopter jump since recent changes were made to the UH- 60 Black Hawk helicopter, as well as the parachutes and rigging they will use.
"Jumping out of a helicopter is not that tough -- you just fall forward and hit the ground," he joked. "I think the toughest part will be actually rigging the equipment."
As they navigate through the obstacles, Fitterer said each Soldier has a different way of keeping himself motivated to make it to the finish line.
"It's definitely a mind game," he said. "You really just focus on one object and will yourself toward that."
Although the Soldiers unanimously agreed that their goal would be to win the title of Best Ranger, each team said they were committed, first and foremost, to completing the course.
"Our first goal is for every team to finish," Bryan said. "Our second goal would be placing in the top 10, and then our third goal, of course, would be finishing No. 1."
The Best Ranger Competition will kick off at 6 a.m. Friday and will continue through Sunday. An awards ceremony will be held at 10 a.m. Monday.
Fans can watch Fort Drum Soldiers compete by viewing the live video at www.bestrangercompetition/live/.