FORT BRAGG, N.C. - After a full day of driving around central Idaho to repair and install heating and cooling systems, Dee McMurdo comes home to his ranch to raise the longhorns.
He calls it a "hard ranch life," with roughly 40 Texas Longhorns he breeds and sells for beef. Each cow weighs around 1,500 pounds: enough meat to feed a family of four for a year. The bulls edge around a ton. From tip to tip, their horns can reach seven feet across.
Raising these beasts of burden has taught him about the resiliency of life.
"I learn about adaptability (through them). They started in Southern America, and for the last 500 years they've been roaming up through Mexico into Texas, where they took off, and they've adapted the whole time, and that's what you have to do with life. You have to adapt to the situations," said McMurdo who is a military police and sergeant for 11th Battalion (Observer/Controller Training), 91st Training Support Division.Adapting to life is something McMurdo has done his entire military career.
Right now he's 49 years old and the oldest competitor at the U.S. Army Reserve Best Warrior Competition (BWC), a four-day marathon of physical and mental tests to determine the best noncommissioned officer and junior enlisted Soldier across the force. Winners from this competition will move on to the Department of Army level competition this fall, held at Fort Lee, Virginia.Approximately 35 Soldiers are here to contend for those two top titles. Most of them are in their 20s and 30s, with a few in their 40s, including McMurdo.
"I bet I could keep up with most of them, definitely. Maybe the young, young kids I couldn't, but we'll find out," said McMurdo, who lives in Bellevue, Idaho.
Adaptability is not just what brought him here to compete, but also what has forced him in and out of the military. He has 11 years of service over a span of 27 years.
"Of course the 20-year letter is a goal," he said referring to his military retirement. "I should have gotten it a long time ago."
His words are not tinged with regret, but longing.
He served in the Navy as an interior communication specialist in the late 80s and early 90s. He was a cavalry scout in the National Guard in the 2000s, with a deployment to Iraq (2004-2005). Last year he came back to serve in the U.S. Army Reserve. He has broken away twice through those years because his family needed him more than his country, he said.
"When I was returning from Iraq, I had been gone a year and a half. I didn't know my kids, and my kids didn't know me. And that was a hard thing for me to adjust to," he said.
It's easier to serve now because his children are older. Lettie is 19, D.J. is 17 and Hunter is 15.
Still, he has competed and won at the division and command level before making it here. Each time he travels to these events, he asks himself the same questions:
"What am I doing back here? Why am I doing it again? Same thing. Leaving my family to do this again? But I always know at least now that I'm going to return home," he said.
Yet, once he arrives and meets his competitors and the excitement begins, those feelings fade to make way for his sense of service. That's the same feeling that brought him back to the military each time.
"Two breaks in service. I came back to finish what I started. Finish the job of serving my country. (I will know I'm done) when they kick me out. Or my wife tells me I have to get out. One of the two," he said with smile.
His goal is to reach that 20-year mark in service before he turns 60. These days But now he's surrounded by young Soldiers, forcing him to embrace pain and stress most 40-year-olds would gladly avoid.
"I would have called uncle a long time ago," said his sponsor and friend, Staff Sgt. Patrick Hewitt, who is 46.
Win or lose, after this competition, McMurdo will return to his wife, Amber, his children, and his Texas Longhorns. After a week's worth of packaged Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), he looks forward to his favorite cuts of meat. A good old-fashioned roast beef, or perhaps a nice hunk of prime rib.