By T. Anthony BellApril 14, 2016
FORT LEE, Va. (April 14, 2016) -- The image of a 50-year-old lugging a heavy ammo can over his shoulder while quick-timing down a dirt road during a fitness competition could be disconcerting or even intimidating to some and yet, motivating to others.
That middle-ager, Brig. Gen. Kurt J. Ryan, is inclined to prefer the latter, believing his example inspires others to join in and challenge themselves to either get into shape, maintain their fitness or simply push their physical limits. With those goals in mind and more, he is loudly speaking to millennials, most of whom he outran and out-carried while leading his three-person team to a second-place finish in last year's grueling Ordnance Challenge.
"I want to produce an athlete who wins," said the Chief of Ordnance in reference to his efforts. "That's the challenge, but I'm also trying to change the lifestyle of young people and have them commit to this for life -- not necessarily the Army for life -- but to fitness for life; the good living for life."
Ryan maintains athletes who train to win are inclined to eat right, get plenty of rest and refrain from using alcohol and drugs. "If they accomplish the first, they'll seek the second," said the 28-year Soldier who has headed the Ord. School since last summer. "Then they'll seek the third and over time, it becomes routine in their life. So when they're 90-years-old, they'll be on a tri-bike riding down the trail with their loved one, living a healthy lifestyle."
A product of south-central Pennsylvania, Ryan was reared in an environment conducive to a "healthy lifestyle." It primarily consisted of his dedication to wrestling that started in middle school and concluded at York College in York, Pa. Throughout the course of his wrestling career, Ryan said he came to understand the requirements to perform at optimum levels while developing a training discipline.
"I was fortunate to have a disciplining coach (Pa. wrestling hall of famer Terry Conover)," said Ryan, who grew up in a single-parent household. "He was the disciplinarian in my life. He became my authority figure at an impressionable age and really instilled in me the discipline, really through fitness, that carried over to other areas of my life."
With his dedication and discipline, Ryan found the transition to military life to be an easy one. He was commissioned through York's ROTC program and later served in the 82nd Airborne Division. As a young platoon leader there, he was routinely performing airborne operations at night under heavy loads and difficult conditions.
"To accomplish that, you knew you had to train your team and yourself to be able to perform under those conditions," he said, noting he later decided to successfully test his prowess at Ranger School.
All of what Ryan learned about physical conditioning and performance in the early days followed him throughout his career. When he became a senior officer, he conceived fitness events that were nasty in nature, presenting daunting challenges to participants.
For instance, there was the 100-mile Boston Marathon shadow event for seven-person teams he created in 2012 as commander of the 10th Sustainment Brigade while deployed to Bagram, Afghanistan.
Early last year, it was the 6,800-foot race up Washington's Crystal Mountain during his tenure as commander of the 593rd Sustainment Command located at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.
There have been triathlons, quadrathlons and biking events; individual and team events; events lasting 24 consecutive hours and those lasting two days; events in cold and hot weather; and events using snowshoes, ALICE packs and skis.
To top it all off, one is not enough; the challenge events are typically organized as a series of three or more.
Ryan's fitness philosophy and fitness events have had an impact at the ordnance schoolhouse despite a focus on fitness that preceded him, said Command Sgt. Maj. Garrick Griffin, CSM, 832nd Ord. Battalion, 59th Ord. Brigade. Griffin competed in the first Ordnance Challenge here and not only noted Ryan's presence but his engagement.
"To see that coming from the general-officer level speaks volumes," he said.
Soldiers seem to get the message. While the fitness competitions are not mandatory, hundreds of Soldiers under Ryan's command typically show for them eager to either punish themselves or revel in the achievement.
"This is not about how fast or slow you are," said Sgt. Tyler Moon during a signature Ryan fitness challenge held last year near JBLM, long after the general departed. "It is about supporting each other as a team, motivating each other, and building camaraderie with your battle buddies."
Tyler's post-race sentiment is typical and the point of it all, said Ryan, is to get participants to -- through the toil of preparation to conquer physical feats -- learn mental toughness, develop discipline and capture teamwork skills that will ultimately serve them in combat.
"You put them in an environment that forces them to not only operate as an individual athlete but also as a team member, and you make the events so complex that it tests not only the physical but the mental," he said. "You try to stress the mind to quit. If you can get them to push through in training and during the event, getting the mind to continue to operate, the body -- if you fuel it with food, water and periodic rest -- it can go for a long, long time.
"You can get the mind to overrule the body's desire to quit."
To those not acclimated, that may sound like some kind of special operations ethos, but Ryan is not bringing his field ops manual to the schoolhouse. Undoubtedly a pragmatist, he understands the institutional Army has its limitations, so his approach is considerably toned down.
"We have to condition a 19-year-old's mind (as opposed to experienced Soldiers) who have yet to experience those hard things in life," he said, referring to the thousands of advanced individual training students assigned to the Ord. School.
This Saturday, those 19-year-olds are likely to show a strong presence in Ryan's Ordnance Amazing Race, the second challenge in an ongoing series. The roughly six-mile jaunt through a Petersburg National Battlefield course features an assortment of challenges and obstacles such as a tire drag and flip, vehicle maintenance, water can carry, litter carry as well as running and cycling -- the stuff 19-year-olds might like and things the general finds challenging. He will be a competitor like he has in all the races he has organized.
"You've got to race your own race," he said with a laugh.
Ryan could fool one into believing his participation in the event is obligatory. Prior to the start of the first Ordnance Challenge, he showed up with his team and said "Y'all ready to get beat?" He drew hearty laughs and chuckles from the young Soldiers who thought the old man's comments were a measure of wit.
When, however, they saw him start the competition and tackle some of the obstacles, they knew he was not just making a command appearance. Ryan has shown he relishes competition, and if history is any indication, he is certainly not beneath lugging a heavy ammo box over his shoulder while quick-timing down a dirt road -- and doing it faster than anyone else.