FORT HOOD, Texas -- Thirteen teams of cadets from 10 Texas universities converged on Fort Hood to compete in the ROTC Ranger Challenge competition held here Oct. 27-29, 2017.
The nine-cadet teams pushed their limits and tested their skills during each of the five main events. Tarleton State University won the overall competition and Stephen F. Austin State University finished second. Both universities had two teams participating.
The cadets, many of whom will earn their commission as second lieutenants within the next two years, began the chilly weekend with a modified Army Physical Fitness Test followed by the night land navigation event. The first frost advisories of the year didn't slow them down.
"We could have chosen to let it [the cold] have an impact on us, but we decided not to," Cadet Austin Laughlin, a Tarleton State University junior, said.
"It wasn't fun overnight," added Cadet John Zellmer, also a junior at Tarleton State. "You're part of a group that keeps moving no matter what. We are a close-knit team, and we kept pushing ourselves."
During the second day of the competition, cadets spent hours moving kilometers between the six lanes of the warrior task event, designed to test their tactical skills before heading into the commander's challenge event.
"It has definitely been tiring," said Cadet Kyle Wolfe, a Baylor University junior, after completing the one-rope bridge. "Working as a team gives you a burst of energy to get through it though."
During the one-rope bridge event, the entire team must cross a creek with all of their equipment as fast as possible. Mistakes made can add minutes of penalties to the final time.
"The one-rope bridge lane challenges our attention to detail, and helps us expand our skills and knowledge," Wolfe said.
For some cadets, the Ranger Challenge competition was their first experience at an Army base. However, for Cadet Mathew Griner, a Stephen F. Austin State University sophomore, Fort Hood is a familiar place.
"I arrived at Fort Hood in April 2013," Griner said. "I never thought I would be back here."
Griner served in both the 1st Cavalry Division and 3rd Cavalry Regiment before transitioning out of active duty in 2016 to join the ROTC program.
"ROTC feels like home to me," Griner said. "My instructors encouraged me to try out for Ranger Challenge. It felt great to be on a team again."
Griner isn't the only one at SFA with ties to Fort Hood and 3rd Cavalry Regiment., as Maj. Mai Lee Eskelund just left the regiment over the summer to become an instructor there.
"It's been quite a change of pace," said Eskelund, who was previously the regimental signal officer, on her transition to being an instructor. "It's a different kind of reward, to teach cadets and to watch them develop their leadership skills. The cadets are here because they want to be here."
Capt. Russ Burgin, an instructor from the University of North Texas ROTC program, echoed the same feelings as Eskelund.
"Being an instructor is a great assignment," said Burgin. "Going directly from a deploying brigade, to mentoring cadets has been rewarding but also challenging. The cadets are hungry for knowledge, and it takes patience to balance getting training value with letting them fail and learn from their mistakes."
Prior to becoming an instructor, Burgin was the commander of Bandit Troop, 1st Squadron "Tiger," 3rd Cavalry Regiment.
"It was fun to watch the Ranger Challenge opening ceremony take place on Veterans Field in the exact spot where I changed command in May," Burgin continued. "It was like a homecoming."
The cadets finished up the competition with a 10-mile ruck march and concluded with an awards ceremony on the third day.
The winning Tarleton State cadets agreed the ruck march was the most difficult event of the weekend.
"It's a team event, and you have to consider everyone's physical fitness," said Laughlin, who has prior service in the National Guard. "The entire weekend is a team event, and I'm proud to have done my team well. This was an opportunity to grow and to learn patience, competence and basic soldier skills."
"This is what sets you apart from your peers," said Lt. Col. Steven Tabat, the professor of military science at Texas Christian University, before handing out the first place trophy.
"Being here shows your dedication to becoming the future leaders of our Army," he added.
Going from an organizational leader in his previous job, to a direct leader developing cadets has been a completely different experience, said Tabat.
"Watching the cadets training and doing something they have never done before, and succeed is one of the best parts of my job," Tabat continued. "You can see the light come on when they grasp something. They are motivated."
Tabat, who also oversees the Baylor ROTC program, left Fort Hood in the summer. Before taking over at TCU, Tabat's previous assignments included chief of staff at Division West and 1st Battalion, 393rd Infantry Regiment commander.
It was Tabat's TCU ROTC program that hosted the three-day Ranger Challenge competition.
"It's been fantastic coming back to Fort Hood. We received support from all across the installation to make this event happen," he said.
The 3rd Cavalry Regiment works closely with TCU and provides support to the ROTC program for events such as the Ranger Challenge competition. The regiment has been partnered with the community of Fort Worth since June, and part of the community outreach program includes providing support to ROTC programs at universities within the partnered community.
"We don't have the same resources in ROTC, and we rely on personal relationships to get the best training experience we can. People want to help because they know this is the future of the Army," Tabat said.