FORT BENNING, Ga. -- The three-day inaugural Best Mortar Competition kicked off Saturday in the early morning darkness of the Sand Hill area here.

Each of the event competitors is an 11C indirect fire Infantry Soldier, and is part of a mortar squad, section or platoon. All are highly proficient with the Army's 60mm, 81mm and 120mm mortars.

This year, seven four-man teams are competing from around the Army. Teams this year come from the 82nd Airborne Division, the 75th Ranger Regiment, the 10th Mountain Division, the 7th Infantry Division, the 1st Infantry Division, the 101st Airborne Division, and the 198th Infantry Training Brigade.

The first day of competition included a wide-variety of physical fitness events as well as mortar-specific tasks designed to highlight each Soldier's skills in tactics, techniques and procedures.

The competition is meant to inspire competitiveness and excellence in the mortar community, said Capt. Luis Rivas, lead planner for the event.

Indirect fire Infantrymen provide critical capabilities to Army ground forces and as such, their proficiency contributes immeasurably to Army readiness, he said.

1st Sgt. John Fleet, the first sergeant of 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment, the organization hosting BMC, said the competition also provides a report card to the Army on how well its schools and home-station training are building mortar proficiency in Soldiers.

EVENTS PUSH LIMITS

While no individual event of the competition was particularly arduous, the combination of physical activities throughout the day pushed the physical and mental abilities of competitors to their limits, said Sgt. Jose De La Torre, of the 2nd Infantry Division.

The first physical event included a sprint-drag-carry with 225 pounds in a litter, a 10-pound ball throw, deadlifts, t-pushups, leg tucks, and a two-mile run.

De La Torre said that the two-mile run with boots was the hardest because it came last after all of the other physical activities. His time was a respectable 16:45.

Before enlisting, De La Torre said he was a welder at a chemical plant in Houston. The plant closed, however, and De La Torre was laid off. He then joined the Army, though it was something he said he'd been thinking about doing for some time.

Now at Joint Base Lewis-McCord, Washington, the sergeant said he regularly fires 120mm mortars from his Stryker, something he said is "an awesome task."

He's also seen combat in Afghanistan in 2013. While there, his unit helped to train Afghan security forces.

Sgt. 1st Class Jeremy Murphy, an indirect fire Infantryman who also serves as a drill sergeant at Fort Benning, was one of about two dozen evaluators at BMC.

The reason for scheduling the grueling physical fitness activity early in the day was to add to the stress later on with the mortar tasks, Murphy said. Soldiers need to be able to think clearly while under stress, particularly in combat.

Murphy himself has seen combat in multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and has used the 60mm, 81mm and 120mm mortars for both defensive and offensive operations.

The competitors ran about a mile to their next series of events, just as daylight broke.

Soldiers had to hold a 35-pound, 120mm mortar round at arms' length for as long as possible. Then, competitors ran across a field and each Soldier shifted a 120mm mortar tube around a mortar system baseplate.

Moving a 120mm mortar system around isn't easy, Murphy said, explaining that the baseplate weighs 136 pounds, the tube 110 pounds and the bipod 78 pounds, not including the sighting instrumentation.

Once this was accomplished, Soldiers paired up and ran across a field hauling the baseplate, dropping it on the ground and then picking up the tube and running back with it.

Pfc. Christian Barnwell of the 10th Mountain Division said the most difficult part of these tasks was running with the tube and baseplate, because the two Soldiers carrying each piece had to run in step to synchronize their movements.

The mental portion of events involved declination of the M2A2 aiming circle, a tripod-mounted tool that resembles a surveyor's transit. Competitors had to sight in on four aiming points in a six-minute period.

The purpose of the M2A2 aiming circle is to ensure the mortar systems point in the correct fire direction.

Murphy explained that in an operational setting, Soldiers can accomplish this task with either a standard-issue lensatic compass or with the M2A2, but the most accurate reading would be done using both.

The afternoon events included more physical activities, an obstacle and a confidence course.

MORTARMEN AND BMC

Soldiers with the 11C MOS get 14 weeks of basic training with mortars upon enlisting. When they attain the rank of staff sergeant or sergeant first class, they get advanced training at the Infantry Mortar Leader Course. Lieutenants and captains also are eligible to attend IMLC.

Instructions include tactical employment of the mortar platoon, graphics, fire planning, mechanical training, and forward observer and fire direction control procedures.

Fleet said that BMC was designed to test the technical and physical ability of indirect fire Infantrymen. Currently, the competition is open to enlisted Soldiers, private through sergeant first class.

Because graduates of IMLC are considered highly proficient, each of the four-man teams were balanced with two junior Soldiers and up to two IMLC graduates.