By Spc. Tony HawkinsMay 15, 2009
FORT BENNING, Ga. (USASOC News Service, May 15, 2009) - For the first time in its history, teams from the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade (Airborne) represented their unit in the grueling three-day test of grit known as the Best Ranger Competition at Fort Benning, Ga., May 8-10.
Three teams took part in the event, led by Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Wall, the 95th CA Brigade Command Sergeant Major, and his teammate Maj. Craig Gendreau, the executive officer for the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne).
The other two teams were Capt. Jason Hetzel, a CA team leader from the 91st CA Bn., with Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Vazzana, a CA team sergeant from the 91st CA Battalion; and Sgt. Joshua Jobe, a topographical analyst from the 91st CA Bn., with Sgt. Eric Johnson, a wheeled-vehicle mechanic from the 91st CA Bn.
"There's been a lot of talking about coming down for years, but finally the sergeant major just said we've got to do it," Gendreau said. "We did this, and the sergeant major is really leading the way as the senior NCO in the brigade, to motivate the younger guys in our unit to go to Ranger School and push themselves past their comfort zone."
Wall, who also competed in 1997 while with the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne), agreed that the main purpose for competing was to set the example for his Civil Affairs Soldiers and to stir interest in advanced training opportunities.
"You can talk all day long, but eventually you've got to put on your ACUs, lace up your boots, put your rucksack on and just do it," Wall said. "That's not just for the Best Ranger Competition. If you want to go to Ranger School, SFAS or whatever else, go for it. You'll never know until you give it a try."
That attempt is exactly what he and five other members of the 95th CA Bde., made during the competition.
"We decided we've got nothing to lose, and we're trying to set the example for the younger guys in the unit," he said. "If you get two of the senior guys in the unit coming out here and giving it a shot, hopefully that will inspire some of others to do the same."
Jobe said he was honored to be one of the first Soldiers from the 95th CA Bde., to participate in the competition.
"This was my first time competing," he said. "Other units have people going every year. I feel we should definitely do that and properly represent the 95th CA Brigade."
The 17-event competition is by no means for the faint of heart, said Col. Douglas Flohr, Ranger Training Brigade commander. Flohr and Wall were Ranger buddies 22 years ago when they completed the school together.
"This is a competition that's really designed to highlight what's important about being a Ranger," Flohr said. "What I like about his brigade is that he's a senior guy down here to set an example for his Soldiers. It's the Year of the NCO, and when I see a brigade sergeant major down here, it doesn't get any better than that. That's an organization that really cares about training Soldiers."
During the punishing gut-check, competitors move non-stop for nearly 72 hours, he said. By the third day, more than half of the starting 49 teams had been eliminated.
The competition began with a nearly five-mile Buddy Run to the Darby Queen, a 26-station obstacle course nearly a mile long through the hills of Camp Darby. From there, competitors again ran several miles to complete machine gun and stress shoot ranges. Day One concluded with a land navigation course and an 18-mile road march throughout the night. It was after this event that an elimination occurred, removing all but 26 teams from the event, including the CA teams.
Other events throughout the second and third days included day and night stakes, where competitors went through several stations conducting various tasks, such as weapons assembly; the tri-tower challenge, a 90-foot tower competitors climb then rappel down using fast-rope techniques; and a helocast and swim event at Victory Pond.
Although all three of the teams were eliminated the second day based on points, they were able to gain a good understanding of what the events entail and how to prepare for future competitions.
"I think the breaks killed us," Gendreau said. "Getting our adrenaline up to a certain peak then sitting around for hours really hurt us."
Wall expressed similar sentiments.
"I think we could have kept going," he said. "We were very steady and consistent; the other guys just had more speed."
With half of the brigade deployed at any given time to over 23 countries, and the other half preparing to deploy, not much time was given for the teams to train for the event.
"I guess it's not a good thing to start training for the Best Ranger Competition during the Best Ranger Competition," Wall said laughingly while navigating one of the obstacles on the Darby Queen.
Wall and Gendreau both hope the competition will create interest in advanced training throughout the brigade.
"Go to these challenging courses and do the best you can," Wall said. "You'll never know if you don't try. I have admiration for someone that at least goes and tries, even if you don't make it. But you'll never know with anything in life if you don't try."
Plans are currently in the works to hold two qualifiers within the brigade for next year's competition, one for Soldiers in garrison and the other for those returning from deployments, Gendreau said.
"We want the whole spectrum of the unit, not just guys like us who've ranked our way off of a team," he said. "The 4-man team and 32-man company, those are the core of the brigade. We're made up of small units, and the premier leadership school for small-unit tactics is Ranger School."
It is through those small teams that Civil Affairs is able to conduct their mission of support to local commanders and civilian authorities, such as with providing relief and humanitarian assistance to civilians.
"Civil Affairs Soldiers are gun-toting diplomats who can build ties with local residents, understand the complicated web of relationships in a foreign land, and get projects such as clinics and schools built," said G. Gordon Liddy, a national radio talk show host.
Now that this year's competition is over, training will begin for those desiring to compete next year, Wall said.
"We want to send some teams next year with the intent to win," he said. "I really feel like we're going to have competitive teams in the near future."
Jobe, who said he cannot wait to compete again next year, echoed the emphasis on preparing for the competition well ahead of time.
"Train, train, train!" he said. "Not just months out, start preparing right now on your off time."
Above all else, both Wall and Gendreau agreed that without attempting the unknown, Soldiers will never know what they are truly capable of.
"It's a hard thing to do to put your reputation on the line and do an event not knowing if you're going to make it," Gendreau said. "You don't know your limitations until you go out there and step out of your comfort zone."