FORT POLK, LA. -- It takes a grueling competition to test the best the U.S. Army has to offer. However, the Army has challenges for even the most elite athletes, as a marathon runner and his partner, a world-class triathlete, found out in May.
A two-man team of officers from 5th Battalion, 25th Field Artillery Regiment -- 1st Lt. Grant Barge and Capt. Robert Killian -- competed in and completed the 26th Annual Best Ranger Competition at Fort Benning, Ga., May 8-10. Barge, a platoon leader with Battery A and marathon runner from West Palm Beach, Fla., and Killian, a battalion signal officer and world-class triathlete from Charleston, S.C., finished in 23rd place.
"We didn't win by any stretch (of the imagination), but certainly more than half didn't even make it to the end," said Barge. "So we hold our heads up on that account."
Forty-nine teams began the competition on day one, including three teams from Fort Polk, but only 26 teams would start day two. Subsequently, only 24 ranger teams crossed the finish line. Barge and Killian's partnership was the only team from all of 10th Mountain Division's four brigades to compete in the event and the only team from Fort Polk to finish the competition.
The competition started with a 5-mile buddy run in body armor. Then participants had to negotiate the infamous Ranger School obstacle course. Day one continued with an airborne spot jump, stress shoots and land navigation. Finally, the Rangers completed a 20-mile road march; only about half of the teams crossed the finish line.
Day two consisted of tactical tasks, such as grenades, FBCB2 (Force XXI Battlefield Command Brigade and Below -- a communication platform designed to track friendly forces), and individual infantry tasks. The final event for day two, a night land navigation course, eliminated two more teams. The final day included a water-confidence course, helicopter cast, canoeing down the Chattahoochee River and a buddy run.
"It (the competition) encompassed a lot of moving. I don't ever want to wear a rucksack (again). That thing; if I could burn it, I would," expressed Barge. "Having 70 pounds on your back for three straight days got old quick."
Barge was just kidding, at least partly anyway. Even as elite Army athletes, both Barge and Killian had their difficulties. Day one was physically challenging for Barge, a former college baseball player who has run 10 full marathons, and Killian, who is a triathlete now competing in All-Army triathlon with aspirations of competing in the Olympics, had to provide some necessary motivation. But, in the end, both teammates would need encouragement.
"There were times when I wanted to quit and say, 'This just isn't worth it.' But he kept me focused on Friday night during the road march," said Barge. "On Saturday night, during the land navigation, we got lost and he wanted to quit. I had a second wind somehow.
"So he helped me the first night, I helped him the second night; and we got through it," said Barge. "Our friendship was really put to the test. There were many moments when it was like, 'Come on; suck it up. Let's go!'"
Barge said the 20-mile ruck march started at 12:30 a.m. and the rangers didn't know the distance of the event, so the teams marched until they were told to stop. "It took all of me to get through this thing; the cramping was just miserable," continued Barge, who said he had not eaten all day because of a rookie mistake, packing all of his food in the bottom of his rucksack. "We had already done about 28 miles of running throughout the course of the day, and then that kicker at the end of the day -- it stunk. But thankfully, we made it."
Although Barge and Killian trained for three months after redeploying to Fort Polk from Iraq, they made other rookie mistakes, according to Barge. Their training consisted of running, biking and swimming to become "incredibly fit," said Barge, calling himself and Killian, who competed in cross country track and field events at the Citadel, fitness junkies. Shooting a rifle, including stress shoots, and technical tasks constituted the bulk of scoring for the Best Ranger competition, he said. "So our strategy was not there; we didn't know what we were doing," explained Barge.
However, simply ruckmarching long distances to train would not have properly prepared him and Killian for the competition, said Barge, who credited their fitness level for the team finishing the competition when so many others did not. In fact, the 5th Bn, 25th FA team finished in the top 10 of every fitness event, said Barge.
"It is a fitness competition. If you don't have that base in you, you are not going to make it," expressed Barge. "It still hurt us, and I would like to think we were probably one of the fittest teams there, and it broke both of us off pretty bad."
Barge thanks and acknowledges everyone from Patriot Brigade, including Col. Mark Dewhurst, brigade commander, and 5th Bn, 25th FA who gave him and Killian the opportunity and support to compete in the Best Ranger competition last month.
Barge admires Killian's strong will and appreciates his encouragement. Also, he said his experience in the Best Ranger competition will benefit him, especially in overcoming mental challenges.
"Even doing marathons where you hit the wall and you break through it, I have never been mentally tested like this in my entire life," said Barge. "I can't imagine there ever being a point where I was in as tough a shape as I was the night of the road march, and still got through it; that mentally you can go so much farther than your mind and your body are telling you. It is going to pay huge dividends for my future in running.
"It is well worth the pain and effort to cross the finish line and to have hundreds, if not thousands, of people cheering as you come in," said Barge. "It was worth losing all of the skin on my feet and my back. It is the best thing I've done in the Army, hands down."