“Every time I would listen to great leaders speak they would always say that experts become masters, not by pulling off the fanciest moves but by mastering the fundamentals,” Class of 2021 Cadet John Sweeney, the U.S. Military Academy Black team leader, said a day before the world’s premier 52nd Sandhurst Military Skills Competition began. Yet, unbeknown to himself and the 44 teams that competed this year, he and the rest of USMA Black would be holding the Reginald E. Johnson Memorial Saber marking his team’s victory on Saturday at the U.S. Military Academy.
Sticking to the fundamentals of military mobility and tactics was the key to victory for USMA Black as they tackled 17 obstacles between Friday and Saturday. Courses ranged from the grenade assault course, the Zodiac course where they launched, maneuvered and recovered the Zodiac boat and performed Tactical Casualty Combat Care afterward. On the obstacle course, they utilized tactical mobility, teamwork and problem-solving skills.
Since 1993, West Point has competed against teams around the world to instill military excellence within the Corps of Cadets and establish supremacy within the realm of military strategy and small-unit cohesion. Throughout the 28 years of international rivalry amongst military teams, West Point has won three competitions, however, USMA Black’s recent win was achieved through the unique challenges COVID-19 presented.
This year, the pandemic changed the competitive landscape turning what is normally an international competition into a national one. Teams, this year, consisted of the U.S. Naval, Air Force and Coast Guard academies, 22 U.S. Corps of Cadet company teams, 16 Reserve Officers' Training Corps teams, the USMA Preparatory School team and USMA Black and Gold teams all vying for pre-eminence. Nevertheless, on Friday, the competition was nearly deadlocked as many teams had their cutthroat moments, making it difficult for USMA Black to earn its victory.
“It's been a constant, uphill battle, I would say, for our team, because we have such limited experience. We have only three people who have ever actually been to West Point to compete. The rest of our team are all freshmen and sophomores,” Class of 2021 Cadet Benjamin Dioruggiero, from the USAFA team, said during the competition. “Even so, we prepared rigorously for the competition and we’ve been performing well physically, throughout the competition.”
USAFA performed with great intensity, ranking third in the Sandhurst relay leaving USMA Black in fourth place and Navy in fifth place at the junture. Overall, the USAFA finished eighth in the competition.
“Coming to this year’s competition, we prepared based on how it was in past years, but there are many changes that we weren’t prepared for this year,” Class of 2021 Cadet Mikey Baldinger, team leader for the USAFA team, said. “These new changes made everything fun and challenging. We honestly thought that the first day, with us wearing lighter gear, it was going to be easier, but it was honestly just as tough as 2019.”
Training, leading up to the competition, proved to be its own challenge with COVID-19 restrictions causing lockdowns and inhibiting cadets and midshipmen at the service academies, Class of 2022 Midshipmen Dean Muilenburg said. Despite the hindrances, Muilenburg felt the Navy team prepared adequately enough for the competition and believes this experience will help refine the leadership qualities he and his teammates need to become effective future leaders.
“With COVID guidelines in the past months, we've had a lot of lockdowns encumbering our training,” Muilenburg said. “And as I understand, cadets at West Point had the same kind of lockdown, so it’s been difficult for all of us to get the full training workout that we're used to. I still feel like we’re doing well and keeping a steady pace throughout this competition and I feel the experiences we gain during these two days will make us better and more prepared for next year’s competition.”
With most of the Navy team made up of underclassmen, Class of 2022 Midshipman Gabe Jourdonnais, believes by overcoming this year’s grueling Sandhurst trials, the Navy team will return next year with the experience needed to outclass the competition.
Friday’s competition ended with an eight-mile ruck march that started at The Plain near the Superintendent’s house and ended near the bivouac site at Camp Buckner. The competitors rucked six out of the eight miles uphill with the ruck march proving to be one of the most challenging aspects of the entire competition.
“It was nuts,” Baldinger said. “It was eight miles of going 100%. Whenever we’re going downhill we’re sprinting all out and whenever we’re going uphill we’re just driving as fast as we could and taking advantage of whenever the road straightened up.”
Saturday kick started with competitors going through the Marne Obstacle Course followed by the marksmanship course at the M-4 range. The final event of the competition, the Crucible Challenge, took place at Daly Field. The course was designed in the spirit of a grounded military Ninja Warrior obstacle course that tested mental resilience, agility, small-unit cohesion, and the ability to plan and execute during fast-paced mobility. Each team had 15 minutes to complete each obstacle during the three-hour event.
During the last iteration of the Crucible challenge, USMA Black and Gold, Company F-1 and Brigham Young University teams gave it their all to come out on top in the final stretch of the competition.
However, USMA Black was able to finish the challenge first with USMA Gold coming in second place.
“We were lucky enough to start with F-1 and BYU as well. It was really awesome to see them yesterday and to compete alongside them in the heat of the crucible today, it was great,” Sweeney said. “It couldn’t have been a better finish for us and USMA Gold to finish together and everyone put a great finish at the end.”
Later that evening, the Sandhurst Banquet took place in the Cadet Mess Hall to recognize the top winners of the competition. USMA Gold came in as second place team overall behind USMA Black.
Regardless of falling short of their initial goal of taking the top prize, Class of 2022 Cadet Henry Thompson, team leader of USMA Gold, is still proud of how far his team came, he said.
The University of North Georgia ROTC team came away with the ROTC Cup and Ethan Erickson from the College of Saint Benedict Saint John’s University ROTC team earned the Tom Surdyke Leadership Award, which goes to the best squad leader. Company G-4 was awarded the Marksmanship award and USMA Black was recognized for having the fastest eight-mile ruck march time.
Dr. Todd Crowder, an exercise physiologist in the Department of Physical Education, is one of the coaches for the Black and Gold teams. He was overwhelmed with joy to see Black and Gold place first and second in the competition believing that there is no effective teamwork and cohesion without properly establishing trust, loyalty and strong bonds that can last decades.
To this day, Crowder keeps in contact with alumni who once performed with Black and Gold.
“I get emotional during moments like this,” Crowder said. “It never gets tiring watching these young cadets grow and mature into leaders. For me, it’s about these kids and, yes, (to get to this level) you need to be committed to adapting and doing things right and of course it’s a team effort and there’s many people behind the scenes that help guide these talented cadets and I’m just so gratified and so happy for these kids.”