Instructors from the U.S. Military Academy can attest, profoundly, to the saying “show, don’t tell.” The act of leadership and its description are not always one and the same, as the officers would put it. It is not enough to simply bark orders or appear as if a person knows what they are doing. As Maj. Will Fuller would explain, a true leader not only “talks the talk,” as it were, but takes the proverbial leap into the unknown to show their cadets how to navigate uncertainty.
Majs. Matthew Snyder, instructor in the Department of Military Instruction, and Fuller, instructor at the Department of Physical Education, took on the challenge to lead by example as they represented the U.S. Military Academy, team 49, competing in the 37th annual David E. Grange Jr. Best Ranger Competition between April 16-19 at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Part of the prerequisites to being a competitor in the Best Ranger Competition is getting Ranger qualified. Moreover, every Soldier in all 50 of the teams that competed donned Ranger tabs, Snyder said.
Fifty teams out of 26 units competed during the competition enduring two grueling days and nights of obstacles that tested their mental awareness and attention to detail, stamina and endurance, and technical proficiency. The 2021 Best Ranger Competition concluded with a total of 16 teams crossing the finish line on April 18. Team USMA finished strong at 13th place, standing out as one of the more competitive teams throughout the competition.
“My reasons for competing are three-fold,” Snyder said. “Firstly, I like to compete. Secondly, I want to maintain my tactical and technical proficiency here at West Point and the third and the most important reason is, here at West Point, we strive for excellence, we expect excellence out of our cadets. So part of my goal was to inspire cadets in the DMI class I teach and across the academy. In competing in the Ranger Competition, I thought I could demonstrate what it means to achieve excellence in our military profession.”
Snyder added how invigorating it was to compete again. The competition was a perfect opportunity for Snyder to display the skills he has honed over the years and challenge himself as a Soldier while representing West Point. Snyder came from an operational unit, and then he went to graduate school. Now, as an instructor at the Academy, there are limited opportunities to maintain that tactical and technical proficiency. The Ranger Competition enticed Snyder to prove his mettle and embrace the physical toil of a modern-day warrior once again.
With a similar desire to lead cadets by example, Fuller also took on the difficult challenge for personal development, to put himself in a position where he can possibly fail or succeed.
“We don’t really find ourselves in highly difficult situations very often in life and for that reason, it’s humbling to go on this difficult journey. Competition is always good, particularly at a high level,” Fuller said. “I have a desire, I think Matt has a desire, everyone that volunteers to compete in this competition have a desire to be around like-minded people who think and act the same way and it’s just really enjoyable to be around people like that who all want to do exceedingly hard things just for the sake of it.”
Fuller added that often leaders at West Point teach cadets how to perform mental and physical tasks. On a regular basis, leaders ask them to be physically tough, mentally strong and resilient and intelligent. However, cadets cannot fully embrace those concepts during their tenure at West Point without seeing how it’s done.
Day one of the event consisted of 12 events ranging from the early morning Mass Start Run to the evening foot march. Day two consisted of night courses ranging from the Night Stakes Challenge, which involved multiple firearms trials. The next event, the Day Stakes Challenge, tested competitors’ weapons assembly skills followed by the grenade assault course along with additional artillery exercises leading up to the land navigation course during the Night Orienteering event.
From the first event through the last event, it was grueling, and at times, it was miserable for Snyder and Fuller. However, there were moments when the two would find great satisfaction after completing an event at an impressive time.
“Will and I had been training up since November for this, and we weren’t sure how we stacked up against everybody else during the days leading up to the competition. In fact, that was probably one of the biggest stressors. We are going to this competition against 50 other teams that are the best of the best, but what we quickly realized after the first event is we are competitive against this field of great competition, we’re a fairly fast team,” Snyder said. “We were fairly strong and technically proficient. So I think as each event went along, we gained confidence throughout the competition, knowing that we were actually performing fairly well. And I think that made it a little bit more fun for us and a little bit more satisfying.”
Despite finding pockets of satisfaction and self-approval during the competition, the two officers faced some of their greatest challenges yet in the Army career. Furthermore, night land navigation on the second night challenged Fuller to the breaking point. The course was six hours long in total.
“There was about an hour-and-a-half period where I was just miserable,” Fuller said. “I started doing what we call ‘droning.’ You get real tired and it’s dark outside, and start seeing things.”
Pain surged through the nerves of his feet, blisters started forming, and Fuller, due to droning, wasn’t providing himself the nutrients needed from his Meal Ready to Eat kit to progress effectively through the course.
“There was a point where I was sort of walking next to Matt silently, just feeling really sad, and then I told him ‘I just need to eat something real quick’ and then Matt gave me a coffee packet and I had a little hot chocolate powder and just threw it in my mouth and then I kind of snapped out of it but there was like an hour-and-a-half there where I was like ‘man, I would really like to sit down.’”
Snyder’s greatest obstacle came at the final event of competition where he and Fuller had to run two miles to the finish line. He added if one were to look at the duration of the whole event, the competitors had endured about 60 hours of obstacles in or around 65 miles.
“When you think of it, another two miles probably isn’t that big of a deal. But I think because of what Will mentioned earlier, we had paced ourselves up to the very end, I think my gas tank was empty and I had really exerted all my energy,” Snyder said. “All the events before the very last event were, for me at least, both physically and mentally the toughest event to get through, which was simply just a run, it was a two-mile run.”
The challenge was overwhelming, but Snyder and Fuller managed to overcome and represent West Point proudly by standing out as one of the top teams among 50 competitors showing cadets how to lead by example.
“From my view, cadets need to see you, the leader, doing the things that you talk about doing. And trust me, it’s easier not to do that, it’s easier to use your time in other ways, but it’s really I think, for our population of cadets, helpful for them to see you be that example,” Fuller said. “I remember being a cadet at West Point. I remember respecting and looking up to and wanting to be the majors and senior captains who I saw out there doing stuff with us, and usually those things are physical and militarily related, but sometimes those things were just kind of sharing that cadet experience. They need to see you doing the stuff that you talk about in the classroom, the field or wherever you are providing instruction.”