FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — More than 200 Junior ROTC cadets from 24 schools across Missouri, Kansas and as far away as South Dakota visited Fort Leonard Wood Saturday to compete in the seventh Raider Challenge event here.
After nearly 12 hours of competition, a team from Ozark High School, in Ozark, Missouri, took the overall first-place trophy.
Raider Challenge is a team-oriented athletic competition held by Junior ROTC programs across the country, with a focus on strength and fitness. Winning teams have the opportunity to compete at the national level, hosted by U.S. Army Cadet Command.
According to Lt. Col. John Grabowski, who commands the 31st Engineer Battalion — the unit that took the lead on helping with this year’s event — supporting programs like Junior ROTC is “about bringing the next generation on board.”
“I have a philosophy that you have to replace yourself before you’re ready to go to the next step,” Grabowski said. “That’s one of the things I focus on at the battalion level and this is it in a nutshell. These are the future enlisted Soldiers who are going to come to this battalion; these are the future ROTC cadets; and these are the future academy students. These are the motivated kids who want to do more and serve their country, and we’re happy to help them do that.”
Grabowski said this year’s events were spread out across three locations on post and included a five-kilometer ruck march, one-rope bridge construction and crossing, the Physical Endurance Course, four physical team tasks — including tire flips, low crawling, pull ups, water can carry and a portion of the Army Combat Fitness Test “sprint-drag-carry” event — and a two-mile “gauntlet” event, with 35-pound ruck sacks and a 75-pound litter carry. Additionally, the teams were each invited to select two cadets to participate in a 1.5-mile buddy run.
For retired Col. Charles Williams, Waynesville High School Junior ROTC senior Army instructor, it makes sense to have a competition like this on Fort Leonard Wood, and he thanked the service members and civilians who gave time to make the event a success.
“This would be nothing without them,” Williams said. “They make it work, and they make it even better, because Waynesville and schools like Leavenworth (High School, Kansas) are around military installations, so they know the military. Most of these schools — we’ve got a school here from Rapid City, South Dakota — most of them, they don’t see the military, so I think it’s cool for them to be able to come here. They get to see drill sergeants up close and personal; they get to eat in a (Army dining facility), stay in the barracks.”
Assisting the 31st Engineer Battalion with the event were about 50 junior officers attending the Engineer Basic Officer Leader Course here. 2nd Lt. Owen Watts escorted one of the teams throughout the day and assisted with timing some of the events. He said the cadets impressed him.
“My high school didn’t have a Junior ROTC program, so this is my first time being exposed to it, but I’m super impressed by how fit these cadets are,” he said. “It’s a really cool event, but they’re doing a lot in one day, so a lot of respect to them.”
Watts noted how well the cadets worked as a team to accomplish their goals.
“When one person was struggling, they all struggled together,” he said. “They were all pushing each other really hard, staying calm even when things didn’t go as well as they’d hoped. It was really impressive to see.”
Assisting with grading the one-rope bridge piece of the competition were 1st Lt. Cam Kirvan, Sapper Leader Course commander, and Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Pretty, one of the SLC’s instructors. Kirvan said he participated in ROTC in college and often helped with a Junior ROTC program. He had nothing but positive things to say about the program.
“The program is great,” he said. “It builds great students, great people and just makes better citizens.”
Avery Higdon is a junior at Waynesville High School, where she is captain of her school’s Raider Challenge team — the first female Raider team captain in recent memory, she said. Though Waynesville’s competitors didn’t manage to place in the top spot this year, Higdon said she measures their success differently.
“I don’t care what place we got — I think we did really great today,” she said. “No one broke down. No one gave up. Everyone kept going. The communication, the teamwork — we didn’t quit. It sucked a lot sometimes, but we kept going, and that’s how I determine success.”