The lightning crackling down from the sky was violently awesome, threatening the surface of the earth in perfect concert with driving rains and wind that reduced visibility to (maybe) a few feet on the interstate. At the airbrief the day prior, the aviation folks warned that conditions looked dubious at best for Sunday’s helocast. Judging by the extreme conditions I was driving through on my way to Fort Benning, I was certain no pilot would greenlight a flight in this weather. Moments later, a text from the media coordinator confirmed as much.
Day three of the 2019 Best Ranger Competition was complicated by the weather, but the competitors were unphased by it after surviving a long night of land navigation in the Blue Ridge mountains. Team 19 had held on to their lead, and with the helocast canceled, the three events left were the Darby Queen obstacle course, a combat water survival assessment (CWSA) at Victory Pond, and a two-mile buddy run to the finish line.
Only 16 of the original 54 teams remained.
The Darby Queen is a mile-long obstacle course that presents all who dare it with rough terrain, forcing competitors up dizzying heights and under barbed wire just inches off the ground. The course tests endurance, strength, coordination, and, for the competitors at this point in their quest to be crowned Best Ranger, mental fortitude.
I ran alongside Team 38’s Sergeant 1st Class Bennette Purdy and Sergeant Dylan Henry from the 75th Ranger Regiment for their attempt at the course, trying my best to keep up with them while holding the camera steady. They were visibly tired, yet still gliding through the course as if it were nothing more than a morning jog. Each of the 24 obstacles was expertly negotiated, with Purdy pulling ahead at times and Henry at others. They finished with a dead sprint to the end, just before the competition was halted for weather.
A few hours later, back at Victory Pond, it was game on again. Each team cycled through a 35-foot-high log walk out to a rope, where they climbed horizontally to slap a large Ranger tab before dropping not-so-gracefully into the water below. After reaching land, the competitor would sprint to a tower 75-feet high, where they would once again descend to the water via a “slide for life” zip line. If you are someone who doesn’t do well with heights or water, you’d do well to avoid this particular challenge. But given the extreme physical nature of the past few days for the competitors, I have a feeling that this was one of the easier events.
The clouds were low and moving fast but still holding out. It looked like the buddy run to the finish line might go off without a hitch. After 60 hours of continuous, intense competition and more than 60 miles covered on foot, only two more miles stood between the remaining Rangers and sleep, food, and rest. Team 19 retained their first-place position through the Darby Queen and CWSA, but any team left standing at this point had much to be proud of.
The crowd of spectators, media, and event organizers back at the finish line on Camp Rogers waited eagerly to see the first buddy team turn the corner toward the home stretch. I fiddled with my cameras and jockeyed for position with my tripod amongst the other media outlets present. I reflected on what I had witnessed the past few days, a true testament of the human spirit — and how lucky we are as a nation to have these great NCOs and officers in our military.
Finally, the crowd burst into cheers and applause as team after team rounded the final corner. Most crossed the finish line with their rifles raised high in the air. Many of the competitors embraced in a hug, knowing they worked together to endure something spectacular. Each team immediately left the main road, moving toward the waiting medical personnel. There’s no doubt most of the competitors will be feeling the effects of their efforts for days to come.
Team 19’s Captain John Bergman and Captain Michael Rose, both from the 101st Airborne Division, held on to their No. 1 spot in the rankings and were crowned the victors of the 2019 Best Ranger Competition. Unlike lesser races, you get more than a T-shirt and a pat on the back for winning: Bergman and Rose, who have previously won the competition (for Rose, this is his third title), are each being inducted into the Order of St. Maurice, taking home a .45-caliber pistol from Colt, a Noveske rifle from Black Rifle Coffee Company, and many other high-end tactical and firearms accessories as part of an impressive prize package.
As a veteran of 1st Ranger Battalion, I’ve known many Rangers who have volunteered to be tested in this grueling competition. I’ve always held them in high esteem because I had heard the stories, seen the footage, and recognized how difficult it must be. But seeing the punishment these teams endure in person is very different. And unlike athletes in other sports at a similar level, they don’t go home to multi-million dollar endorsement deals or international fame. They go back to work, train their soldiers, and — for many — go back into the quiet fight to eradicate terrorism wherever it may be found.
Rangers, truly, lead the way.