Soldiers competed in a daytime land navigation course on a Fort Bragg range, Sept. 29, 2022. Photo by Jenna Biter/Coffee or Die Magazine.
FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Wearing only Army PT shorts and T-shirts, the soldiers stood by squad, in queues of five, and shook out their legs to stay warm in the early-morning chill as they waited for their shot at pushups and situps.
The wind blowing across the field reminded competitors that Hurricane Ian was on its way to North Carolina. But the gusts also gave the soldiers cover — they could blame the cold for their chattering teeth and shivers, rather than being nervous for the start of the grueling weeklong contest that had brought them to Pike Field on this chilly Thursday morning, Sept. 29.
At promptly 6:30 a.m., the first soldiers started their reps and the first event of the first Army-wide Best Squad competition was underway at Fort Bragg. In all, 60 soldiers in 12 squads worked through the first event of the eight-day gauntlet, the Expert Physical Fitness Test.
One infantryman — who traveled with his four squadmates from the 25th Infantry Division in Oahu, Hawaii, to represent US Army Pacific, or USARPAC — told Coffee or Die Magazine that he wasn’t ready for the weather.
Sixty soldiers participated in an Expert Physical Fitness Assessment, including a spring-drag-carry shuttle exercise on Pike Field, Fort Bragg, Sept. 29, 2022. Photo by Jenna Biter/Coffee or Die Magazine.
“I wasn’t expecting it to be this cold,” Spc. Jonathan Woolsey said.
The Army Pacific squad, nicknamed the "Wolfhounds," traveled 15 hours on the previous Monday to get to Fort Bragg.
“I was hoping it would still be a little warm," Woolsey said. "The wind and cold is kind of getting me a little bit."
Seemingly immune to the weather, cadre looked on with expressionless faces, jotting down scores and instructing competitors when to start and stop.
"Get set, go," a timekeeper said as the next group of soldiers lay belly down, ready for pushups.
The dozen squads, each representing a different command in the Army, started competition on Thursday. For the next week, they'll compete in events as diverse as obstacle courses, shooting lanes, and, for those who advance to the final round, an interview board. The contest is the largest of an Army-wide initiative to inject competition among units into training doctrine across a wide range of jobs, from Special Forces combat divers to intelligence interpreters.
After the basic exercises, the soldiers moved on to the sprint-drag-carry, a shuttle exercise over 50 meters. Soldiers had to sprint, complete a 90-pound sled pull, shuffle laterally, carry 40-pound kettle bells, and then make a dash to the finish line.
“I was very impressed with my team. We crushed the PT test," Woolsey said.
Soldiers competing in the Army's first branchwide Best Squad competition took a one-hour written exam at the Noncommissioned Officer Academy building at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Sept. 29, 2022. Photo by Jenna Biter/Coffee or Die Magazine.
The last portion of the fitness test was a timed run. Depending on military occupational specialty, or MOS, soldiers had to run 2 or 4 miles. The distance was determined by the requirements for each soldier's "expert" badge in their MOS. Infantry who qualify for the Expert Infantryman Badge had to run 4 to match that badge's requirements. Those in other specialties such as medics, who can earn the Expert Field Medical Badge, ran 2.
"We were one of the first teams to finish the 4-mile run," Woolsey said. "So we’re feeling pretty confident right now."
Over the past two weeks, the USARPAC squad worked out three times a day, according to Woolsey. "Breakfast, lunch, and dinner," he said.
After the fitness test, the soldiers changed into garrison uniforms with a number patch from one to 12 on their right shoulder to indicate their squad and moved inside for a one-hour written exam that tested basic Army knowledge.
Questions were secret, according to a spokesperson. "If you are caught cheating, you will have the examination taken from you at that time,” the sergeant major briefing the event said.
Noncommissioned officers took one test, and junior soldiers another. After 25 minutes, the first finishers started making their way out.
As the day wore on, soldiers tackled a daytime land navigation course, or land nav. Each soldier had to navigate to three of four waypoints, 800 to 1,000 meters apart, within three hours to pass.
Soldiers in the Army's Best Squad Competition completed an Expert Physical Fitness Assessment on Pike Field, Fort Bragg, Sept. 29, 2022. Photo by Jenna Biter/Coffee or Die Magazine.
“Luckily coming from Hawaii we do a lot of land nav in more jungle environments, so I’m not too worried about the forest of North Carolina,” Woolsey said.
After dark Thursday night, the soldiers will have to navigate through a second course, and Friday, the competitors will have to zero their weapons, work mock patrol lanes where they might encounter an ambush or IED, and rotate through about 10 stations that test "warrior tasks" like loading and unloading weapons and using hand grenades.
Standings won't be announced until Wednesday, Oct. 5, but Woolsey and his squad are feeling confident. “We’re holding out pretty well so far," USARPAC squad member Sgt. Logan Dornon said. "We’re just crushing events."
Read Next: Who Makes the Army’s ‘Best Squad’? Soldiers From 12 Commands Compete This Week at Fort Bragg
Jenna Biter is a staff writer at Coffee or Die Magazine. She has a master’s degree in national security and is a Russian language student. When she’s not writing, Jenna can be found reading classics, running, or learning new things, like the constellations in the night sky. Her husband is on active duty in the US military. Know a good story about national security or the military? Email Jenna.
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