Western ROTC cadets take part in Ranger Challenge

Dave Shinall

Battalion commander Maria Rothman woke up Teams Whiskey and Zulu a half hour ahead of schedule Saturday – at 0330 hours.

Waking up early will be the easiest part of a day soldiers call a “gut check.”

The Bonnieville senior’s third Ranger Challenge – her third such gut check – is about to begin.

0500 hours, Army Physical Fitness Test

Two teams from Western’s ROTC battalion are on rain-soaked Victory Field at Fort Knox, Ky., knocking out push-ups, sit-ups and then a 2-mile run.

It’s still dark.

In two minutes, Rothman cranks out 37 push-ups. In another two minutes, she does 80 sit-ups. And she runs two miles in 14:45.

Cadet John Campbell, a sophomore from Hendersonville, Tenn., knocks out 82 push-ups, 90 sit-ups and finishes the run in 10:30.

For Rothman and 19 volunteers from among the 140 cadets she commands, the wake-up and the fitness test are the first phase of Ranger Challenge.

Altogether, 349 cadets on 35 teams take part.

They come from 23 colleges and universities across Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky, representing each battalion in the U.S. Army Cadet Command’s 2nd Region, 3rd Brigade.

Colonel Jonathan White is the brigade commander.

“This is an elite portion of the ROTC program,” White said. “These guys go above and beyond what every other cadet does and, at the same time, they still remain academically aligned for graduation and commissioning. These are the guys that are going to make a big difference in tomorrow’s Army.”

0700 hours, Personal Hygiene

There’s no time for showers. Members of the two teams wipe off the sweat, change out of red sweatshirts and don camouflaged field uniforms.

They strap on pistol belts with ammo pouches, canteens and first aid pockets, slip into rucksacks, and carefully position helmets on their heads, some 30 pounds of equipment.

And they carry M-16s.

En route to Mill Creek Grenade Range, the cadets eat MRE’s for breakfast – Meals, Ready to Eat – 1200 calories in a vacuum-sealed package.

Chicken teriyaki is Rothman’s favorite.

“I like all the chicken MREs pretty much,” she said.

1050 hours, Land Navigation

Running, using maps and compasses, teams have 90 minutes to locate as many of the 36 points that are scattered over the rugged terrain of a wooded, 7,000-square-meter land navigation course.

“We didn’t get lost, but we were late coming in, so we lost some points for that,” Rothman said.

She admits she is beginning to wear down.

“I think it’s affected a lot of cadets out here, going for 90 minutes non-stop,” she said.

Above, the Saturday sky threatens rain.

1250 hours, en route to Training Area Seven

Cadets tear open more MRE’s for lunch. They eat on the move.

1340 hours, Rope Bridge, Mill Creek, Training Area Seven

“This is the most challenging event,” says Vanderbilt’s Master Sgt. Royies Stanley, who is in charge of evaluators for the event. “It’s the essence of teamwork.”

The members of four competing teams tie 13-foot-long ropes around their waists and loop them between their legs. They attach aluminum caribiners to their Swiss seats. The team with the best time wins.

Whiskey Team’s Daniel Thomas and Zulu Team Captain Shane Blankenship charge down a sheer 10-foot embankment into chest-deep water and splash across Mill Creek.

They scale the opposite embankment, pulling 150-foot black nylon ropes which are tied around their waists. Once up, they tie the ropes to 6-foot vertical railroad ties.

Team members left behind securing their ends to railroad ties, too, tugging them taut while screaming, “Pull! Pull! Pull!”

Then cadets, one by one, jump up and hook their Swiss seat caribiners to the ropes. Dangling face-to-the-sky over the creek, legs pumping bicycle fashion, they slide, pull and wiggle themselves across head first along the ropes.

They do it again for the return trip, this time more tired, and the ropes much more slack.

Once all team members are across, their evaluator clicks his stopwatch.

A cadet drops his canteen into the creek. Team Whiskey loses points.

The rope bridge is difficult for Rothman.

“It takes a lot of upper body strength,” she says. “It’s an exhausting event.”

Dripping and muddy, Blankenship is having a great time.

“It’s actually work, but you learn a lot, and it’s fun to do,” he said. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t do it at all.”

Ranger Challenge is a hands-on learning experience for Zulu’s team captain.

“You learn how to lead,” Blankenship says.

1530 hours, Basic Rifle Marksmanship, Clark Range.

Cadets field strip, assemble and perform function checks on their M16’s. Again, best time wins.

After this, they fire three 5.56-millimeter rounds into Canadian bullseye targets to zero their weapons.

Then each empties two five-round magazines into scaled-down targets 25 meters away. Some of the targets are the diameter of a quarter.

Evaluators tally scores.

“Most of them are pretty familiar with weapons, but some of them, it’s their first time firing a weapon,” says Master Sgt. Deborah Johnson, BRM evaluator. “I think they’re surprised by the kick of the weapon. But they’re doing pretty good. They’re hitting the target.”

1730 hours, Patrolling, Bivouac Site 14.

Whiskey Team Captain John Thomas has a lot on his mind right now. In combat, the lives of 10 soldiers, his included, would depend on his planning.

“I’m just trying to focus on what I need to do during the patrol, things I need to put out in my operations order, like what time do we leave the phase line, how to secure the rally point, how to recon the objective,” Thomas said.

Security against an enemy ambush is crucial as cadets move through dense brambles on the way to set up their own ambush 900 meters away. Evaluators follow.

Cadet Joshua Bosley, from Owensboro, has all of two months under his belt as a ROTC cadet.

“I’m really enjoying it, though. High pace. A lot of fun,” he said.

2145 hours, Forced March, Poorman Range Tank Trail.

Whiskey and Zulu “ruck up” and move out on a 10-kilometer forced march over the steep hills aptly named Agony, Misery and Heartbreak.

For this event, their rucksacks are weighted with 45 pounds.

Zulu finishes in one hour, 13 minutes, Whiskey in one hour, 27 minutes.

Ranger Challenge is over.

Team Zulu takes 11th place overall. Whiskey finishes 30th.

A team from Eastern Kentucky University finishes in first place. Xavier takes second and Middle Tennessee State places 3rd.

“I’m really proud about how we did, as far as teamwork and having a good time,” Rothman said. “It was a good experience. We got a lot closer through the competition.”

Reach Dave Shinall at [email protected]