FORT BENNING, Ga. – For three nearly nonstop days, some of the Army’s most-skilled soldiers overcame a lack of sleep to tough out brutal obstacle courses, miles-long runs and marches, and weapons and tactics challenges as they moved some 75 miles across Fort Benning for a chance at the title of Best Ranger.
The grueling contest, which tests 52 teams of Ranger School graduates on a wide range of skills, returned to the Army post in Georgia last week after a rare cancelation in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic stopped nearly all military movement last spring. In the end, a team of first lieutenants from Fort Benning’s own 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment walked away the winners of the 37th annual Best Ranger Competition.
“It’s really a testament to what these individuals do in Ranger School – limited sleep, limited food, moving long distances with different amounts of poundage on your back,” said Col. Antwan Dunmyer, the commander of Fort Benning’s Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade, which hosts the competition. “Just strenuous activity that is mentally and physically draining – to include having to execute various technical and tactical skills along the way. I mean, this is the Super Bowl for the Army right here. This is the Super Bowl for Rangers.”
The competition began Friday with a predawn nine-mile run and ended Sunday afternoon with a final buddy run that saw Rangers 1st Lt. Vince Paikowski and 1st Lt. Alastair Keys cross the finish line first. In between those runs, competitors navigated a series of obstacle courses, an urban-assault course, eight marksmanship events with various firearms, a combat-fitness test, swims across Victory Pond, a nighttime land navigation course, and fast-rope jumps out of helicopters.
“That's what we ask our young Rangers to be able to do, [and] to be able to train young soldiers to be able to do this successfully in combat,” Dunmyer said. “I mean, everything we see within the Best Ranger competition is what we would do at some point in combat.”
Before last year, Best Ranger had only been canceled twice before – in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm and again in 2003 during the opening weeks of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
That, in part, is why Fort Benning officials worked so hard to hold the signature event of its annual Infantry Week contests this year, said Maj. Gen. David Hodne, the Army’s chief of infantry, who oversees Infantry Week. Hodne and others began planning in the fall to bring a scaled-back Infantry Week to Fort Benning, and top Army officials in January approved the Best Ranger contest and the Best Sniper event held last week.
Hodne, a veteran of the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, cheered competitors on from the sideline Friday in the opening events of the Best Ranger competition. He said he was awed by the physical and mental displays the – mostly young – soldiers put on in the competition.
“They’re all obviously exceptionally fit,” Hodne said watching as Rangers navigated their first obstacle course of the contest – completing chinups, climbing a rope, and finishing with a swim below razor-wire. “They’re going to show through these days that they have incredible physical skill, marksmanship, and there’s a whole lot of strategy that goes into it.”
The winners, Hodne said, likely found the best pace to navigate the three-day course.
He also said he hopes to see Fort Benning return to a full slate of Infantry Week events next year, bringing back the Army’s Combatives Tournament and its Best Mortar competition, in addition to the Best Ranger and Best Sniper events held this year.
“Each of the competitions are unique and representative of each of these community’s expertise,” Hodne said. “And that’s what I love about them. The sniper and mortar competitions – those really allow for sharing of best practices, techniques, tactics and procedures. And then combatives is really important – that’s close combat, that’s close with and destroy [the enemy]. It’s the spirit of the infantry … and we want to bring that all back.”