While many William and Mary students spent the weekend involved in Homecoming festivities, Russ Baker (‘10) found himself participating in a hand grenade assault, calling in medical evacuation teams and toting a 35-pound pack 10 kilometers in the pouring rain.
"It was awful, it was painful, and I still have cuts, bruises, and blisters from it, but there is no better feeling than that of being part a team, struggling for something that you all want," he said.
Baker was one of ten cadets from the College's ROTC program who recently competed in the 2008 4th Brigade, Eastern Region Ranger Challenge Competition at Fort Pickett, Va., between Oct. 24 and 26.
The competition is considered the "varsity sport" of ROTC and tests "the mental acuity and physical toughness of all involved," according to Army Lt. Col. Doug Pietrowski, chair of the College's military science department.
About 30 ROTC cadets in the College's program - which includes some students from Christopher Newport University - tried out to participate in the challenge. Ten students and two alternates were selected for the team, and they trained for the competition nearly every day for two months.
During the challenge, the William and Mary team faced off against 21 others schools, including the Virginia Military Institute, Duke, East Carolina, University of North Carolina, Old Dominion University, and the University of Virginia.
"Ranger Challenge represents the best cadets from every school in the North Carolina and Virginia ROTC brigade, so to be on the team is a privilege and an honor," said Spencer Sullivan ('10), a history major.
The teams faced a variety of challenges during the weekend, including the the 10-kilometer "ruck" march, a written land-navigation test, basic rifle marksmanship test, a hand-grenade assault course, rope bridge and Army physical fitness test (APFT).
The physical fitness test consists of two minutes of pushups, two minutes of sit-ups, and a two-mile run, said Baker.
"Your scores are recorded and then assigned a certain number of points based on how well you did. The max score for the APFT is 300 points, although it is possible to go above max if you do really well (72-plus pushups, 78-plus sit-ups, and running faster than 13 minutes during the two-mile run)," he said. "We had three people from our 10-person team go over the max in the APFT, and all three were from William and Mary, so I'm really proud to have been one of the four guys selected from our school."
Sullivan said the 10-kilometer march was especially difficult for the team, but the experience taught him "how to push myself physically and emotionally when I thought I had nothing left" and "to put faith in my fellow soldiers to help me when I needed it, and to help them when they needed me."
This is the first year that Kurt Carlson ('10), a double major in Russian and history, has participated in the challenge.
"I improved my soldiering skills and learned a lot about my strengths and weaknesses," he said. "Ranger Challenge is an incredible experience, and helps to make you a better soldier."
Justin Sheppard ('10), a Middle Eastern Studies/Arabic major, has competed with the William and Mary team for three years in the event.
"I love Ranger Challenge because it allows us to get more advanced training on skills we don't get to do all the time in regular ROTC, and it lets us compete with some of the best from all the other schools in the area and see how we match up," he said.
Sheppard said that his favorite thing about the competition is how close the team members get to one another.
"We spend hours every day inside and outside of training together, through the good, the bad, the suck, and the fun, and it really brings everyone close," he said.
William and Mary's team placed eighth overall. Additionally, they placed second in the hand grenade assault course, third in the "STX lanes" (tactical leadership skills), fourth in marksmanship, and fourth in the written land-navigation exam.
Army Capt. Anton Kemps, the College's Ranger Challenge coach and an instructor in the military science department, said that the team would like to have placed higher, but the cadets are happy with the training that the experience provided them.
"I competed in Ranger Challenge because every little bit of training helps you out in the long run," said Baker. "It's all about becoming a better soldier and a better officer. The more often you put yourself in an environment that tests your abilities, your physical stamina, and your mental endurance, the more you learn about yourself; you begin to ask yourself, ‘What do I need to improve on? How could I have handled this situation differently? Am I putting forth every effort I can during training to make sure that things go smoothly during the real thing?' And all of these questions help develop you into a better person, and hopefully a better leader."