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Best Ranger 2015: Down to the Wire

Four two-man teams representing the Guard began this year’s Best Ranger Competition, the mother of all military skill-a-thons. Almost 60 largely sleepless hours later, only one of those pairings remained, a contender on the cusp of making history.

Captain Robert Killian climbs a ladder above Victory Pond at Fort Benning, GA, and when he reaches the top, a log bridge stretches out in front of him. It is roughly 12 inches wide, 25 steps across and 34 feet above the water. In its middle are stairs—two up, two down. Killian pulls himself up and starts walking the narrow plank without so much as pausing. Head down, he pushes himself, as he has throughout the 2015 Best Ranger Competition (BRC), which has now stretched into its third day.

This single test, the combat water survival event, sums up the competition. To cross this bridge, Killian needs to combine talent, courage and the willingness to trust in his training. The slightest stumble would derail him. That’s been true throughout the BRC, and while Killian and his teammate, Georgia Army National Guard Captain Travis Cornwall, have stumbled, they have recovered each time.

Way up there, there would be no way to recover from a stumble.

There would be only a fall, a loud splash and broken hearts.

It’s just not normal for a man to walk across a bridge this thin, this high off the ground, when he’s as exhausted as Killian must be. But then again, nothing about the BRC, or Killian, for that matter, is normal. The BRC is a 60-hour test of military skills, extreme physical endurance and mental acuity. Killian is a world-class endurance athlete, who, along with Cornwall and the other six Guard Soldiers competing in two-man teams, seems to enjoy punishing his body.

If Killian, a member of the 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne) and a detachment commander in the Colorado Army National Guard, wants to win—and, man, does he want that bad—he and Cornwall, who make up Team 10, need to be not just fast in this penultimate event, they need to be the fastest. As it stands, they’re in second place, a precious few points out of first.

Killian never wobbles despite the fact he has barely slept for 56 hours, during which he has run and hiked more than 60 miles, much of it carrying a full ruck. He slows only when he reaches the steps in the middle. After he descends them, Killian practically runs across the rest of the bridge, a mix of applied training and amazing bravado—the most astonishing four seconds in a weekend full of jaw-dropping moments.

That incredible display helps Killian, 33, and Cornwall, 41, win the event. With one event left, it appears they have a real chance to win the 32nd annual BRC, which would be a first for the National Guard in the history of this prestigious contest that pits the elite of the elite against each other.

For Team 10, the BRC has already had more turns than an overnight orienteering session—and there is one more twist nobody sees coming. A win would cap a remarkable two weeks of high-stakes drama that started before the competition when a late switch made Killian and Cornwall teammates. The fact they remain in contention despite their limited time together speaks to their adaptability as well as their tactical skills and athleticism. It’s also a testament to their ability to recover from mistakes, as they fought through several during the competition, starting early on the first day.

 

DAY ONE, FRIDAY APRIL 10:

HIGHS AND LOWS AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN

6 A.M., Opening Ceremony, Camp Rogers 

For the four Guard teams and 47 remaining teams from across the rest of the Army, the Best Ranger Competition will be three days of hell on Earth. They will barely sleep. They will barely eat. They will push themselves to the limit and keep going, not for minutes or hours, but for days. Strength, endurance and determination are required. Pain, exhaustion and frustration are guaranteed.

In the opening ceremonies, all 102 Soldiers look fresh, even though their nerves are packed tighter than the crispest ruck. I watch as they walk a path lined with fans. The few Soldiers who smile do so awkwardly, as if they know they shouldn’t. Their stern faces foreshadow the coming misery. It’s fitting that the first event features push-ups, because throughout the competition their emotions will repeatedly go up and down.

Proof that the BRC is unlike any other sporting event: When competitors finish the 5-mile physical training (PT) run, they encounter their first surprise event. A Ranger hands them body armor and tells them to put it on and run 2 more miles.

And good morning to you, too, Sir. See you in 15 minutes.

8 A.M., Malvesti Obstacle Course 

As Cornwall goes hand over hand across the monkey bars, he reaches for the last bar and tries to put his foot on the ledge at the same time. His hand slips, and he tumbles into the water below.

He starts over, but his arms ache, and he drops again. He slaps the water out of frustration. At the end of the course, Cornwall’s arms are so tired he can’t complete the required six pull-ups, and Team 10 takes its first penalty.

“It’s going to hurt them,” says Command Sergeant Major (Ret.) John Burns, the coach who selected the National Guard competitors and trained them for three months at Fort Benning’s Warrior Training Center (WTC), which holds Army National Guard tryouts for Best Ranger every November. “But it’s still the first day. There’s no reason to get excited just yet.”

There will be plenty of reasons for that later.

CSM Mark Dornbusch (left) and MSG Jason Broyles tackle the Malvesti obstacle course on Day One. Photo by Nathan Leduc

1:51 P.M., Malone Range Complex

Storm clouds cover the range as New York Army National Guard Sergeant Tom Carpenter and Pennsylvania Army National Guard Sergeant First Class Troy Conrad of Team 14 arrive for the stress shoot. Lightning flashes in the distance. As Conrad mounts the shooting stand, the downpour begins.

Soldiers take on the Malone marksmanship event on Day One. Photo by Nathan Leduc

Sitting on the ground, his back to the range (as required), Carpenter looks up at me and GX videographer Monica Waller with a wry grin. So far, he has completed four runs totaling 16 miles, some of it with a full ruck, plus a swim, an obstacle course, sit-ups, push-ups and an urban assault exercise. But he hasn’t lost his sense of humor.

“You guys having fun so far?” he asks.

“Not nearly as much as you are,” I say.

He utters a one-word retort.

A few minutes later, Conrad steps off the stand.

“How’d you do?” Carpenter asks.

“Not good,” Conrad answers. “Can’t see anything.”

Though water drenched his scope, he had no choice but to keep shooting.

And good afternoon to you, too, Sir. See you when it stops raining.

Before the marksmanship event at the Malone Range Complex, SGT Thomas Carpenter (left) and SFC Troy Conrad finish a foot march. Photo by Nathan Leduc

8:15 P.M., Combs Field Holding Area

This place makes “The Walking Dead” look like happy hour. Competitors trickle in from the land navigation exercise and try to put themselves back together, mentally and physically, after a day of rucking, running, obstacle coursing, shooting, swimming and PT testing. The Soldiers display all manner of foot injuries. Competitors who aren’t wiping pus from their feet sleep under their ponchos (or try to). Some gnaw on MREs. Those who walk around do so gingerly.

Fourteen hours into the BRC, cracks open in their psyches. The overhead spotlight keeps shorting out, adding to the somber ambience. Miserable as they are, they know the worst awaits them: the night march, the BRC’s greatest weeding-out event. Soldiers don’t know how far they will ruck or how much weight they will carry, only that “far” and “a lot” are givens. The Rangers who make those decisions are not known for being merciful.

And good evening to you, too, Sir. See you after a long walk.

Master Sergeant Jason Broyles of the Texas Army National Guard lies under a canopy with his feet elevated on his pack, next to his Team 11 counterpart and best friend, Command Sergeant Major Mark Dornbusch, also of the Texas Guard. They languish deep in the standings, and only 24 teams will advance after the night march. “You’ll have to drag me off the field before you’ll get me to stop moving,” Broyles says. “There’s not an ounce of stop or quit in either one of us.”

To stay in the competition, Broyles and Dornbusch must do extraordinarily well on the night march. “I’m never going to quit until I black out,” Dornbusch says. “I’m not going to let [Broyles] down. I’m not going to fail him. I know he wouldn’t do it to me, and I damn sure won’t do it to him.”

Team 12, consisting of First Lieutenants Henry Hensley and Sean Gramm, both of the Maryland National Guard, hasn’t returned from land nav. Despite being first-time BRC entrants, they sit in 10th place.

The rain that disrupted Conrad’s shooting also ruins Team 12’s land nav. Streams turn into heavy creeks; Gramm mistakes one for the other, and they take so long finding their first point that they can’t return to the holding area in time. They call to be picked up, which eliminates them from the competition. Later, they learn they could have returned late and stayed in. Now, three Guard teams remain, and two sit below the cutoff point.

It’s not all bad news: Killian and Cornwall rallied after their poor start. They start the night ruck in first.

 

DAY TWO, SATURDAY APRIL 11

‘WE’RE NOT GIVING UP’

11:30 A.M., Ranger First Responder

Teams 11 and 14 didn’t do well enough in the night march to stay in. Only Team 10 is left. Killian and Cornwall start the day in second after dropping points in night stakes, which involved assembling three guns while wearing night vision goggles and taking written tests.

On Day Two, Cornwall and Killian are the last Guard Soldiers remaining to face the tri-tower climb, the grenade assault course (above), and the Ranger first responder event. Photo by Nathan Leduc

As the Ranger first responder event begins, the pressure mounts for Team 10 to stay within striking distance of first-place Team 38, Sergeants First Class Jeremy Lemma and Timothy Briggs of the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade. Killian runs down a hill to a damaged helicopter and climbs in. Cornwall stays outside, crouched, pointing his weapon forward, providing cover for Killian as he would in real life. Cornwall looks back, trying to see how Killian is doing inside the chopper. There, Killian finds a simulated wounded Soldier. As he works on the injured dummy, purple smoke engulfs him.

The BRC is part athletic event and part military aptitude test, and it's totally relevant to real-world experiences. That is never more obvious than right now. Among the BRC’s 26 military tasks are two vivid combat situations. The Ranger first responder event tests competitors’ rescue abilities, and the urban assault event tests their attack skills.

“There are Rangers around the world … kicking a door in someplace and going into a room and potentially having to shoot somebody,” says Colonel David Fivecoat, commander, Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade, who is in charge of the competition. “We can’t replicate it any better than that.”

2:02 P.M., Tri-tower Climb

The tri-tower climb (pictured below) encapsulates the highs and lows of BRC. Killian and Cornwall ascend and descend the three towers—including a 60-foot rock climb and two rope climbs of roughly two stories—in an exceptional time of 6:21. But their excitement turns to dread when they are assessed a five-minute penalty for being separated by more than an arm’s length as they ran between towers.

The resulting time means Team 10 loses crucial points to Team 38. Hope fades as their deficit grows. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to bridge that gap,” Killian says.

Saying that out loud jolts him from his malaise: “We’re not giving up.”

 

 

DAY THREE, SUNDAY APRIL 12

‘TOO TENSE FOR WORDS’

8:26 A.M., Darby Queen Course Holding Area

Saturday’s desperation is gone. In its place is a glimmer of hope.

And scars.

Cuts cover Cornwall’s hands, neck and face, the result of tromping around Fort Benning during night orienteering. “You’re crawling up these hills, or you’re sliding down them. And these are actually roads,” he says. “I don’t know how a vehicle could get up them. You couldn’t walk down them. And you couldn’t run up them. They’re just dirt and rock.”

The pain was worth it. He and Killian dominated the event, picking up 50 points on Team 38—points that could be the difference between winning and losing the competition.

Two mistakes. Two epic comebacks. Team 10 holds steady in second.

11:30 A.M., Darby Queen Course

With apparatuses named Tarzan, Weaver and Dirty Name, the Darby Queen obstacle course begets a love-hate relationship with competitors. If Killian and Cornwall beat Team 38 in this stage, they will have a small chance to win the BRC. If they don’t, they’ll have no chance.

They rush through the course. At the midway point, Cornwall begins to walk across a rolling log. Burns’ voice booms across the forest: “C’mon, man, trust yourself!”

Cornwall zips across that log and two more. Burns yells again: “That’s the trust I’m looking for! I trust you! I trust you!”

Dizzying news follows: Killian and Cornwall finish behind Team 38 on the Darby Queen course. But Team 38 is penalized for being more than an arm’s length apart on the course.

The penalty narrows the gap in points. The showdown at Victory Pond looms.

2:17 P.M., Victory Pond

Soldiers compete in the the Ranger first responder event. Photo by Nathan Leduc

Killian’s mother-in-law, Annie-Marie Bone, stands near Victory Pond, site of the combat water survival test. She summarizes the mood: “Too tense for words.”

After Killian finishes the course, he falls to his knees. His back heaves. His lungs gulp air. Cornwall pats him on the back and lifts him to his feet.

The win seems close now. Finishing first overall would mean bragging rights for life. No more wisecracks about the National Guard being the little brother to the Active Duty Army. No more Facebook jokes. No more, What are they doing here?

Scoreboard updates lag behind. By Killian’s math, Team 10 holds a 10-point lead with one event left. It looks like Killian and Cornwall must simply finish within a few places of Team 38 in the competition-ending buddy run—which, in true BRC fashion, will be of a length known only to the competition’s organizers—and they will win the BRC.

Looks can be deceiving.

2:55 P.M., Camp Rogers

Moments before the start of the run, Burns is so mad he’s sputtering. The scoreboard has been updated, and it appears to be wrong. Instead of reporting a 10-point lead for Killian and Cornwall, it shows a 34-point deficit.

Burns can’t find anybody who can explain it. It is at least an hour before he learns that Team 10 was assessed a penalty at Darby Queen, though no officials mentioned it at the time.

At the starting line, Killian and Cornwall don’t understand the scoreboard either. Five minutes ago, the buddy run looked like the climax of an epic battle. Now it’s like they’re lining up to kick a game-winning field goal and finding out they’re actually down two touchdowns. They pour themselves into the run anyway. They finish second, and that’s where they finish the competition, too, 22 points behind Team 38.

Cornwall (left) and partner Killian cross the finish line after a thrilling comeback. Photo by Nathan Leduc

4:29 P.M., Outside the Award Ceremony

The what-ifs haunt them. Take away the Malvesti blunder or erase the tri-tower mistake, and they would be champions no matter what happened at Darby Queen.

Cornwall holds the youngest of his seven kids, Bo Riste Cornwall—with the initials “BRC,” he was born five days before the competition two years ago. Cornwall’s daughters, Nancy, 3, and Sally, 6, hug his hips. He says he’s done with the competition. He has competed four times, and he doesn’t want to put his family through it again.

Killian is experiencing deja vu. His team led the competition last year until a penalty on the final day dropped it to second.

He vows to keep coming back to the Best Ranger Competition until he wins it. He’s proud of all the drama he and Cornwall overcame, of the astounding night orienteering and the insane run across the bridge at the combat water survival test and all the rest of their astonishing feats. But Killian also knows this: Nobody remembers who finished second.

And good night to you, too, Sir. See you next year. 

 


 


SOLDIER SUPPORT AT ALL LEVELS

Sightings on the ground, from stars to the starry-eyed

 

THE GODFATHER OF THE BRC

The namesake of the official title of the Best Ranger Competition, Lieutenant General (Ret.) David E. Grange, a Ranger who deployed in WWII, Korea and Vietnam, was a dominant presence at the event, even at 90 years old. His three Silver Stars and more than 40 other combat awards in his 41 years in the Army give him unmistakable gravity. Rangers young, old and in between are drawn to him during the three days of competition. Nobody’s hand gets shaken more than his. GX caught up with him while he took in the action.

On what it takes to win: “Hope is not one of the factors here. You have to be determined to do it.”

On the National Guard competitors: “They get better every year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a National Guard team win because they train hard for it and are determined to win. That’s very important to do that, because it’s not easy. You have to know your stuff.”

On which event is the most difficult: “I think just humping that rucksack around for three days is tough enough. Have you picked one up yet? Try that. Pick one up, and run across the street, or run a couple blocks and see how you feel. You’ll break a sweat, I guarantee you that.”

 

FEEDING THE BEAST

Captain Robert Killian, the 2010 All-Army Male Athlete of the Year, is a world-class triathlete described by those who train with him as “a beast,” “a freak of nature,” “a gazelle,” “a fish” and “a superhero.”

Killian’s also a picky and voracious eater. His wife, Maxine, says Killian is obsessive about what he eats because he needs precise amounts of fuel at precise times to keep up with his training regimen. Though he’s so skinny he has to stand sideways to cast a shadow, he eats enough for three or four men.

During the training leading up to the competition, Killian and the other National Guard competitors burned 6,000 to 8,000 calories per day, but they surpassed that during the competition, subsisting on only five MREs apiece.

 

BRAGGING RIGHTS

Major General Glen E. Moore, deputy commanding general, Army National Guard, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, jogged alongside the Darby Queen obstacle course as Killian and Cornwall competed on it. “Looking good, aren’t they?” he said, wearing a huge grin. We asked him a few questions while he cheered them on.

Put into context the scope of the bragging rights if a Guard team wins this.

“Oh, it’s huge. The Guard, we’re like the little brother. So if you’ve got something like that that you can brag on, it would be huge.”

Is it worth bragging about finishing second? 

“Absolutely. For sure. Just to have as many teams as we had competing is a huge deal. Finishing second—in the top five—that’s awesome.”

Have you run this course?

“I have not. I would like to—when nobody’s around, and if there’s not a watch on it.”

What does it say about a Soldier to enter this contest? 

“It’s commitment [and] perseverance. Just to say, ‘Yeah I want to do that,’ really speaks a lot about the folks who try out. It makes me proud to have Guard Soldiers that want to do that.”

 

TOMORROW’S COMPETITORS?

Team 10 had arguably the biggest fan base in the competition and unquestionably the loudest. That was no surprise considering Cornwall has seven kids, and as many nieces and nephews attending, too. Most of them carried cowbells, and as they ran along with Killian and Cornwall at various competitions, those bells clanged their allegiance.

One fun moment occurred while the Cornwall kids were waiting for their dad to run through the Darby Queen. They were getting antsy, so Wisconsin National Guard First Lieutenant Nicholas Plocar, a three-time BRC veteran who sat this year out because he’s enrolled in the Special Forces Qualification Course, ran them through mini-PT. Plocar, who in previous years competed separately with both Killian and Cornwall, ordered the kids to do 10 push-ups, 10 sit-ups and run in place for 10 minutes. They did so happily.


MEET THE GUARD TEAMS

 Photos from U.S. Army

TEAM 10

CPT Robert Killian

Colorado Army National Guard

BRC history: 23rd in 2009; 6th in 2012; 2nd in 2014

Unit: Operational Detachment Alpha 9522, 5th Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne)

MOS: 18A Special Forces Officer

Unique factor: 2010 All-Army Male Athlete of the Year; he has raced in 31 triathlons 

BRC advice: “You have to make no mistakes. The physical stuff is easy. Here’s the start point, there’s the finish point, go. Here’s some extra weight, no big deal. But the technical stuff—you have to do it by the book, by the regulation, no mistakes, no errors.”

 

CPT Travis Cornwall

Georgia Army National Guard

BRC history: 7th in 2012; 7th in 2013; eliminated in 2014 due to partner injury

Unit: 1/108th Cavalry Squadron, 48th Infantry Brigade

MOS: 11A Infantry Officer

Favorite early sport: Played college football

On his results: “You look at the things you made a few little mistakes on that you could have done so much better, that’s kind of hard. You gave it your all, and you made silly mistakes that cost you the championship.”

 

Photos from U.S. Army

TEAM 11

CSM Mark Dornbusch

Texas Army National Guard

BRC history: First-time competitor

Unit: 3/141st Infantry Regiment

MOS: 11B Infantryman

Staying fit on deployment: Coached CrossFit in Afghanistan

On BRC brotherhood: “One of the best experiences of my career. … It’s being around that caliber of men—the most physically fit and tactically proficient Soldiers I’ve ever been around.”

 

MSG Jason Broyles

Texas Army National Guard

BRC history: 11th in 2014

Unit: 3/141st Infantry Regiment

MOS: 11B Infantryman

Like father, like son: His dad, Jim, was a Ranger.

On the opposition: “At this level of competition, everyone is fast and strong. You’re not special anymore. It’s called Best Ranger for a reason.”

 

Photos from U.S. Army

TEAM 12

1LT Henry Hensley

Maryland Army National Guard

BRC history: Alternate in 2014

Unit: 1/175th Infantry Regiment

MOS: 11A Infantry Officer

Running for gold: Competed in ultramarathons and Ironman triathlons while in college

On meeting challenges: “There’s nothing insanely difficult about any of the events themselves individually. … But then trying to put it all together with one individual to be so proficient across a broad range of things—it’s a lot more difficult.”

 

1LT Sean Gramm

Maryland Army National Guard

BRC history: First-time competitor

Unit: 1/175th Infantry Regiment

MOS: 11A Infantry Officer

Leg strong: Kickboxed in high school

On balance: “I go for consistency. I’m not going to kill everybody on the ruck march, but I’m not going to be last. I’m going to place well on each individual event.”

 

Photos from U.S. Army

TEAM 14

SGT Thomas Carpenter

New York Army National Guard

BRC history: First-time competitor

Unit: 2/108th Infantry, 27th Brigade, 42nd Infantry Division

MOS: 11B Infantryman

Sports enthusiast: Wrestling and football are among his favorite sports

No pain, no gain: “I have a sour taste in my mouth. I feel I have to at least complete it. I’m going to try for next year. We were prepared for it. It’s just that my knee kind of died.”

 

SFC Troy Conrad

Pennsylvania Army National Guard

BRC history: First-time competitor

Unit: 1/112th Infantry, 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team

MOS: 11B Infantryman

Athletic personality: Played three sports in high school: football, wrestling and baseball

On BRC pride: “This is a pool of the top guys. No longer is there a single top dog. It’s like all the Olympic athletes all put together.”