Imagine an extremely physical competition that lasts for over 60 continuous hours, requiring competitors to travel nearly 100 miles on foot – at times carrying up to 80 pounds of equipment – without any scheduled sleep and a limited food supply.
That is exactly what three Nebraska Army National Guard Soldiers faced, recently, when they were selected to compete in the U.S. Army’s 34th Annual David E. Grange Jr. Best Ranger Competition, April 7 – 9, at Fort Benning, Ga. The grueling three-day event included 52 two-Soldier teams competing to be named Best Ranger. Out of the eight National Guard Soldiers selected to compete in the prestigious competition, three were from Nebraska.
“This is a world class competition,” said Lt. Col. Tom Golden, commander of 1-134th Cavalry, which sent the three Nebraska Soldiers to the competition. “The fact we sent three individuals says a lot about the caliber of Soldier in the Nebraska Army National Guard.”
This year actually marked the second time that the Nebraska National Guard has sent Soldiers to compete in the Best Ranger competition. In 2016, the Nebraska Army National Guard had two soldiers selected to compete in the event. Unfortunately, due to an injury, only Staff Sgt. Luke Katz, of the Mead Training Site-based Detachment 2, 165th Quartermaster Company was able to compete.
Katz, a native of Fairbury, Nebraska, ultimately finished in 17th place.
This year, Staff Sgt. Nathan Neuvirth, West Point, Nebraska; Staff Sgt. Jose Torres-Garcia of Lexington, Nebraska; and Katz, all with the Mead Training Site’s Company E (Long Range Surveillance), 1-134th Cavalry, set out to Fort Benning in hopes of being named Best Ranger.
In preparation for the Best Ranger Competition Neuvirth, Torres-Garcia and Katz spent three months at Fort Benning training with the other National Guard selectees. The three months of training gave the Soldiers the opportunity to hone their Ranger skills and abilities, and prepare them for the competition, which is designed to simulate battlefield conditions.
Prior to the competition, the National Guard representatives were broken down into four teams. The teams were designed so one Soldier would complement his teammate’s strengths and skillset. Coincidentally, Neuvirth and Torres-Garcia were teamed together while Katz was teamed with Sgt. 1st Class Troy Conrad of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.
The first day of competition began at 6:15 a.m. at the famed Camp Rogers, one of the main training sites for the Rangers. The day’s events included a swim across Victory Pond, a physically intense obstacle course, a body armor run, an urban assault course, and a “stress shoot” that was designed to test the Soldiers’ ability to engage targets with their weapons while under physical duress. To top it all off, the Soldiers then completed a nearly 20-mile foot march at the end of the day.
The only rest competitors might have received was in between events and that was only for the few lucky ones who finished an event quick enough before the next event started. Otherwise, there was no scheduled rest.
“It was a very humbling experience,” said Torres-Garcia, a 2002 graduate of Lexington High School who currently works as an intensive care unit nurse at Good Samaritan Hospital in Kearney. “There were a lot of talented, tough guys out there.”
Unfortunately, Neuvirth and Torres-Garcia were medically dropped from the competition during the foot march event. At about Mile 10 of the march, Neuvirth said his hip locked up, which caused him to stop every 100 – 150 feet to stretch it out. In doing so, a lot of other teams started to pass them. Neuvirth said he knew he wouldn’t be able to make it the rest of the way.
“This is definitely one of the toughest things I’ve ever done,” said Neuvirth, a 2004 graduate of West Point Central Catholic who currently works in concrete construction and foundation repair. “It’s meant to determine who’s the best of the best.”
The foot march rolled right into the next day of competition. Once each team finished the march, they then started the “Night Stakes” events, which were essentially a series of tasks and skills the competitors were required to complete in the dark. The rest of the day was comprised of a “Spartan Race,” “Day Stakes” and night orienteering.
Again, the last event of the day continued into the next day of competition.
Once each team finished the night orienteering, competitors had to conquer the “Darby Queen” obstacle course. Once completed, the competitors then performed a helocast into Victory Pond that required the teams two swim to shore and then perform combat water survival assessments.
Finally, the last event of the competition was a buddy run to Camp Rogers, where friends and family cheering welcomed the competitors.
By the end of the three-day competition, Katz and his teammate, Conrad, made their way to a 10th place finish. Although the 10th place finish was not as high as Katz had hoped, it was a seven-place improvement over the previous year’s finish.
All three of Nebraska’s competitors stated they hope to return and compete again in 2018.
“I’m very proud of all three of them,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Marty Baker, Nebraska Army National Guard state command sergeant major. “It’s an honor to know them and the entire state is proud of them.”
“More importantly, the real winner of this competition is these three Soldiers’ unit,” Baker added. “They are going to take the skills that they learned at the Best Ranger competition and make their organization better.”