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Ranger Teams Rise to the Challenge

VMI cadets march in the Ranger Challenge competition.

VMI cadets participate in Ranger Challenge at Fort Knox, Kentucky.—Photo courtesy of Sean Cook.

LEXINGTON, Va., Nov. 7, 2018—It was cold, raining, and just downright miserable. The assigned tasks required plenty of physical strength, plus a commensurate amount of mental toughness.  And yet with the “never say die” spirit of VMI cadets, the two VMI teams competing in Ranger Challenge this fall persevered to finish second and third to the University of North Georgia in the annual competition held at Fort Knox, Kentucky, Oct. 24-28.

“[VMI has] never had two teams finish as high as they did this year in the military brigade competition,” said Sean Cook, who’s in his first year as coach to the Ranger Challenge teams.

The cadets' performance earned them a place at the Sandhurst International Military Skills Competition at West Point April 12-13. 

Described as the “Army ROTC varsity sport” by the U.S. Army Cadet Command, Ranger Challenge involves a written land navigation test, day orienteering, basic rifle marksmanship, and a grenade assault course that must be completed while avoiding paintball snipers. Then there’s the M-16 assembly/disassembly test, a mystery challenge that changes every year, and night orienteering.

To cap it all off, there’s the Army Physical Fitness test, consisting of two minutes of push-ups, two minutes of sit-ups, and a two-mile run—all to be completed when participating cadets are operating on less than six hours of sleep.

“The physical fitness levels that the cadets were at were extremely high,” Cook noted. “From the first event to the last event, they [won] all of the physical events, which really tested their endurance and their capabilities and all they’ve done to get ready for the competition.”

What’s more, the Institute fielded two strong teams of 11 members each, whereas many competing schools only fielded one. “Most schools will stack an A team with their best athletes and best tactical performers, and some schools will split it up. …. We let [the cadets] pick their own teams, and they chose two strong teams,” said Cook.

“Most schools, their A team will come in in 5th place, and their B team will come in in last place,” added Adam Josephson ’19, cadet in charge of Ranger Challenge. “We took second and third together.”

Cook explained that while VMI has won Ranger Challenge events in the past, the Institute has only done so when competing against ROTC units from civilian schools. This year, VMI was competing against the five other senior military colleges and four junior military colleges.

Both Cook and Josephson attributed this year’s stellar finishes to increases in both funding and training time. Ranger Challenge is now classified as a club sport, which gives it a set amount of funding each year. In addition, Ranger Challenge cadets now train with the VMI Running Club, giving them an extra edge when it comes to cardiovascular fitness.

“Working with the Running Club this year, and them allowing us to work out with them Wednesday mornings … that really helped us this year,” said Josephson, who hopes to commission as an infantry officer.

Weather conditions at the competition meant that the cadets needed all the extra edge that those early morning practices had honed.

“Kids out there in sleeping bags were wet,” said Cook. “Their kit was wet. Going into the road march, their feet were wet. It made for a perfect storm for something to go wrong, but because of their physical conditioning and mental toughness, they were able to fight through that.”

Ranger Challenge cadets have an advantage in their Army preparation as well. Cook noted that when cadets go to Advance Camp as they typically do before their 1st Class year, those who’ve participated in Ranger Challenge almost always rise to the top.

“Ranger Challenge cadets have historically done better than regular ROTC cadets because of the intense training and tactical knowledge they learned through the Ranger Challenge program,” Cook commented. He added that of the five Ranger Challenge cadets who went to Advance Camp this year, all of them achieved a ranking of either “outstanding” or “excellent.”

Going forward, Cook hopes to see Ranger Challenge continue on an upward trajectory.

“We’re trying to integrate more with the school and the Running Club,” he noted. “With a good plan … we’re able to sit down and do a lot more than we’ve done before. We’re smarter in that way.”

-Mary Price


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