Imagine a "Superstars" competition in which the contestants run 23.1 miles one night and cross 16.7 miles of wilderness the next, with 16 hours of mind games in between and no time off for real sleep. And what if these same contestants also had to parachute from low-flying helicopters, swim 400 meters with 50 pounds of gear in tow and dash across eight-inch catwalks suspended 40 feet in the air?
The prize money would have to be astronomical to get anybody to do this kind of stuff, right? But that's the weird part: There are no cash prizes in this three-day torture test. If you win, you get a 9-mm Ruger pistol and a Meritorious Service medal to pin on your uniform. The tournament is the annual U.S. Army Best Ranger Competition, which distills the nine weeks of rigorous Ranger training into a 12-event, 60-hour weekend marathon—with sleep deprivation as an unofficial 13th event. From Friday morning through Sunday evening, with time out only to change gear and eat field rations, the 46 two-man Ranger teams selected from army installations around the world march, shoot, crawl, swim, paddle, parachute, climb, rappel and run, at the U.S. Army base at Fort Benning, Ga. All in the name of pride.
"Rangers are always the first troops in when there's a conflict. They're the ones who kick the doors in," says retired Lieutenant General David E. Grange Jr., former commander of the Ranger School at Fort Benning, where the competition has been held since it was started in 1982.
Soldiers who take pride in kicking in enemy doors are a breed apart. And yet, when the Army Chief of Staff, General Carl E. Vuono, handed out awards at the close of this year's Ranger competition on April 30, none of the men who stood before him was built anything like Bo Jackson or Rambo. The top eight finishers averaged 5'9" and 160 pounds—Marty McFly dimensions. Staff Sergeant Bob Beiswanger, 26, of the 4th Ranger Training Battalion at Fort Benning, is 5'5". Sergeant Charles Elliott, 24, of the 7th Light Infantry Division at Fort Ord, Calif., tips the scales at 134 pounds, but as he proved in the competition, he can run all day.
The early favorites this year were Staff Sergeant Frank Hall and Staff Sergeant Allen Malaise of the 4th Ranger Training Battalion at Fort Benning, and Captain Michael Hagen and Staff Sergeant Don Thompson of the 10th Special Forces Group at Fort Devens, Mass.
As it turned out, Malaise and Hall were eliminated—after only two events on Friday, the first day—when they failed to hit the required number of moving targets in the rifle event. But three other teams from Fort Benning's 4th Battalion stepped forward to pick up the slack, finishing 1-2-3 on the rifle range.
"There's no moving-target range in the world like the ones at Fort Benning," said Captain Mark Johnstone, 28, of the 1st Ranger Battalion at Fort Stewart in Savannah, "and no one was allowed to fire on it before the competition."
No one, that is, except the 4th Battalion guys, who regularly train on Fort Benning's two movable-target ranges (Army officials point out that Best Ranger entrants are kept off the range for the two months before the contest).
Several teams reportedly broke the rules on rifle-range access, but only Hagen and Thompson got caught. They were slapped with a 50-point penalty before the competition even got under way. But it didn't take long for them to start their comeback: They smoked everybody in the fourth event, the 12-km canoe race.
At 10 p.m. on Friday, the competitors lined up for the dreaded night road march. Distance: 23.1 miles. Time allotted: six hours maximum. Any longer and a team would be automatically disqualified.
"Last year I saw the road march knock out half the field," said First Lieutenant Craig Schaefer, 24, of the 101st Ranger Division at Fort Campbell, Ky.
This year there was more of the same, as 16 of the remaining 30 teams failed to make it back to camp within six hours. And most of those who did make it were moving with some difficulty. "None of us would be in shape to lead troops or fight right now," said Schaefer. "I'm shaking and my partner can't walk."
First Lieutenant Charles Smith, 24, of the Rangers' Berlin Brigade was so tired he fell asleep sitting in a wall locker.
As expected, Hagen and Thompson came back first. Their time, 4:31:59, was nearly 38 minutes faster than that of the second-place finishers, but they got credit only for finishing first, nothing extra for the time differential. In the fixed scoring system, first place in the road march is worth 230 points; second place, no matter how far behind, 225, third, 220, and so on at five-point intervals for all finishers.
Similarly, in the 16.7-mile land-navigation exercise on Saturday night, Hagen and Thompson finished 10 minutes ahead of the overall leaders, Beiswanger and Staff Sergeant Mark Sheehan, 24, but gained only 10 points on them.
Best Ranger regulations don't actually prohibit sleep, which explains why Smith wasn't penalized for passing out in his locker. But catching catnaps while waiting for your next turn at physical and mental abuse isn't easy.
The older guys had the most trouble getting back into the fray.
"Do what?" said 34-year-old First Sergeant David Bedford when his partner, 36-year-old Master Sergeant Billy Good-son, tried to wake him.
"Whattaya mean, do what?" said Goodson. "It's time for the Darby Queen."
The Darby Queen is a 25-station obstacle course which descends into a heavily wooded ravine with such a steep grade that even running down it can be dangerous. "If there's a hell on earth, this is it," said Colonel Jerry Dillard, the Deputy Commander of the Berlin Brigade. "There'll be dry heaves at the end."
Midway through, Hagen and Thompson were on a pace to win the obstacle course, but Thompson twice lost his balance and fell on a simple series of raised stakes, known as the Island Hopper, that have to be crossed in a set sequence. He was assessed a six-minute penalty, and that all but eliminated the Fort Devens boys from the hunt.
With one remaining event, the 2.7-mile Buddy Run, the overall leaders were still Beiswanger and Sheehan, with Elliott and his partner, Staff Sergeant Robert Prosser, 26, a close second.
Hagen and Thompson finished the run first; in all, they won four events, more than any other team. Without the rifle-range penalty and Thompson's falls, they would have taken the overall prize. Instead, they had to settle for fourth place. The battle for first came down to Beiswanger-Sheehan and Elliott-Prosser.
"To show you how out of it I was, I was actually trying to help those guys at one point during the [final] race," said Elliott. "I yelled at Beiswanger, 'Come on, you can do it!' And then I realized, What the hell am I doing? These are the guys we've got to beat!"
Soon after Elliott and Prosser crossed the finish line in third place, along came the leaders, with Sheehan looking as if he might have to carry Beiswanger across the finish line. They both made it under their own power, then Beiswanger collapsed. Their fifth place finish was good enough to give them the overall championship.
"Not bad for a couple of guys who didn't become partners until five minutes before the first event," said Sheehan, who had replaced Beiswanger's original partner, who was out with an injured wrist.
What about next year? Will the winners try to repeat?
"Actually, I've been thinking about leaving the military and pursuing a career in business," said Sheehan. "Now that I've won the Best Ranger, there's nothing I can't do."
Kent Hannon, a former SI staff writer, is a freelancer based in Athens, Ga.