There would be heat and humidity, hunger and thirst, darkness
and sleep deprivation. There would be barbed-wire cuts and
silver-dollar-sized blisters, mosquitoes and 70-plus-pound
"ticks," as U.S. Army Rangers call their gear-packed rucksacks
("because they suck the life out of you," one said). We knew all
that going into the Best Ranger Competition, the annual
three-day sufferfest that is open only to military personnel who
have completed the Army's notoriously demanding, 61-day Ranger
School. Indeed, it's a Cliffs Notes version of that training.
"You do all these disciplines in Ranger School," says 2nd Lieut.
Marcus Messerschmitt, who was on the winning team in the 2000
Best Ranger, "you just don't do them in three friggin' days." If
the school is dedicated, as the Army says, to producing "the
finest trained soldier in the world," the Best Ranger
Competition identifies the elite of the elite. It separates, as
Command Sgt. Major Douglas Greenway of the Ranger Training
Brigade put it, "the men from the supermen."
In ticking off the laundry list of privations and ordeals endured
by participants, no one mentions the briefings preceding each
event--the dry, interminable briefings that begin to feel, as
they drag on, like endurance events unto themselves. Saturday
evening's briefer was Sgt. 1st Class Michael Henry, who, you
could tell, was proud of the night navigation course he'd
designed. Sprawled on the ground before him in attitudes of
abject fatigue were 24 Rangers, operating in teams of two. Unlike
Henry, these men were neither clean-shaven nor chipper nor
delighted with the navigational riddles the sergeant had devised
for them. They were 36 hours into an insanely brutal test that
had begun at 6 a.m. the previous day. They'd done sit-ups and
push-ups until their guts and arms burned with lactic acid;
finished an eight-mile run; parachuted 1,500 feet from a
helicopter; borne a stretcher laden with 150 pounds over three
hilly miles; paddled themselves and their gear 7 1/2 miles, then
donned their water-soaked rucksacks for an 18-mile nocturnal road
march that whittled the field to 12 teams from the original 19.
That's about half the number of teams that usually compete in
this ridiculously tough event. The reason for the light turnout
was obvious: There is a war on.
That was driven home after the eight-mile run, when Greenway
called together "all you guys from the 75th." Eight Rangers from
the 75th Ranger Regiment--the so-called Go to War Rangers,
because they are so often the first to be placed in harm's
way--gathered round. They came out of the meeting grim-faced: Pat
Tillman, who'd graduated from Ranger School last November and was
one of their own, had been killed in Afghanistan.
That news, coupled with intensified fighting in Iraq, colored
this competition. It deepened spectators' appreciation of how
outrageously fit these men are, how committed they are to their
jobs, and how dangerous those jobs can be. You could disagree
with the war--the Rangers would spill their blood for your right
to do that--but it was all but impossible not to respect these
May 23, 2004
It was also difficult not to sympathize with them as Sergeant
Henry's briefing ranged from the course boundaries to "the
medevac plan" to what to do in case of snakebites, bee stings
and--the cloudless skies above notwithstanding--lightning. Before
bringing his briefing home, he advised the men to "make sure you
have a good stretch before you get out there."
They looked dully back at him, intending to do no such thing.
"Why stretch now?" grumbled one haggard competitor. "I've already
pulled every muscle that I've got."
Finally, the magic words from Henry's lips: "Any questions?"
Sitting cross-legged in pine needles, a shaft of evening sun
highlighting the veins on his shaved head, Staff Sgt. Colin Boley
kept his peace. But no one would have blamed him if he'd shouted
to the treetops: What the hell am I doing here?
Boley was supposed to be on leave. While Rangers on other teams
had been given Special Duty status, allowing them to do little
but train for this ordeal for up to four months, the 28-year-old
from Moon Township, Pa., had just returned from a three-month
deployment in Afghanistan. While his rivals had gone on long runs
and logged serious time in the gym, Boley had been conducting
dangerous missions in mountain passes. He'd been home only a few
days when the call came from his unit's first sergeant: Would he
be interested in doing Best Ranger?
It loomed less than two weeks away. "There's no way I'm in any
kind of shape to even attempt it," said Boley, who finished 13th
in the competition in '98 and 2nd in 2000. Nevertheless, he
signed on anyway. It helped that he could team up with his old
buddy Adam Nash, a 27-year-old staff sergeant in the 75th. With a
partner like Nash, a bright guy and a great athlete who had
competed in the 2002 Best Ranger, Boley thought they could win.
Still, the question remains: Why would he postpone two weeks of
R&R to take on this additional suffering?
The truth is, he likes it. He needs it. One fine spring day in
his senior year of high school, Boley signed up to see the Army
recruiter in the library, then blew off the meeting. "It was just
an excuse to get out of class," says Boley, who was surprised to
be paid a home recruiting visit after graduation. I'm not
interested, Boley told the man at his door. The recruiter
He was trying to sign Boley up for the Army National Guard. "If
I'm going to do this," said Boley, just wanting to be rid of the
man, "I'm going to do it right." A few days later, a stranger
came knocking--the active-duty recruiter. "He was a good guy,"
says Boley, "and he got me to say yes."
Whether he was skipping a high school chemistry test (because he
knew he could get a zero and still pass the course) or organizing
a scavenger hunt with his buddies (they would fan out in five
cars all over Moon Township, some of whose citizens would arise
the next morning to find their garden gnomes had gone AWOL),
Boley had not always responded well to authority. "If you would
just use this evil for good," his mother joked, "you could be
She was right. Boley took to the Army. After a year in Hawaii, he
went to Ranger School, at which he first crossed paths with Nash,
a lanky, handsome Cape Codder with a Yankee aversion to debt.
Unnerved while in high school by the thought of taking out huge
loans for his higher education, Nash saw an Army advertisement
offering $25,000 for college.
"I thought, That's a great idea," he says. At his recruiter's
office, he watched a video of the Rangers. "I was thinking, That
looks like gym class; it looks like fun," he recalls. "Of course
they don't show the hard parts."
He signed on for three years and loved it. Nash has since
reenlisted twice and is now in his ninth year as a Ranger.
Boley and Nash started slowly in this year's competition,
finishing 13th in the first event, a timed test in which each of
the contestants knocks out as many push-ups and sit-ups as he can
in a pair of two-minute sessions. As the sun rose over
southwestern Georgia, the two redeemed themselves with a
third-place finish in the Unknown Distance Run, which is seldom
more than five miles but this year went eight-plus. That
early-morning constitutional ended near the 300-meter-long
shooting range where the next event would be contested. Expansive
and well-manicured, this venue called to mind a driving range,
until moving targets began popping up and the Rangers started
firing at them. (The targets, shaped like soldiers, were known
during the cold war and for years after as Ivan, and sported on
their foreheads red stars--long since painted over.)
Heavily favored in this event were the four teams with members
from the 4th Ranger Training Battalion, based at Fort Benning.
This was, in essence, their home field. Yet, when the shooting
stopped, the home teams had been upset. Nash and Boley had won.
Up next was the Spot Jump, in which the Rangers parachuted toward
a circular target from a low-flying helicopter--"Your door!" the
jump master shouted, and out they piled--followed by the event
that "flat-out ate 'em up," as Greenway put it. Part of the
Ranger Creed, by which the contestants live, says, "I will never
leave a fallen comrade." The Litter Carry tests whether or not
they'll be able to back up that promise. As they embarked, no one
figured they'd be humping their unwieldy, gear-laden stretchers
more than a half mile. On this sticky, 80¬∫-plus day, they carried
the litters over hill and dale for more than three miles.
Seasoned veterans of Best Ranger could not remember a more
difficult, puke-inducing first morning. "A complete smokefest,"
is how one competitor, Capt. John Serafini, described it.
Such words were ambrosia to Maj. Michael McNally, who designed
this year's competition. Every year, he said, Best Ranger "makes
huge physical demands, but it's also very mentally demanding,
which is why you rarely see young guys finish. You have to push
through so many levels of pain."
As Nash and Boley pushed through their next level of pain, a 7
1/2-mile canoe paddle on muddy, shallow and charmless Upatoi
Creek, they glided beneath McBride's Bridge, from which a
familiar voice floated down to them. "Colin, your mommy loves
you!" cried Lynne Boley, who along with her husband, Peter
Slavic, had made the drive from Pittsburgh.
Boley glanced up just in time to hear Eddie Noland chime in. Sgt.
1st Class Noland, also from the 75th, is a 6'3" Ranger with a
sinister-looking scar on his neck and lats that fan out like the
fins of a stingray. "I love you too," he trilled, before
adding--less tenderly, in his normal voice--"Now keep paddling."
After helping drag his canoe out of the water, Boley stood near
his mother, who was separated from her son by a ribbon of yellow
tape. It was torturing her. "I just want a hug," she said. She
had not laid eyes on her boy since he had left for Afghanistan.
"Aww, Ma," said Colin. But even as he said it, he leaned over the
tape and embraced her for a long time. When he was gone, Lynne
Boley sat on the gravel and cried quietly. "I'm upset, but it's a
good upset," she explained. "I'm just so happy to see him."
As their suffering intensified, the emotions of the competitors
likewise crept closer to the surface. Swarming over the course
was an army of RIs (Ranger Instructors), who in their black
T-shirts looked like nightclub bouncers. The moment Nash got the
rucksack off his back, a pair of RIs tried to take it from him.
It's their job to weigh the packs, to make sure they were
sufficiently heavy. Seriously.
But Nash wanted something from his pack and snapped at the RIs
for being "grabby." They silently absorbed the criticism.
"Regiment guys," said one to the other when Nash was gone.
"That's just how they are."
This brief bit of friction hints at a broader discord. The cold
truth is, some of the regiment guys look down their noses at
their colleagues in the RTB (Ranger Training Brigade), who, as
instructors at Ranger School, don't go into combat. Of course,
most, if not all, of them saw combat earlier in their careers,
but they're no longer deployed overseas. "Guys in the regiment
have to be prepared to pack up and leave home in a minute," said
Noland, a Best Ranger veteran who was coaching the teams from the
75th. "These guys out here"--from the RTB--"are going to college
at night. Nothing against them, they've got an awesome
responsibility. But regiment guys have to maintain their edge all
the time 'cause if they don't, they're going to lose."
He wasn't talking about the Best Ranger competition.
Regiment guys had plenty of edge at this year's Best Ranger. At
dusk on Friday, Nash and Boley held a narrow lead over another
team from the 75th (Staff Sgt. John Sheaffer and Sgt. 1st Class
Matthew Wilson, of whom another Ranger said, "Do you have any
idea what a badass that guy is?"), but how long would that last?
Nash had been suffering from tendinitis in his left shin, and
Boley's duty in Afghanistan was bound to catch up with him. Ahead
lay the day's supreme ordeal, the Foot March, an 18-or-so-mile
slog in combat boots, with a 70-pound rucksack, that had to be
completed in six hours or less. It would shuffle the standings
The team that won the Foot March would be given a trophy, a
life-sized, bronze Army boot. The award is named for Russell B.
Rippetoe, a Ranger who was killed by a suicide bomber on April 3,
2003, on a highway near the Haditha Dam, in central Iraq. The
boot sat on a table in the foyer of the RTB headquarters, not far
from the finish line of the march. Hovering around the trophy in
the early morning hours before the leaders came in was a short,
compact, gray-haired man with a military bearing. The name tag
pinned to his blazer said Rippetoe.
Three things have helped Joe Rippetoe cope with the death of his
only son: antidepressants; his relationship, as he says, with the
man upstairs; and the 75th Ranger Regiment, to which Russell
belonged. Joe is a retired Army lieutenant colonel who did two
tours of duty in Vietnam. Spending time around members of Russ's
regiment seems to be therapeutic for him, as is talking about his
son. Unprompted, Joe recalled the worst morning of his life. "It
was still O-dark out," he says. "Three Rangers knocked at my
door. When I came down the stairs, I looked out the window and
saw them there. My heart...." He stops, takes a breath and goes
on. Upon his return from Vietnam, he explains, he was sometimes
called upon to deliver to families the news that their loved one
had been killed. "It's hard for those guys too," says Joe. "So
when they came in, I said, 'You don't have to tell me. I know.'"
In this way Best Ranger is nothing like any other endurance
event--an Eco-Challenge, Ironman, you name it. Sure, the athletes
suffer similarly (although it would be fascinating to see Peter
Reid, the reigning Ironman champ, try to get around Kona in
combat boots). But here at Fort Benning during wartime, reality
periodically intruded, in the form of mothers weeping for joy and
fathers remembering lost sons.
The Foot March was won by a pair of captains from the U.S.
Maneuver Support Center, based in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. Brian
Hoffman and David Bragg finished in four hours, 50 minutes and
seemed so cheerful and fresh as they came into view, you half
expected them to whistle and skip the last quarter mile. While
they were hustled off to the next event--a series of mental tests
called Night Stakes--Hoffman's wife, Jordan, approached Joe
"Brian was a friend of Russ's," she said. "This means so much to
The rest of the marchers straggled in for the next hour, stooped
under the weight of their rucks, limping on horrendously
blistered feet. "Well, that sucked again," was the sour
conclusion of one Best Ranger veteran who came across in 5 1/2
Only 12 teams had finished by the 2 a.m. deadline. By virtue of
their second-place finish, Sheaffer and Wilson wrested first
place from Nash and Boley, who came in more than 40 minutes
behind the winners, in 10th place, looking knackered and grim. It
had been a courageous effort, but what had made Boley think he
could compete in this event without proper training? The question
now was not whether he and Nash would win but whether they would
"It's early," said Messerschmitt, the 2000 winner. "This was just
Winston Cup qualifying. Tomorrow night is the real race."
Before the "real race"--night navigation--the remaining teams
were subjected to 15 hours of mental and physical tests, a
smorgasbord of events, some of which had more to do with
soldiering (vehicle identification, weapons assembly, Claymore
mine installation) than others (archery, tomahawk throw, military
Saturday's events took place on or near Todd Field and drew an
appreciative crowd of current and former Rangers. Competitors
were allowed brief exchanges with their families. Before he
entered the knot-tying venue, there to do battle with the clove
hitch, the figure-eight slip, the bowline on a coil, Boley
chatted with Slavic, his stepdad.
"Where'd you guys eat last night?"
"Barbecue place over by the Wal-Mart. Where'd you eat?"
Boley smiled weakly. He had dined, on his duff in the dirt, on an
MRE (meal ready to eat), one of the seven that had been allotted
to each competitor for the entire three-day ordeal.
"Hey, I got some cold ones," said Slavic. "Call me anytime, I'll
come pick you up."
They both knew he was kidding. Nash and Boley had recovered from
their nightmarish march and held their own throughout Saturday's
events. After the crowd-pleasing Prusik Climb--a fast ascent up a
60-foot tower, followed by a faster rappel down the other
side--they'd settled into second place, with 440 points. They
trailed Wilson and Sheaffer by 35 points. Night Nav was next.
When Sergeant Henry arrived, at last, at the end of his briefing,
the Rangers donned their rucksacks, took about 20 paces, then
dropped their packs on the ground and sat back down. Before they
could embark on the course, they needed to plot the checkpoints,
using coordinates provided with the maps.
"We're in the lead," said Wilson as he lay on his stomach in a
pine forest, plotting away. "It's time to cowboy up." But the
forest at night plays tricks on even the savviest Rangers. Take
Nash and Boley. Despite walking eight miles out of their way and
wasting 2 1/2 hours in a futile attempt to earn a bonus point,
they realized they were not far off the lead when they
encountered several other teams still on the course. Newly
encouraged, Nash says, "at that point we stepped it up, kicked it
in the ass, found a couple of shortcuts and ended up passing all
What they were doing was carving out a permanent place for
themselves in Best Ranger lore. With Nash ignoring his tendinitis
and Boley tapping into some hidden reserves, the pair finished
Night Nav in a three-way tie for first. Wilson and Sheaffer
barely made the 12-hour cutoff, staggering in with just 15
minutes to spare. Four more teams dropped out. Going into the
final day, two teams were tied for first: Wilson-Sheaffer and
Sunday was a dogfight. Nash and Boley bested their rivals in the
Darby Queen, a devilish, 1 1/2-mile obstacle course, then
finished ahead of them in the Water Confidence Test, which
entailed, among other challenges, walking 40 feet across an
eight-inch beam 45 feet over the water. Most Rangers negotiated
the beam as if taking a field sobriety test; Boley loped across
as if out for a jog.
In the penultimate event, the Helocast, competitors jump from a
low-flying helicopter into a lake, then swim--while pulling their
packs, which are encased in "poncho rafts" of their own making--a
quarter mile to shore. Rallying valiantly, Wilson and Sheaffer
won, and it was official: The 21st annual Best Ranger Competition
would be decided by the final event.
Its cheery name, the Buddy Run, belies its cruelty: a 2 1/2-mile
test, in boots, carrying an ersatz rifle, after all of the misery
that preceded it. Wilson and Sheaffer went out hard, but they
couldn't lose Nash and Boley, who needed only a third-place
finish to win it all. And so the four of them ran the final mile
together, crossing the line with rifles upraised, covering
themselves, and the 75th Regiment, in glory. There was Noland, a
tough guy's tough guy, trying to keep the emotion out of his
voice as he said, "That might be the prettiest thing I've ever
After embracing his parents, Boley found himself face to face
with Joe Rippetoe. The two have formed an especially strong bond
since Russ was killed. Boley and Russ were good friends. Boley's
wife, Amy, used to try to set Russ up with her girlfriends. The
two Rangers were born, eerily, on the same day, and Boley wasn't
that far away when a pregnant woman ran out of a car screaming
for help, luring Russ to his death as the woman's companion blew
up the vehicle.
Boley held the older man in his arms for a long time. Afterward,
Joe Rippetoe steadied himself against the trunk of a tree until
his vision cleared. "It's a privilege being around these guys,"
he said. "They are the best of the best."
NO REST FOR THE WEARY
An hour-by-hour look at the Best Ranger schedule shows that sleep
is not among the priorities
0600-0715: Physical Training: push-ups, sit-ups, followed by ...
0730-0900: Unknown Distance Run (which this year turned out to be
0945-1230: M4 Record Fire: Rangers lower themselves into a prone
position and fire at moving targets. (Performance in early events
determines the order in which teams undertake the Spot Jump, the
Litter Carry and the canoe run. In Best Ranger, says Sgt. 1st
Class Eric White, who was a winner in the '95 competition, "The
sleep you get is the sleep you earn." In other words, the earlier
you finish, the more shut-eye you can stockpile.)
1025-1545: As contestants finish on the range, they begin to
board helicopters for the Spot Jump, in which they try to
parachute into a chalk circle some 50 feet in diameter, a task
made more difficult by winds gusting up to 15 mph. (Only one team
lands both men in the circle.)
1145-1640: Litter Carry, in which Rangers hump a 150-pound load 3
1/2 miles over hilly terrain.
1210-1810: 7 1/2-mile canoe paddle on Upatoi Creek, the
shallowness of which requires numerous draggings and portages.
2000-2400: Foot March, 18-plus miles in full gear. Knocks out
more teams than any other event. Teams must finish in six hours.
0000-0200 Foot March continues. Those who drop out, or exceed the
time limit, face the ignominy of a long, slow ride in the
Rangers' version of a "broom truck," which sweeps up the
0300-0700: Night Stakes. A series of mental tests--demolition,
vehicle identification, radio operation, to name a few. Just what
you want when cross-eyed from exhaustion and sleep deprivation.
0730-1730: Day Stakes. Spectator-friendly series of events
(including Claymore mine installation, weapons assembly, military
knots and Prusik Climb).
1830-2400: Orienteering. Night Navigation. Toughest event of the
0000-0630 Night Nav continues.
0700-1100: Darby Queen, infamous course whose 26 obstacles
include something called Dirty Name. Leaves every Ranger splayed
in the dirt sucking wind.
0900-1300: Water Confidence Test and Helocast.
1600-1700: Buddy Run. Two and a half miles in Army boots,
carrying a fake rifle, in broiling sun. No wonder they had an
ambulance following these guys.
Best Ranger identifies the elite of the elite; it separates, as
one instructor put it, THE MEN FROM THE SUPERMEN.
Reality intruded at times at this year's competition as mothers
wept for joy and FATHERS REMEMBERED LOST SONS.
"Why stretch now?" grumbled one haggard competitor. "I've ALREADY
PULLED EVERY MUSCLE that I've got."
"I JUST WANT A HUG," said Boley's mother, Lynne, who had not laid
eyes on her son since he had left for Afghanistan.