By Michael Finn
The sun hadn’t yet risen on Camp Dodge, and the air was still icy cold, yet 215 cadets had already been sweating for hours doing sit-ups, push-ups and running laps.
They were warming up for a day that would put their skills to the ultimate test — more than 15 brutal hours of nonstop physical and mental trials called the Task Force Ranger Challenge Competition.
Twenty-seven teams from ROTC programs all across the Midwest came to compete in the yearly event, which was Saturday, Oct. 6, at Camp Dodge in Johnston, Iowa.
Iowa State was represented by two male teams, Cardinal Team and Gold Team, and by one female team, the Army ROTC Lady Cyclones.
It is the first time there has ever been an exclusively female team competing in the event.
Iowa State dominated the competition. Among the 20 teams making up the male division, the Cardinal Team placed first, with the Gold Team taking third.
Among the seven teams making up the first-ever female division, the Lady Cyclones won first place.
“We won because we had the heart to win; we did outstanding,” said Amber Bruer, cadet captain of the female team. “It was a good check on the females to see who had it in them.”
Iowa State consistently has done well in the competition. In 10 out of the last 11 Ranger Challenges, Iowa State has brought home a first-place trophy.
The Ranger Challenge Competition began at 5 a.m. Saturday. In male teams of nine and female teams of five, cadets navigated several square kilometers of prairieland and farmland, using their skills to seek out 20 checkpoints scattered in unknown locations.
Six of the checkpoints were randomized events, ranging anywhere from a memorization test to a hand-grenade assault course.
In one event, teams were given a scenario in which two of their cadets were severely injured and needed immediate medical assistance. Teammates had to work together to treat the cadet’s wounds before a Blackhawk helicopter arrived to escort the injured soldier away.
In another event, called the One Rope Bridge, cadets had to find a way to cross a 40-foot-wide dried-up creek bed with one rope and makeshift harnesses called a “Swiss seats.”
“It’s dangerous if you aren’t trained,” said Brandon Amerine, Ranger Challenge commander and cadet captain of the Cardinal Team. “We covered close to 21 miles in full battle uniform, carrying our rucksacks with all of our gear in it. You are constantly moving, constantly thinking.”
After the cadets continued to search for checkpoints well into the darkness of night, the competition ended with a 10K foot race.
The cadets had been awake for almost 20 hours, trekking through miles of difficult and unfamiliar terrain.
“They’re gaining vital teamwork skills, small unit leadership and confidence. They are setting themselves apart from the rest,” Amerine said. “They are becoming future leaders of the United States Army.”
Iowa State is ranked No. 2 in terms of ROTC programs in the country.
Maj. Richard Smith, professor and chairman of the military science and tactics department, said Iowa State’s ROTC program’s ranking as second-best in the country is based off their performance in an event similar to the Ranger Challenge, called the Leadership Development and Assessment Course.
More than 6,000 cadets from 273 ROTC programs all over the country participated in the course this summer at Fort Lewis, Wash.
For 29 days, cadets went through a rigorous training process and were evaluated on several factors like physical fitness, leadership skills and land navigation skills.
“All senior ROTC members go to [the Leadership Development and Assessment Course] to get evaluated,” Smith said. “The rankings they receive go toward their session. It will tell them where they’ll end up in the real military.”
The ISU cadets who championed the Ranger Challenge will move onto the next big competition, the Brigade Ranger Challenge Competition.
ROTC programs from the 3rd Brigade — a brigade containing schools from 11 Midwestern states – will compete against each other in early November.
The winners will move onto the biggest military competition of them all — the Sandhurst Military Skills Competition, hosted at West Point Military Academy.
Military units from all around the world, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, compete.
Iowa State has not made an appearance at Sandhurst since 2009.