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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� 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 Green-way 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 warriors.
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?