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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.