FORT BRAGG, N.C. – The sun came up over a lazy morning fog, casting hazy light over Fort Bragg’s Sicily drop zone and all the Soldiers gathered there. The Soldiers had a mission and no minor setback was going to keep them from accomplishing it.
As early as 6:30 a.m., May 8, Soldiers with the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School based in Fort Bragg, N.C., packed their rucks full and savored the last, brief moment of peace before the grueling day ahead. Ahead of them lay the JFKSWCS’s Command Sergeant Major’s Challenge, a timed, 10-mile competition designed to test the mental and physical abilities of the 32 participants.
After separating into groups of four and receiving a safety brief on the day’s mission, the teams set off, beginning the long journey through the woods, across the waters and over the hills of Fort Bragg. The teams were staggered at 20-minute intervals to ensure they stayed isolated and weren’t stepping on each other’s toes or helping each other too much.
To reach their first station, they first had to display their navigation prowess through miles of Fort Bragg wilderness. Most teams fared well, while others encountered a few wrong turns.
Once at Keist Lake, each team had to devise a way across without a boat. As they would find throughout the course, working together made all the difference. Putting their rucks side-by-side and wrapping them tightly in their ponchos, they fashioned improvised rafts. With rafts ready, the teams took to the water. Some found the lake-crossing more of a challenge than others.
“The water was the most daunting. Being from New York, I’m not really a swimmer, so I tend to see that body of water and my heart starts pounding,” said Staff Sgt. Robinson Paniagua, a New York City native and instructor with D Company, 1st Special Warfare Training Group.
Even after the strain of swimming across the lake in full uniform, there was no time to relax. The clock was still ticking. There was just enough time for a change into their physical training outfits before they had to run several miles to their next challenge.
Tired, but far from finished, the teams were next challenged mentally. They had to respond to a simulated ambush, call in close-air support and conduct a medical evacuation. They put together a collapsible litter and carried a battlefield casualty two kilometers toward their next objective.
The Soldiers were then required to display their familiarity with an array of weapons, including the M2 .50-caliber and M-240 Bravo machine guns. Then they were back on the road for another stretch before a team-building obstacle course.
Given a series of multi-leveled structures, the teams had to make it to the top of each using anything but the stairs. Buddies boosted each other in through windows, pulled each other up over roofs and anything else that got the job done.
When the teams had the obstacle course behind them, there was only one more challenge left to complete.
The Soldiers, miles past exhaustion, had to maintain enough focus and control to successfully qualify at the pistol range. First Sgt. John Southworth, a Stratford, Wis., native and senior enlisted leader for Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Support Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group, thought of the last challenge as a fitting finale to the day’s events.
“It really puts things into perspective. Shooting while you’re tired is a key task for survival,” Southworth said.
The last team completed its stress-shoot in the mid-afternoon and as the last rounds were fired, calm revisited the weary Soldiers. Some were stretched out on the grass in the shade and others were joking about things that happened along the way.
After the groups were called together and prizes were awarded, the Soldiers headed home with plenty of blisters, aches and Special Forces merchandise to show for all their hard work. Spc. Timothy Bell, a Fresno, Calif., native and motor transport operator for Company B, 1st Support Battalion said he took a lot more from the experience.
“It brought us all closer together. We learned more about each other and how we work as a group. It was a great opportunity.”