FORT BENNING, GA – For the second year in a row, Master Sgt. Eric Turk has taken the title of Best Ranger, along with his partner Sgt. Maj. Walter Zajkowski, also a previous winner.
Zajkowski claimed the top spot in 2007 with his then-teammate Maj. Liam Collins. The competition has only been won by the same Soldier in two consecutive years once before.
The competition, which began April 15 and wrapped up Sunday, required competitors to run, ruck or swim nearly 60 miles and complete a plethora of advanced Soldiering skills with very little scheduled rest. Fifty two-man teams began the competition, but only 31 finished.
“Winning this competition always feels good, and it takes a lot to be able to win it,” said Zajkowski at the awards ceremony, Monday. “However, it’s just an honor to represent the United States Army.”
Zajkowski said the competition gives Rangers an opportunity to highlight what deployed servicemembers are doing overseas every day.
He also insisted there isn’t a formula to winning Best Ranger.
“It’s a lot of hard work. It’s a lot of dedication, and a lot of attention to detail,” Zajkowski explained.
“It’s internal pride, once it gets in your blood,” Turk said of why he keeps competing.
“As a Ranger you are a leader,” Zajkowski agreed. “And you have to get out there and show people what Rangers are all about. You have to inspire the next generation of Rangers.”
Staff Sgt. Charles Cogle and Spc. Christopher Broussard of 75th Ranger Regiment took the second-place slot.
Sgt. 1st Class Mason Riepe and Sgt. 1st Class Raymond Santiago, both of 4th Ranger Training Brigade, took third place and won the award for the best night land navigation — they were the only team to find all three checkpoints on the course before bad weather delayed events. The team, who also competed together in 2010, kept their scores close to the top.
Santiago explained that the team didn’t get any sleep at all on Friday night, so going into Saturday’s events, they were hurting.
But, “that was the time we knew we had to dig deep,” Santiago explained.
Riepe noted that there were certain areas in which the team was exceptionally strong, but some other areas they may have taken for granted in training. Even though Riepe is moving to another installation this summer, he said he’d love to enter the competition with Santiago again.
“If he called me up, I’d do it again with him in a heartbeat,” Riepe said.
“Next time we’ll be holding those pistols,” Santiago quipped.
Riepe explained that this was their first year completing in the competition, so now they know what’s expected. He said he’s confident that if the two competed together again, they might steal the title, adding the Special Operations Soldiers were worthy winners this year.
“They are awesome guys and they deserve it,” Riepe said.
Secretary of the Army John McHugh attended events on Sunday, and handed out awards Monday.
“I can’t begin to express how absolutely impressed I was,” McHugh said of watching the competitors.
He noted the competition is unlike any other competition in the world, and it isn’t just physical.
“It’s really a test of these Soldiers’ tactical, mental and technical proficiencies,” McHugh said. “Those are the tools that every successful Soldier and every successful leader has to have on the battlefield. And in my perspective, just in qualifying for this competition says that you are one of the best, but by completing it makes you one of our very best.”
He said Best Ranger is a proud symbol of America’s strength.
“This isn’t just a competition,” McHugh said. “The skills that they have sharpened here are the tools that preserve our nation’s interests, and our peoples’ liberties as it has been over the centuries. Gentlemen, Rangers, I am in awe. Congratulations.”
The Best Ranger Competition has been held since 1982 and has been open to all Ranger-qualified Soldiers since 1987.