At an age when many infantrymen start to think about retirement, New York Army National Guard Sgt. First Class Sean Smith decided to tackle the Army’s premier physical and mental challenge instead.
At age 40, Smith, the mortar platoon sergeant of the 2nd Battalion, 108th Infantry, entered and completed the Army’s 34th annual Best Ranger Competition, a 62-hour, physically grueling event testing Ranger School graduates’ skills and endurance. The average competitor age is 28 years old.
“My first sergeant came to me and he asked me would I like to compete,” Smith recalled. “I jumped at the opportunity. I enjoy testing myself to my limits.”
First held in 1982, the Best Ranger Competition’s full name is the Lt. Gen. David E. Grange Jr. Best Ranger Challenge: named for an officer who served as an Army Ranger in World War II and the Korean War and once commanded Fort Benning.
The event is open to all Ranger qualified Soldiers. The 62-hours of events include runs, road marches, map reading, grenade tossing, shooting, the Darby Queen Obstacle course, including swimming and water obstacles. The competitors also carry 60 pound loads for most of the events.
Competitors are matched in two-Ranger teams. The National Guard has been entering four teams each year and a National Guard team won the 2016 event.
The teams know most of the events ahead of time, but there are “mystery events” designed to test the Rangers ability to deal with the unknown. Winning is based on points –with some events worth more than others—so strategy is involved in the competition as well.
Smith, said 2nd Battalion 108th Infantry Command Sgt. Major Arnold Reyes, was asked to enter the competition because he was qualified to meet that challenge.
“He is definitely a stellar NCO. In everything he does he is a true professional,” Reyes said.
“He is very quiet, very professional. He is not a boaster, not a ‘Hey look at me,’ guy, but he goes all out,” said 27th Brigade Command Sgt. Major Thomas Ciampollilo.
Smith’s first step towards the Best Ranger finish line was an assessment of potential competitors conducted by the Army National Guard at Fort Benning in November 2016.
So Smith, a veterans advocate in Rochester, and president of ROCovery Fitness, an alcohol and drug addiction recovery program, started training.
He focused on high intensity strength training, running, and road marching with a heavy load. He also did some swimming, some biking, and “just multiple events and training methods.”
“Working two jobs made it hard, so I got it in when I could, probably a couple of days a week,” Smith recalled.
The Army National Guard’s Best Ranger Assessment consisted of 24 hours of non-stop activity.
“They had us do a Ranger PT test (run five miles, two minutes of push-ups and sit-up and at least six pull-ups). They had us do an equipment run. They had us do an obstacle course. They had us do some Ranger first responder medical tasks,” Smith remembered.
There was also climbing, rappelling, land navigation, and a road march.
“It was 30-some miles of walking and running just for the assessment over a 24 hour period,” Smith said.
The 12 Army National Guard Soldiers who showed up were winnowed down to nine. That equated to four two-man teams and an alternate.
The next leg on Smith’s trip to the Best Ranger finish line was a stop at Army Airborne School.
Smith graduated from Ranger School in 2013, but he had never been to jump school. Since there was a chance one of the mystery events could involve parachuting, he needed to get airborne qualified.
After finishing Airborne School, Smith had a few more weeks with his very patient fiancée in Rochester, Yana Khashper. Then it was back to Fort Benning in mid-January to train until April.
The nine guard Soldiers worked out twice a day and Smith was teamed up with Sgt. 1st Class Jesse Volk, a member of the Texas Army National Guard’s 19th Special Forces Group.
“It’s really important that you get matched up with the right guy,” Smith said. “In our case we were very similar but there were things he was better at and things I was better at.”
The partners push each other and motivate each other, Smith said.
“At different points one guy is kinda dragging and the other guy gives him the motivation he needs to push through and make it through that event,” he explained.
The training was hard and tough, and Smith injured his calf muscle three days before the competition kicked off on April 7.
That came back to haunt him, Smith said.
“Any event that consisted of running, for me was a little difficult, because I did have a calf injury,” he recalled.
“During a five mile run I got to mile three and my calf felt it was going to snap. My partner turned to me and he said ‘How much further are you going to be able to go on that.’ I said’ I don’t know, maybe about five miles,’” Smith remembered.
“It was a real gut check,” he said. “You get to a point, it is mind over body really.”
The key to making it through the 62 hours of almost continual physical activity—participants got 40 minutes of sleep the first night and an hour the second night—was to ignore the signals the body sends saying it is time to stop, Smith said.
As one of the oldest competitors, Smith said he felt driven.
“I wanted to prove my worth. Prove I deserved to be there,” he said.
When the 62 hours wound down at 2 p.m. on April 9, with a final buddy run, Smith and Volk were still going, finishing at 18 out of 21 finishing teams. Fifty-two teams had started the competition.
“He definitely represented the National Guard and our battalion well,” said Reyes.
Now, Reyes said, he expects Smith to pass along the lessons he’s learned in the past six months to the battalion’s Soldiers.
What are those lessons?
There are three, Smith said.
“You can always be better than what you think you are capable of. Continually test yourself and push yourself.” And even more importantly, “your body will do whatever your mind tells you to do. And when you need to lean on your teammate, do that,” Smith said.