Ryan Polei

On a gray Saturday morning, barely visible against the dry grass hills of San Luis Obispo, nine dark silhouettes in camouflage dot the ridge on the horizon. They march with rucksacks on their backs, weapons in their hands and blisters on their feet.

As they come closer, the sound of 18 boots crunching on the ground are accompanied by eight booming male voices and the slightly higher pitch of a woman’s voice. “Standing tall and looking good, you oughta be Hollywood .” the chorus marches on by.

Ten kilometers later, there’s no energy left for singing as the Fighting Mustangs come marching through the finish line to claim their trophy.

Cal Poly’s ROTC battalion competed against and beat out UCLA and UC Santa Barbara this Friday and Saturday in their annual Ranger Challenger Program at Camp San Luis Obispo. The Ranger Challenge has a team of nine cadets – eight men and one woman – from each ROTC school compete in written and physical challenges to test their Army skills.

Cal Poly’s Fighting Mustang battalion placed first in six out of the seven Ranger challenges and walked home with the first-place team trophy. Cal Poly cadets Julie Martinson and Alex Magginetti took home the female and male individual high-score awards for their Army Physical Fitness Test. Martinson beat out both her male and female counterparts and walked away with the highest overall physical score for the day.

The Mustangs took home the team ribbons for the written map reading and patrolling tests on Friday night with the highest team average on both tests. On Saturday Cal Poly won the team awards in the marksmanship, hand-grenade throw, land navigation and the grueling 10 kilometer road march, losing only the team physical fitness test to UC Santa Barbara.

Saturday morning started off early as the cadets climbed out of their barracks and headed outside at the crack of dawn to compete in the physical fitness test. The twenty-seven cadets went to work on a two-mile run, two minutes of push-ups and two minutes of sit-ups.

Next, with the sun finally over the horizon, the teams headed out to the shooting range for the marksmanship contest, where Cal Poly easily outshot both UCLA and UC Santa Barbara and set the stage for the rest of the day’s winning streak.

“The Ranger Challenge is completely voluntary; these cadets are doing this to push themselves,” said Lt. Col. Gary Sargent, Cal Poly military science professor and the Fighting Mustangs’ commander. “That kind of self-motivation, that’s what I want to see in Army officers.”

The Army ROTC program lets college students earn military leadership training while working toward their college degrees and offers them commissions to serve as officers in the Army, Army Reserve or Army National Guard immediately after graduation.

Cadet and electrical engineering senior Joshua Conroy wasn’t competing in this year’s Ranger Challenge but was out at the camp for the day assisting with the event. He said he’s always wanted to join the Army.

“When I was 17 I tried to enlist, but my mom found out, so I had to go to college,” he explained. At Cal Poly he found ROTC, which has enabled him to pursue his degree along with a future as an officer in the Army.

The Ranger Challenge is just one of many physical portions of the ROTC program that accompany the classroom military training that cadets take each quarter.

From the shooting range, the cadets marched over to the hand grenade target practice portion of the challenge. Here each team member, loaded up with mock grenades, was graded for time and accuracy as they ran from the starting line, crouched behind a wall and sent one grenade at a time singing towards the target area 35 meters away.

“The Ranger Program is a tactical field challenge, kind of like our Olympics,” explained Sgt. Maj. Alan Higgs, the senior non-commissioned officer for the entire 19-university region that includes ROTC programs in Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California. “It’s something other than sitting in a classroom all day.”

“It’s a friendly rivalry between the schools, but there’s good competition here. The winning school gets to go home with bragging rights,” Higgs said.

The land navigation challenge required each nine-person team to split into three groups and search for certain navigational points plotted on a map. With the massive acreage of the camp, the Cal Poly team had a definite advantage as they headed out in home territory to scout for the marked posts and returned home with the most points marked.

“The proximity of the Army National Guard facilities is one of the reasons Cal Poly does so well,” said Sargent, noting that each ROTC program has to work with what resources they have nearby when training. “We’re very lucky to have the camp just up the road.”

With the most grueling grand finale still ahead, Master Sgt. Mark Byrd shouted out at the cadets scattered throughout the cattle field to “grab your rucksacks and listen up.”

Some still tired from the land navigation challenge, the cadets crowded around Byrd to hear their instructions for the 10 kilometer road march: within 90 minutes, complete the road march course – go straight ahead, turn up the hill, across the ridge, down and onto the road, up a second hill, across, continue down the road – and be at the finish line with all of your teammates and full rucksacks.

Suited up with between 22 pounds and 30 pounds on their backs, 7-pound rifles in hand and water canteens strapped to their sides, the three teams took off in single file at a quick jog.

Cal Poly made headway and rounded the corner to the finish line at a weary jog. Crossing as a single-file line, they pulled in just as the first few drops of rain started falling.

Cadet Martinson, Cal Poly’s only female in the Ranger Challenge, marched through the finish line with her team and, with an exhausted sigh, threw her rucksack down and loosened the laces on her boots. “My feet don’t have blisters, they are blisters,” she laughed.

At 5-feet-1, the petite Martinson said, “The 10K ruck march is one of the most physically demanding things I’ve ever done, but the feeling that I could finish with my team being half their size and with the same amount of weight on my back, makes it all worth it.”

Cadet Nick Estrada pulled through until the end of the road march with the encouragement of his battalion. Exhausted and sweaty, but on the other end of finish line, he said, “It’s a lot more mental than it is physical. When you’re going up the hill, it’s pride and basic willpower that gets you over.”

His teammate, cadet Michael Peaslee, added, “You’ve got to push your team; it’s not an individual competition.”

Estrada continued, “You might be hurting at the start or at the end, but everyone is hurting at some point. You can’t get mad because you want to motivate everyone to get to the finish line as a team.”

At the brief awards ceremony at the end, Sargent looked around and smiled at the group of camouflaged bodies around him. “You feelin’ challenged?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” the tired group reply came.

“I’m impressed; I always am,” the lieutenant colonel said. “You could have been out on a Saturday enjoying yourself doing other things, but instead you came to compete in this challenge. You’re a rare breed.”

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