FORT BENNING, Ga. — Just before dawn on Friday, a scaled-back 30th annual David E. Grange Jr. Best Ranger Competition started at Fort Benning, despite a 65 percent reduction in its operating budget.
"Some of the extras we had in previous years have been cut back significantly," said Gary A. Jones, director of public affairs for the Maneuver Center of Excellence. "We cut the costs a lot in order to keep this moving."
The competition pushes two-man teams to the limits with 60 hours of events that include firing weapons, marching with gear for miles and other timed exercises. Over the next three days, 50 teams will get tested in physical conditioning, skills and strategies to determine the best team in the Army. This year, there is also a team from the Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
The opening ceremony gets under way at 5:45 a.m. at Camp Rogers and teams take part in a run at 6 a.m. Other events during the day include the demanding obstacle course at the Darby Queen and parachute jumps at Fryar Drop Zone.
Teams get very little sleep or food before events continue just after midnight with a road march. Most of Saturday is filled with timed events at Malvesti Field, Todd Field and the Malone MOUT, or Military Operations in Urban Terrain area. The event wraps up Sunday with a day of orienteering, canoeing and swimming, water confidence at Victory Pond and a buddy run to Freedom Hall at 3:30 p.m.
To recognize the 30th anniversary of the event, former Secretary of State Colin Powell will be the guest speaker at the 11 a.m. Monday awards ceremony at McGinnis-Wickam Hall, Jones said. In 1958, Powell served as a Ranger at Fort Benning.
The Best Ranger Competition is named for retired Lt. Gen. David E. Grange Jr., a veteran of World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. He is scheduled to attend some events during the competition.
To make sure the event continued after across-the-board cuts were announced on March 1, Jones said Army leaders made cost-saving measures that were reduced to a level to that would allow the Army to proceed with the event. Officials cut government spending by 65 percent and kept the budget for the event under $100,000, he said.
"It's a big cut, but it's still a big premier competition," Jones said. "It's scaled back considerably, probably a large percentage of that has to do with maintenance-type things."
Maintenance that includes sprucing up the post where the competition is held was delayed. Officials also reduced the number of live rounds fired during the contest and cut the number of helicopter flights offered to some journalists to see events from the air. "We left enough in to make it significant training, to make it rigorous, tough training as the Best Ranger Competition has always been known for," Jones said.
In years to come, the post can still put on the event with a reduced budget.
"If financial, budgetary times stay as they are, we may stay at this level for a while," Jones said.
At the end of the competition, Jones said, the event is more than announcing the winning team. Rangers take what they learn back to units across the country and teach skills to other soldiers.
"You have to find ways to keep them sharp, well-honed and keep them ready to fight," Jones said. "You can't do that by having them sit in the barracks. You've got to have ways to keep them challenged."
Sgt. 1st Class Gerald Nelson, a staffer in the Ranger Training Brigade and winner of the 2005 Best Ranger Competition with Capt. Corbett McCallum, said soldiers spent the day Thursday completing weight training and packing their equipment. With seven teams from the brigade on post, Nelson said there is a potential for some to score high. "I think they are very strong," he said.
When asked if the competition will still stack up with other contests, Nelson said every competition is going to look a bit different, but it won't change the outcome.
"The Best Ranger comes out on top whether they do 60 or 80 miles," he said. "It's still a team competing against everyone else. It will stack up just fine."