75th Ranger Regiment earns third straight Best Ranger title as Army moves annual competition to downtown Columbus, Ga.
Stars and Stripes April 17, 2023
COLUMBUS, Ga. — One after another, pairs of highly trained soldiers zip-lined across the Chattahoochee River from the downtown riverwalk of the western Georgia city into neighboring Alabama where they climbed into bright yellow kayaks and paddled down the waterway.
Onlookers marveled as the teams of soldiers — all graduates of the Army’s grueling Ranger School at nearby Fort Benning — ran along the brick-lined riverwalk Saturday and shot across the 1,200-foot line, marking the approximate halfway point of the Army’s 39th Annual Lt. Gen. David E. Grange Jr. Best Ranger Competition.
After the end of three nearly nonstop days of events that included live-fire exercises, obstacle courses, lengthy runs, CrossFit-style workouts, a nighttime land navigation and fast-rope jumps out of helicopters, a team from the Army’s elite 75th Ranger Regiment claimed the title Best Ranger — marking the special operations unit’s third consecutive victory in the competition.
“They’re truly the top 1% of 1% of our Army that epitomizes a more elite soldier who can do things with their hands, their minds, their weapons and their spirit that our adversaries cannot,” Col. Chris Hammonds, commander of Fort Benning’s Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade, which hosts the competition, said of the top finishers Capt. Luke Ebeling and Spc. Justin Rein.
The Best Ranger Competition is meant to pit the Army’s top performing soldiers against each other and challenge them on various tasks troops could be faced with in the line of duty, while punishing their bodies with brutal workloads, Hammonds said. The teams operate on little sleep and food as they conduct operations during the day and overnight. This year, the competition began with 56 pairs that were cut down to 16 finishers over the course of the event.
“It tests everything. It’s what you can do with your mind, your hands and your weapons better than the others,” Hammonds said. “That’s the theme of the competition — what we’re really trying to test.”
On Saturday, as the competition shifted off the enclosed Fort Benning installation and into the public’s view at A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium and along the riverwalk in downtown Columbus, competitors initially faced a grueling workout. Teams peddled on an exercise bike, threw 60-pound sandbags over a 6-foot wall, pushed a 185-pound sled and then moved a casualty dummy over a wall, through a tunnel and under razor wire. Later, the teams evacuated another dummy onto a helicopter, set up an 81mm mortar tube, threw axes and used saws and welding equipment to breach obstacles. That all came before the mile-plus run to the zip line.
Sgt. Maj. Thomas Payne said the competitors were likely already struggling by that point, especially on a hot, humid Georgia day. Payne, an Army special operator who won the Best Ranger Competition in 2012, said he was amazed by some of the competitors he watched during the event.
“It’s truly inspiring to come out and watch these competitors,” said Payne, who was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2020 for his actions during a 2015 hostage rescue operation against Islamic State militants in Iraq. “These guys are all amazing athletes, high-quality guys. Some of these guys, I’d say, could have made the Olympics, but then they have a passion to serve something greater than themselves, so here they are all volunteering for this competition.”
Payne, who competed in Best Ranger three times, said the daytime portions of the competition are grueling, but the nighttime challenges — a long march on the first night and a land navigation course the second night — are what separate the top finishers from the pack.
“You can’t really win it during those two pieces, but you can definitely lose the competition on those two events,” he said.
The 2023 winners, Ebeling and Rein, took a lead in the competition on the first day, and held it through most the event. Teams from Fort Benning’s Maneuver Center of Excellence and the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, from Vilseck, Germany, earned second and third place, respectively.
Hammond and other Fort Benning officials said holding Saturday’s events in a public setting in Columbus for the first time was meant to expose the local community to what soldiers do behind the Army post’s closed gates.
“It was an opportunity for us to give back to a community that’s felt like right next door to us all this time,” the colonel said. “It’s giving them some access and exposure that they wouldn’t have otherwise to see the technical and tactical expertise of the soldiers that the Army has to offer — and in this case, we’re talking about the best of the best of our soldiers.”