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Participants in Thursday's Gunga Din II soldiering skills challenge had to disassemble and reassemble rifles and pistols blindfolded.

Participants in Thursday's Gunga Din II soldiering skills challenge had to disassemble and reassemble rifles and pistols blindfolded. (Mark St.Clair / S&S)

Participants in Thursday's Gunga Din II soldiering skills challenge had to disassemble and reassemble rifles and pistols blindfolded.

Participants in Thursday's Gunga Din II soldiering skills challenge had to disassemble and reassemble rifles and pistols blindfolded. (Mark St.Clair / S&S)

Gunga Din II challenge overall winner Capt. Ronny Bigham, flight surgeon, 1st Battalion, 4th U.S. Cavalry, tosses a practice grenade.

Gunga Din II challenge overall winner Capt. Ronny Bigham, flight surgeon, 1st Battalion, 4th U.S. Cavalry, tosses a practice grenade. (Mark St.Clair / S&S)

Capt. Ronny Bigham, center, finished first in the Gunga Din II soldiering skills challenge.

Capt. Ronny Bigham, center, finished first in the Gunga Din II soldiering skills challenge. ()

Lt. Col. Christopher D. Kolenda, center, squadron commander, 1st Battalion, 4th U.S. Cavalry, encourages his officers before the start of the Gunga Din II soldiering skills challenge on Conn Barracks, Schweinfurt, Germany, Thursday.

Lt. Col. Christopher D. Kolenda, center, squadron commander, 1st Battalion, 4th U.S. Cavalry, encourages his officers before the start of the Gunga Din II soldiering skills challenge on Conn Barracks, Schweinfurt, Germany, Thursday. (Mark St.Clair / S&S)

SCHWEINFURT, Germany — Forty-one Quarterhorse Cavalry officers took part in a test of strength, endurance and combat-critical skills during the Gunga Din II skills challenge Thursday.

But the most daunting task they may have faced was not losing to the squadron commander.

“I challenge all of you to beat a 40-year-old man,” Lt. Col. Christopher D. Kolenda, commander, 1st Battalion, 4th U.S. Cavalry, said minutes before the event began. “It’s set in a physically demanding environment, but we try and make it a little fun.”

The challenge, which took place at Conn Barracks, takes its theme from the last line in a Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.” The man in this case is Kolenda.

In order to complete the challenge, the Quarterhorse officers had to prove their field craft knowledge in four events: calling for fire; rifle and pistol marksmanship; disassembly and reassembly of a rifle and pistol while blindfolded; and a hand grenade assault course.

Between each event, the soldiers had to run a three-mile loop around Conn Barracks in full battle gear. Penalties were assessed for inaccuracy with the guns and grenades. For each miss, a 200-meter run penalty was added. As for assembling weapons blindfolded and calling for fire? Participants sat there until they got it right, losing the chance to be a better man than Kolenda minute by minute.

Aside from building unit camaraderie and morale, Capt. Piers Platt, Quarterhorse Support Platoon leader, said Gunga Din gave the participants needed light-infantry task practice.

Since the squadron had its basic mission fundamentally changed recently, moving from a heavy-armored cavalry unit to a lighter, more streamlined force, the unit members have had to reshape their attitudes on how to fight, making dismounted infantry tasks more critical to their mission, Platt said.

At least one competitor took Kolenda’s challenge seriously. Capt. Ronny Bigham, 41, squadron flight surgeon and self-styled “old man of the group,” finished first, clocking in at just about three hours.

No other competitor was anywhere in sight. A former Army Special Forces medic, Bigham said he relished the chance to get out of his office and get some fresh air.

All the winners were given the Capt. Andrew R. Houghton Memorial Award, named for the fallen leader of Quarterhorse’s Anvil Troop, who was killed in Iraq in July 2004.

In the end, only four officers could brag that they beat the 40-year-old man.

“There were four who were better men than I,” Kolenda said. “Hopefully, there will be more when we do this again.”

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