Debbie Chen was absolutely spent.
The senior gathered up what remaining willpower and energy she had to thrust her exhausted body over the wall. She dropped to the muddy ground below, quickly assuming a crawl position. Using her elbows, she dragged herself forward, edging steadily towards the looming finish line.
"I thought I was going to choke and die," Chen said, half-joking and half-serious, as she described her journey through the obstacle course, one of several events at the Ranger Challenge Competition.
Duke's "Ranger Team," comprised of Chen and nine other Army ROTC cadets, competed successfully against teams from other schools in North and South Carolina Nov. 8, winning its third Division Championship in four years. The competition, held in Fort Jackson, S.C., tests the physical and military skills of participating ROTC cadets from the Carolinas.
Though this year was Chen's fourth time at the competition, it was only her second time going through the obstacle course, one of the last events in a long string of grueling activities. One of the team members, junior Jared Miranda, had previously suffered a stress fracture in the shin that had worsened as the team "rucked"--marching while they carried at least the minimum 35-pound requirement--from one event to the next, since 6 a.m. that morning. By the time the cadets reached the obstacle course, the injury had been aggravated to the point where he could not safely compete in a physically demanding task. So Chen stepped in.
"What was really cool about [participating in the obstacle course]," Chen continued, "was we were all running together through the course and the guys behind me were really supportive."
Senior Dennis Williams, the team captain, was worried about being able to push Chen, along with the rest of the team members, through the obstacle course within the best possible time frame.
"One of my concerns was that we weren't going to be as fast," he said. "She stayed right with us--she's a monster, she's really a trooper."
In order to win the challenge, each member had to contribute in a big way--beginning in August, when the cadets began their training. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, they ran and did push-ups and sit-ups. During the two other weekdays--Tuesday and Thursday afternoons--the team focused on military techniques, such as disassembling and reassembling M-16's, orienteering and building rope bridges.
"Coach" Sergeant James Cook's "basic function," as he terms it, was to act as their land resource manager, obtaining M-16's for them to practice with and taking them to the land navigation site. He also trained alongside his cadets, taking them on early morning runs through the golf course and inventing new drills that involve push-ups and sit-ups.
"It's a 200-drill," Cook explained. "So eventually they're going to do 200 sit-ups and push-ups at the end of everything else they've already done. So watching the expressions on their faces as I explain the drill, knowing the pain of what's going to come--that was kind of funny."
They prepared and suffered for about two-and-a-half months for the two-day event, but most members of the Ranger Team found the sacrifice rewarding in multiple ways. Sophomore William Wright compared training for the competition to preparing for a future officer role in the army.
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"A major component of being in army is being physically fit," he said.
"It's kind of like a team sport with other people so you're encouraged to work harder than you normally would on your own. You get better prepared for being an officer in the army, which is what [Army ROTC cadets] are all headed towards."
Several people on the Ranger Team also brought up the camaraderie that resulted from months of toiling, and then achieving, together.
"You're with each other 10 hours a week", said junior Kevin Waldrep, "so you can just get to know each other really well.
As a by-product of their newfound closeness, the cadets enacted rituals and traditions that were established by Ranger Teams in previous years.
"We have this rite every year where each team member eats 12 hard boiled eggs and a cup of syrup," Williams said. "Everybody on the team does it. That's one of the best things about being on the team--we have a lot of fun together. Even though we're serious about training, we're also friends."
Another tradition involves bestowing a nickname unto each member of the Ranger Team. Senior Charles Bies, for example, was nicknamed "Killa," in his freshman year, given to him by a teammate who had been especially fond of rap music. And everybody on this year's team acknowledges Waldrep as "Sweet Cheeks," primarily because they could not guess his high school nickname--which Waldrep refused to reveal--that started with an 'S.'
The team members' camaraderie with each other proved to be a key factor in their success at the Ranger Challenge Competition. Their reliance on each other was evident from the physical fitness test--where sophomore Jon Cichowicz, after having completed the 2-mile race, went back and ran the rest of the race with fellow cadet Chen, encouraging her along the way--to the obstacle course, when team members had to hold each other's hands for support when they walked the balance beam.
"Forget pride," Waldrep joked.
After the intense, 36-hour long competition, members of Duke's team were officially recognized for their achievements: yellow streamers for the events they had won, handshakes from army officers and a gigantic, first-place trophy. Team members appreciated their feat even more in light of the fact that Duke has a relatively small Army ROTC program--about 30 cadets, compared to the 40 to more than 100 cadets that other schools have.
"I think the fact that we won three division championships out of the last four years is a testament how high quality our program is and how committed to excellence our cadets are," Williams said. "We can draw from that small of a pool and have that great of a team says something about Duke cadets and our character."
Wright also noted the significance of the leaders' contributions, echoing the sentiments of his fellow teammates--from the "cadre," officers already in the army who instruct the cadets at Duke, to their team leader, Williams.
"We probably get better instruction than any other school," Wright said. "We're really lucky at Duke to have cadre as good as they are. Good soldiers are made, not born. Our team captain, he's outstanding at being a soldier. He was definitely one of the main reasons we won." Williams ultimately attributed his team's success to one simple ingredient: hard work. "We earned our trophy," he said. "We earned it every step of the way."