Grueling Best Squad Event Delivers 'Perfect Conditions' to Mold Leaders
On April 10, the first full day of action at the 2023 U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command Best Squad Competition, MRDC Command Sgt. Maj. Kyle Brunell was called to validate one of the many events taking place on the grounds of Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia. To start, he grabbed hold of a cord that had been lashed around two large trees and strung across a small pond, then made his way – confidently but slowly – across the water and back, wading waist-deep into the muddy mess before pulling himself out.
"It's cold, it's nasty, and it's really tough out there," said Brunell, grinning, to the course administrators on the banks of the pond. "Sounds like perfect conditions for a best leader competition if you ask me."
This year, the annual competition to determine the command's best squad features a total of 30 participants chosen from MRDC's direct reporting units – all assembled for a demanding three-day event designed to test Soldiers' physical and mental limits. In addition, the competitions for both the command's Soldier of the Year award and the Non-commissioned Officer of the Year award have been folded into the event as well, fueling a larger atmosphere of increased importance and urgency.
"It's been an interesting couple of hours," said Sgt. Colin Perry, who's stationed at MRDC's U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research, during a break from a mid-morning march. Notably, Perry is the reigning MRDC Soldier of the Year, having won the individual award during last year's competition. "It's been cold in the morning and hot in the afternoon – the lack of sleep is starting to get to me a little bit, too. But you keep trying, you keep pushing for the team."
The event officially began on April 9 – and featured opening remarks from command leadership – before beginning in earnest the following morning. The first day alone featured a land navigation exercise (which started before sunrise), along with an obstacle course run and participation in the Army's Combat Water Survival Test, among other events. One of the efforts exclusive to Fort A.P. Hill is passage through the post's Leadership Reaction Course, a series of exercise lanes designed to test Soldiers' problem-solving skills under duress. An example of one specific timed LRC course run requires a team of Soldiers to pass a series of heavy items – say, multiple packed ammunition cans or a heavy wooden ladder – across a designated patch of ground using only two aluminum poles or a wooden plank; if either the items or the Soldiers touch the ground, then participants must start the exercise over again.
"I just really want to see what I can do out there," said Staff Sgt. Michelle Ott, an eight-year Army veteran stationed at MRDC's U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. A native of Florida, Ott says, predictably, that she feels most comfortable with the swimming and water-based events, though she's eager to tackle whatever administrators have in store. "There's not a lot of women participating this year, so I want to show I can make an impact. I've always been the kind of person who believes I can do anything I set my mind to."
Additional events scheduled for the 2023 U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command Best Squad Competition include a myriad of shooting lanes, lengthy ruck marches and, in one specific instance, timed passage through a biochemical attack scenario. A collection of so-called "mystery events" – the scope and goals of which are kept secret from competitors prior to the competition – are also planned for the participants.
"This is a big deal for me," said Private First Class Rollian Morgan, a behavioral health specialist at MRDC's U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory. "I'm trying to gain some experience from this." A Soldier for less than two full years, Morgan recently graduated from the U.S. Army Air Assault School, which is itself comprised of a grueling series of physical events similar in scope to the MRDC best squad competition. "I think everything is a big deal, because everything is an opportunity," said Morgan. "I am going to gain something from this either way. It's going to be a plaque for me to put on my wall – or maybe it will be mistake, and I learn from it. Something like this is always going to be a gain for me."
The 2023 U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command Best Squad Competition will conclude on April 12, with an award ceremony scheduled to take place at Fort Detrick, Maryland, the following day.