‘We’re Soldiers First:' Inside the Army’s Best Squad Competition

best squad competition: preston hough

Army Reserve 2022 Best Squad competitor Sgt. Preston Hough, an Army JAG corps paralegal, drags a 90-pound sled during the Army Combat Fitness Test at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, May 15, 2022. Hough’s Reserve team finished in the top 4 in the Army Best Squad field events. Army Reserve Photo by Spc. Brandon Levy.

Calvin Reimold/Exercise News Day

FORT BRAGG, NC — Not all the soldiers who shot and rucked their way through the Army’s first Best Squad competition regularly fly in Black Hawk helicopters or fire Carl Gustafs and 60mm mortars.

Infantry soldiers made up many of the dozen squads that competed at Fort Bragg last week, where teams from Forces Command and Special Operations Command felt at home with events like air assaults and navigating to waypoints in North Carolina swampland at zero dark thirty.

But right next to them were soldiers from component commands like Cyber, Futures, and Training and Doctrine commands, one of whom admitted to Coffee or Die Magazine that they’d prepared for some events in the competition by cribbing notes from YouTube videos.

Even one of the top teams featured an Army paralegal as a team leader .

best squad competition: black hawk

Competitors rehearse loading operations with a UH-60 Black Hawk during the Army’s first-ever Best Squad Competition held on Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Oct. 3, 2022. US Army photo by Spc. Lilliana Magoon.

“We’re soldiers first,” Sgt. Maj. Phil Blaisdell told the 60 competitors in the closing ceremony. “It doesn’t matter if you’re cyber, MP, intel, anything — you have to be ready to fight and win at all times.”

The five-soldier squads competed in over a dozen events in seven days, starting on Sept. 29 as the remnants of Hurricane Ian drenched competitors for much of the first 48 hours.

After a week in the field, squads that made the cut came from the 101st Airborne Division of Forces Command, 75th Ranger Regiment of Special Operations Command, the National Guard, and the Army Reserve. Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston will announce the winning squad at the Association of the US Army, or AUSA, summit in Washington, DC, on Monday, Oct. 10.

The contest’s finale was a board-style interview for the top four teams with sergeant majors from across the Army in Washington on Oct. 7.

Among the teams that did not advance was the Army Cyber command’s squad, led by Staff Sgt. Emily Lamontagne. The team nicknamed itself “the Geek Squad.”

best squad competition: emily lamontagne

Army Staff Sgt. Emily Lamontagne, representing US Army Cyber Command, tests her knowledge of the M240 machine gun during the Army’s first-ever Best Squad competition, held on Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Oct. 2, 2022. US Army photo by Spc. Cole Meiers.

Spc. Cole Meiers/82nd Airborne Division

“So, I’m not going to lie, a lot of our training was off of YouTube videos,” Lamontagne, a human intelligence collector stationed at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, told Coffee or Die Magazine.

Lamontagne said she and her soldiers work in offices at Army Cyber command, or ARCYBER, and don’t have ready access to heavy weapons and ranges like many conventional units. For train up, “the Geek Squad” leaned into their strengths, studying and problem-solving on paper, then walked through other skills like land navigation at a nearby Marine Corps Base.

“The highs were when my soldiers were doing these things that they’d only seen once before like assembling and disassembling weapons, no problem,” Lamontagne said. The lows, she said, came when the soldiers had to perform skills they hadn’t studied or walked through.

“I know one of our guys, because he went to basic training during COVID, hadn’t even slept outside until two nights ago — like ever in his life,” Lamontagne said. “So it’s extremely different than what we see on a day-to-day basis.”

But ARCYBER’s squad stayed upbeat throughout the weeklong competition, even though they didn’t score high enough to move onto the finale in Washington.

“We would constantly be getting stuck in swamps and making fun about going to jungle warfare school,” Lamontagne said. “We should just automatically have the qualification now,” she joked.

best squad competition: army cyber command

Soldiers from squad 8, representing the US Army Cyber command and competing in the Army’s first-ever Best Squad Competition, zero weapons on Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Oct. 2, 2022. US Army Photo by Spc. Rognie Ortiz Vega.

“Looking back on it, I would say, yes, the competition was worth it. If you would’ve asked me this mid-ruck, I might’ve been like, ‘Agh, no, I want to be in my office,’” Lamontagne said.

Soldiers carried rucks for roughly 88 miles in seven days.

But even among soldiers whose full-time job is sharpening combat skills and fitness, Best Squad was a monster that required months of training.

The squad from the 101st Airborne Division arrived with four Ranger-qualified soldiers. The team came to Fort Bragg almost three weeks before the contest to fine-tune their skills before the competition kicked off. And just to represent FORSCOM, the 101st soldiers — who competed as the “Mohawks” — had already had to win multiple competitions at the division, corps, and command levels.

Sgt. Andrew Row, team leader for the Mohawks, said the toughest moment was an early morning ruck march. “I’d say the worst event was the 12-mile foot march at 0300,” Row said.

After the 12-mile slog, the squads immediately moved into land navigation, then a string of other events, all crammed into 24 hours. “We had to go into what was like a star-course type deal,” Row said. “We had to land nav to different points. Each movement was a minimum of like 2.5 km, maximum of 3.5 km.”

“We had to find about seven of those points, and then we got back to the patrol base to conduct patrol-base operations around 2130,” Row said. Then the squad received an order for a sprint mission that had to be executed at 2 a.m.

“We were a little bit tired. The attrition started to wear in. We were a little hungry,” Row said. “It was good, though — a little grumpy.”

Tired or not, the Mohawks blitzed the ruck marches. Spc. Samuel Alvarez logged the fastest ruck march time of the competition at 2 hours and 14 minutes for 12 miles while the rest of the Mohawks came in under 2 hours and 45 minutes, Row said.

Meanwhile, the Army Reserve’s team, nicknamed the “Honey Badgers,” finished in the top four, even though most of its soldiers don’t typically train on infantry skills, like firing AT4 anti-tank launchers. A combat engineer was the squad leader while the team leader, Staff Sgt. Preston Hough, works as a paralegal.

Hough, a soldier with the 316th Sustainment command’s Judge Advocate General, or JAG. “We have a CBRN specialist, and then military police,” Hough said. “And we have a laundry and shower specialist.”

“Diversity, absolutely,” Hough said, grinning.

Day in and day out, the reservists might not be shooting a Texas Star while balancing on an unstable platform at the range, but their top-four performance was exactly what Army leadership was hoping to get out of the Best Squad competition.

best squad competition: forces command

Soliders of Squad 1, representing US Army Forces command, take a short rest after participating in a simulated escort mission during the Army’s first-ever Best Squad Competition on Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Oct. 3, 2022. US Army photo by Spc. Zachery T. Frost.

“Our job as soldiers is to close with and kill the enemy — not just the Rangers, not just the infantry — every one of us,” Blaisdell said. “There were no front lines in the last war, and I’m pretty sure there will be no front lines in the next war.”

Hough said being from Army Reserve actually gave his squad an upper hand because reservists have to integrate into active duty units. “That’s why we were so adaptable and able to get together and do this — because that’s our bread and butter, that’s what we’re supposed to do,” he said.

Hough said cohesion was the team’s strength. “We’re all a bunch of goobers, so when things were going rough, somebody — whether it was me or somebody else on the team — would just start singing, right?

“Me, I’m kind of crazy because I’ll start singing Army division songs,” Hough said. “I don’t know why I know them all, but I do.”

Hough’s teammates would tell him to shut up, but then they’d all break out into ‘90s country hits like Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee.”

“And it was great. It really built up morale,” Hough said. “A lot of times, we’re trucking up a hill, and the sun’s shining down on you, and we’ve got a 45-pound ruck on our back, and it’s not fun, but then you start singing, and you laugh a little bit, and then it’s fun.”

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Jenna Biter has written for regional magazines and digital outlets including on great power competition and special operations medical teams for The National Interest. She is pursuing a master’s degree in national security and is working on speaking Russian. Her husband is on active duty in the US military. Know a good story about national security or the US military? Email Jenna.
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