HELENA — Helena native Grant Eckerson comes from a long line of military service members. Ever since he was little, it has been his dream to serve his country too, as an officer in the US Army.
“Since fourth grade, that’s what I wanted,” Eckerson said. “And, I’m pretty stubborn, I didn’t change my mind once.”
Eckerson—now a sophomore at Montana State University—is making strides toward that goal. He is part of the school’s ROTC battalion, and on the ROTC Ranger Challenge team.
From Oct. 22-24, Eckerson’s team competed against others from colleges and universities across the northwest at Fort Harrison in the annual ROTC Ranger Challenge.
“They’re put into situations where they’ve got to make decisions under duress, where they can utilize the skills and tasks they’ve been training on,” Montana Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Hannah said.
Some challenges simulated real-life scenarios, others tested knowledge and skills, and others tested physical fitness.
“We lunge a certain amount, put on gas masks, and carry a 250-pound sandbag up a hill,” Carroll College cadet Travis Petersen said, describing one challenge.
“A steep hill—mind you—a steep hill,” University of Montana cadet Kylie Thwing added.
Carroll College and University of Montana are in the same ROTC battalion.
“We work separately, but we come together as one for Ranger Challenge,” Thwing said. “It’s pretty cool.”
Making the Ranger Challenge team is not easy. Cadets volunteer for it, and then have to qualify for a spot on the team.
Eckerson said he volunteered and tried out after upperclassmen encouraged him, and Thwing said she tried out for ROTC Ranger Challenge team after hearing how hard it was.
“Everyone was like ‘this is a really big challenge,’” she said. “I was like ‘oh yeah, I’m going to go all out, let’s do it!’”
Once cadets make the team, they have more work ahead of them.
Eckerson said regular ROTC responsibilities take up about 8-10 hours each week, that’s on top of regular college work. Training for the ranger challenge means extra workouts, training and learning on top of that.
Eckerson said one of the biggest challenges for him was “gettin up at 5 am on Tuesdays and Thursdays” to train.
“It definitely speaks to the kind of kids we want in the programs at any of the schools around Montana, or in the Army in general, for that matter,” Hannah said.
The three-day competition is not just about winning, it is also about teamwork and giving the cadets a place to showcase their skills.
“Here what I think we’re looking for is the leadership portion of what we want these young men and women to become, and that’s officers in the United States Army,” Hannah said.
Eckerson got hurt and was unable to compete over the weekend, but he said it was good to see his teammates’ hard work paying off.
“Its good to watch them (do well),” he said. “But I’d like to be out there too.”
The University of Montana and Carroll College team took first place, Washington State came in second, the University of Nevada-Reno took third, Montana State University and Gonzaga tied for fourth, Boise State and the University of Idaho tied for fifth, Eastern Washington University took sixth, and the University of California-Davis took seventh.