"Ladies and gentlemen, in second place, Team 32 - Capt. Robert Killian, 5th Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group, Colorado Army National Guard, and 1st Lt. Nicholas Plocar, 127th Infantry, Wisconsin Army National Guard."
And with those words from Col. Kyle Lear, commander of the Ranger Training Brigade, the Army National Guard secured its highest finish in the annual Best Ranger Competition.
Of the 50 teams to start the competition April 13 at Fort Benning, Ga., four belonged to the National Guard, and two teams included Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers. Besides Team 32, Team 34 included 1st Lt. Jose Moreno of the Rhode Island Army National Guard and Staff Sgt. William Kocken, also of the Wisconsin Army National Guard's 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry.
Team 34 finished 19th out of the 26 teams to complete the competition. The other two National Guard teams ó 35 and 33 ó finished in 17th and 11th place, respectively.
"Less than 1 percent of our Soldiers are Ranger qualified," Lear said to open the awards ceremony following the grueling three-day event. "The 26 teams you will see lined up tonight represent the absolute best of that one percent."
This was the third consecutive best Ranger Competition for Plocar, and the experience showed. Team 32 led the competition from the opening event, surrendering the lead only after the Spot Drop event on day three. Plocar and Killian ó who were teammates in 2012 ó finished strong in the competition's final event, taking the lead in the Buddy Run about one minute into the run and building a considerable lead en route to their first-place finish. But that was not enough to reclaim the lead from the team of second lieutenants from the 25th Infantry Division.
"It's a bittersweet feeling," Plocar acknowledged. "We did so well over the first two days in so many events. To come up short on one event is tough. But it's still a good result, and good for the National Guard."
According to the Best Ranger Competition website, the "average" competitor is 28 years old, 5-foot 10-inches, 165 pounds, Airborne Ranger qualified, a decathlon-caliber athlete, and ranges in age from specialist to major. Just over one in four have competed in the event before.
This was the first Best Ranger Competition for Kocken, who just earned his Ranger tab last year.
"1st Lt. Plocar and I work out together," Kocken said. "He suggested I ask battalion to see if I could take the Best Ranger assessment."
That assessment gauges Soldiers' physical fitness and skill competence, and serves as an audition of sorts to determine who can compete.
"One way to find out how good you are is to go up against the best guys on the planet," Kocken said.
Events each competitor must conquer over the course of 60 hours include a foot march of at least 20 miles while wearing a 60-pound rucksack; a grenade course; the Darby Queen obstacle course; rope climb and rappelling; spot jump; a helocast and swim; a water confidence test slide for life and rope drop; and military skills such as marksmanship, land navigation and communication.
Kocken had mixed feelings over his team's overall finish.
"After Day One we were in second place," he said. "We went into day land navigation and got a little flustered ó we ended up getting disqualified from that event, and it was too hard to make up the points. Make one or two small mistakes and it really hurts you."
Plocar noted that few National Guard Soldiers get the opportunity to conduct spot jumps as part of their regular training.
"We were in the top five, top 10 in every event but one," he said. "But it wasn't enough to get first place."
Kocken said the National Guard made a statement at this year's competition.
"A few years ago the National Guard wasn't making it past the second day [of the Best Ranger Competition]," Kocken said. "Now we've got four teams in the top 20 ó that says a lot about how far the Guard has come."
"Our Soldiers are top of the line," he said. "They can do the job as good as any Soldier in the Army."
Brig. Gen. Mark Anderson, deputy adjutant general for Army, shared that sentiment.
"We are unbelievably proud of both 1st Lt. Plocar and Staff Sgt. Kocken in the manner that they represented not only themselves but the Wisconsin Army National Guard as a whole," Anderson said. "This competition is the premier event for Rangers, and to have two Soldiers not only compete in all events but finish so strong is a tremendous reflection of their dedication as Soldiers."
Plocar said that not fulfilling his goal of winning the Best Ranger Competition has kept drawing him back. Kocken, noting the three-month time commitment required to train up and participate in the competition, suggested that this might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for him.
"I would love to go back," he said, "but I need to train with my squad, too."
Plocar and Kocken thanked the 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry for supporting them over the past three months, as well as the National Guard and their families.
"Without their support Ö none of this would have been possible," Plocar said. "It's a very special three days that not a lot of people get to see."
"It's a great experience," Kocken added. "But we covered at least 43 miles on Day One ó I'm still finding blisters all over."