The competition, known as the Ranger Challenge, drew cadets from 52 teams, including Auburn University, the University of Alabama and Louisiana State University. The cadets have crawled, climbed, paddled and lobbed hand grenades during competitions designed to determine who has the keenest skills, said Capt. Matt Sawdy, who is coaching the JSU cadets. The JSU team is competing against teams that hail from large universities with more money, resources and students, but Sawdy said those limitations may strengthen the local team.
“I think it drives them more,” Sawdy said. “It kind of gives them an edge to be more competitive, and to not take things for granted.”
Jacksonville State University’s ROTC program dates back to 1948 and typically includes between 90 and 100 cadets. This year, participation in the ROTC program climbed to 125, said Lowell Shackelford, a recruitment operations officer for the program.
Thirty-five cadets have left the program this academic year, but the original fall number is higher than it has been since 1973, he said.
Tryouts are required for ROTC cadets who want to be on the Ranger Challenge team, which includes nine starting competitors and two alternatives, Sawdy said.
ROTC cadets do not have to enlist in the military to participate in the program, although those who enter the program must complete military science courses each year. These courses focus on leadership skills and incorporate mandatory physical challenges.
ROTC gives cadets a path to becoming a commissioned officer and to getting full-time work in the Army, the Army Reserves or the National Guard, the instructors said. Those students who complete four years of ROTC courses become entry-level officers in the Army when they graduate, they said.
Each week ROTC cadets begin physical training at 5:30 a.m. Monday through Thursday. Wearing matching T-shirts, hooded sweatshirts and black shorts, they run, swim, climb and march until 7 a.m.
Each year the program tries to graduate 17 commissioned officers. Shackelford said the program is on track to meet that goal this year, but in recent years it has struggled to do so.
In 2013 eight commissioned officers graduated; in 2012, 10; in 2011, 14 and in 2010, 12. The last time JSU’s ROTC’s program met its goal was in 2009, he said.
“Sometimes you just go through a little lull, and all the sudden it picks back up,” Shackelford said. “It’s academics, it’s physical conditions, people have medical issues that come up.”
Those members of the Ranger Challenge team have to do all that the other ROTC members do, and a little bit more — such as starting their morning training an hour earlier. Many of them train for eight months for the competition, Sawdy said.
“Not everybody can qualify to be a part of the Ranger Challenge team,” Sawdy said. “You have to put more training in for this event.”
Eric McIntyre, a junior who signed up for the team just last week, said he can already tell that training for the competition demands more work from him and his teammates.
“It’s challenging, but it’s rewarding,” McIntyre said. “It stresses you more.”
McIntyre said he sought out the ROTC program.
“It’s guaranteed job security,” McIntyre said. “I have a huge family tradition involved in the military, and mainly I’m just trying to make my parents proud.”
Sawdy said the team achieved even more this year by raising $3,500 to pay for a paddle boat that is used in a rescue mission competition at the Ranger Challenge. The team raised the money from donations, including those from the Captain Kyle Comfort Foundation and the Fort Mcclellan Credit Union, and from T-shirt sales, he said.
Before it bought the new boat the team had to improvise — using a log and an imaginary paddle — to practice for the challenge.
“I’ve been really proud of our team,” Sawdy said.
Staff writer Laura Gaddy: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LGaddy_Star.