Staff Sgt. Robert McCain wanted to be in the Army for as long as his mother can remember. But McCain remembers exactly when he knew he’d be a soldier someday: The first time he watched “Black Hawk Down.” 

“I was like nine and I saw that movie — which you should not show a nine-year-old that movie — and I wanted to join the Army from then on,” he told Task & Purpose on Sunday.

Not only did McCain go on to be an infantryman in the Army like he’d dreamed, but over the weekend he competed in the 2022 Best Ranger Competition, a brutal battle of grit and skill among elite Airborne Ranger-qualified service members. McCain was on Team 41 along with Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Peterson, both of whom serve as instructors with the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade at Fort Benning, Georgia. 

Arriving from U.S. Army units across the world and from one sister service, 51 two-man Ranger teams gathered before dawn on April 8 at Fort Benning, Georgia for the Army’s Best Ranger competition. (Patrick A. Albright/U.S. Army)

The two finished in 14th place out of 51 teams after a weekend of intense physical and mental exercises that had them climbing, swimming, running, and crawling across various events around Fort Benning. The competition also involved a series of shooting events which had the competitors test their skills on everything from pistols and shotguns to 60mm mortar systems and a M72 Light Anti-Armor Weapon in addition to running through a series of courses, some of which, like  the Darby Queen and the course over Victory Pond, were familiar territory for Ranger School graduates.

McCain and Peterson quickly drew praise and admiration from a video that showed them going through a mystery event on Saturday. The mystery event required teams to decode a message using the Revolutionary War-era Culper Code to find the word that would be used as a key to the lock on a box — all within seven minutes. 

Immediately upon starting, McCain tried opening the box without the lock first, because technically, the written instructions didn’t say the lock had to be opened before the box was. 

“Don’t break the box,” the instructor said as McCain pulled on the box’s hinges. “Don’t break the box,” the instructor repeated. 

“You mean I have to undo the lock? Because it doesn’t say that. It says open the locked ammo can,” McCain responded. 

“Don’t break the box,” the instructor said once more.  

“I’m not breaking it,” remarked McCain, before going back to attempting to pull the lid open. As his partner briefly paused decoding the message and looked on to watch McCain’s attempts, McCain encouraged him to keep going: “You do you, baby.” 

Sgt 1st Class Ryan Peterson. After two full days and nights of events to test their stamina, technical prowess and mental acuity, the remaining teams crossed the finish line April 10, concluding the 2022 Best Ranger Competition. (Patrick Albright/U.S. Army)

In responses online, McCain was immediately hailed as the archetype of noncommissioned officers in the U.S. military – finding creative solutions to problems that are technically correct, even if they might be unconventional. And, of course, finding loopholes if such a loophole exists. 

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“It doesn’t matter what team I lead, this is the type of person I want on it!” one person said.

“This is what our military does better than most others: our soldiers are assigned an objective and they do whatever they need to complete it,” said another.

“I have never seen a more NCO move in my life,” someone else commented. 

On Sunday, McCain’s mom, Lou Ann, said she wasn’t surprised a bit. 

“That’s just him. He’s just like, well technically it doesn’t say I need to unlock this lock. That’s just Bob, like that’s not the easiest way to do it so I’m just going to pry it open and stick my hand in there,” Lou Ann said, laughing.

The soldier who put the mystery event together, Capt. Shawn Gardner with the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade, said the event was inspired by his love of escape rooms. He chose something from a local escape room in Georgia that he thought would be challenging and worked backwards: a five-digit Army word that could be used for the lock — the rank of “major” — then a famous major with Ranger ties — Robert Rodgers, who led the Roger’s Rangers during the French and Indian War. 

McCain and Peterson ultimately decoded the message and completed the task, and they weren’t penalized for McCain’s… creativity. 

“One thing I know escape room owners and managers would learn over time is, you have to plan for the worst thing to happen, right? So if you don’t give them specific instructions not to do that, they will probably have at least one — like him — that would try to do that,” Gardner said. “And McCain too, I know him personally, we worked last year together. He has a very big personality and he is the kind of person that would go in and do that … It was really funny that he was the one to do that.” 

Throughout the course, despite its exhausting nature, Team 41 seemed to stay in good spirits, as did most. But that is of course what these soldiers — and one airman, who serves with the 75th Ranger Regiment and competed in this year’s competition — are built to do: persevere, and keep going no matter what. They’re there to get the job done, no matter how cold it is, how little sleep they’ve gotten, or how worn out they are from the day’s events. And these competitors experienced all of that and more.

As instructors for soldiers training to get their Ranger tab, McCain and Peterson said there’s plenty to be learned from the competition. 

“I think the biggest takeaway that you can take from something like this is even when you’re tired, you’re hungry, you’re dehydrated, its’ late and it’s hard for you to think, you have the ability to pull through, especially when there’s somebody else relying on you,” Peterson said. “Just being there for another person and doing something that’s bigger than yourself.” 

McCain agreed and said Peterson “dragged me along for longer than I care to admit” during the land navigation exercise the night before.

“Keeping up and not falling out sometimes is all it takes,” he said. 

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