I recently had the opportunity, as both a parent and a school photographer, to accompany my youngest son Maximus on a trip to Michigan's Upper Peninsula where his high school's Ranger team competed in an annual tournament called the Arctic Raider Challenge.

Ranger (or Raider) teams are run by the various high school JROTC programs across the country, some of whom host annual challenges or tournaments which include various tests of physical fitness, obstacle courses, and other soldiering skills.  The largest of which is the All-Service Raider National Challenge Championships held every November in Molena, Georgia.

A Different Kind of Extra Curricular Program

My son is a student at St. Thomas Academy located in Mendota Heights, Minnesota and is the state's only Catholic, all-male, military, college-prep middle and high school. While the academy participates in the JROTC program, the school made the decision two years ago to cut formal ties with Army's official program in order to facilitate a program that was more in keeping with their student's needs and the school's identity. Now, they simply refer to it as their “Leadership” program.

After a 7-hour drive we arrived at the National Guard Readiness Center outside Calumet, Michigan where we encountered high school Raider teams, both all-boys and coed, from local towns such as Houghton, Hancock, and Calumet which was hosting the event. There were also one team from Auburn highs school in Rockford, IL and one from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  After check-in and a welcome from our hosts, as well as the Pine Ridge team singing the Lakota Flag Song (a song which honors the American flag), we proceeded to set up our cots before having dinner.

After dinner there was a presentation on the four timed events that would make up the Arctic Challenge.  The team with the lowest combined times would win:

1.     Cross-Country Rescue- a .75-mile hike in snow shoes with four team members carrying a stretcher with a 60lb bag of sand on it, with two other boys either blazing the trail ahead or bringing up the rear.

2.     Ahkio Sled Race: 1.5-mile race in snow shoes with six team members pulling a large sled with a 200 lbs of weight in it.

3.     Snow Shoe Biathlon: a two-mile run at the end of which the boys were required to shoot an air rifle at a 6” target 30 yards away.  For every shot a team member scored in the target area, they could deduct one second off their overall time.

4.     “Mystery Event”: an event that was revealed at the last moment and ended up being a 6-man 50-yard relay race without snow shoes through almost 3' of snow.

Following the presentation and a short equipment demonstration, the team's captain, a junior named Max, huddled the boys together and gave out the final assignments of who would compete in which activities the following day.  Some would participate in only one activity and others would participate is as many as three.  The evening wound up with a couple of hours of social time, where the boys hung out, played cards, or in my case I played a game called Quiddler with my son and two other boys as I talked to them about their experiences of being on the Ranger team.

The next morning, we were up early and after a high calorie breakfast, the boys suited up and checked and double-checked each other’s gear. Finally the coach, SFC. Hurd (Ret.), called the boys together, led them in prayer, and admonished them to “leave it all out there” by which he meant that the only way they could say they had done their best was to expend every ounce of energy they had that day.  They did just that many times over, as they competed throughout the day with regular breaks for grabbing something to eat and drink and tallying up the scores.  In the end, the St. Thomas team took home the second-place trophy, and each team member was awarded the Arctic Raider Challenge patch which the team captain personally attached to their uniform.  After the awards ceremony, we were bid farewell by our hosts, and the boys packed up for home.  But of course, not before the requisite exchanging of Snapchat accounts with some of the other participants, including a few of the young ladies on the other teams with whom I was pleased to take one last joint group photo.

Reflections on The Arctic Raider Challenge

All in all, the trip was an exciting break from the daily grind, and in general offered the boys a chance to put all their hard work and training to the test.  Not to mention allowing them improve some of the team building and leadership skills they had learned at school, as well as holding that all important post mortem whereby they learned to take their setbacks in stride and optimistically plan for the future.  More specifically though, this was the first time I had seen a Ranger team compete and I did notice a few ways in which this activity differs from other organized sports.

The first is that the Ranger team is not an official “sport” with its own league or season.  There are just challenges held at various times and places around the country, and schools with JROTC programs can enter them at will.  This means that, by its nature, the team was composed of boys who are already self-starters and disciplined, especially since they had to organize their own workout and training regimen.

Secondly, since the activity is not a regular sport, there are no specific positions or formal tactics or plays for the boys to memorize.  Each event had its own set of difficulties, and it was up to the coach and the team captain to evaluate and assign the boys not only on their level of strength and fitness, but also on their temperament and their ability to quickly assess and solve problems in the field.

That ability was put to the test during the Challenge due to the fact that by the time we had arrived in Michigan, the Upper Peninsula had received in excess of 100” of snow.  This meant that all the training the boys had done in the 8-12” snow back home had to be adjusted on the fly as they dealt with snow shoes that slipped because of the uneven terrain, avoiding or getting out of virtual sinkhole-like spots in the snow, and helping some of their teammates, some of whom had vastly underestimated how grueling these events would be, across the finish line.

However, what really stood out to me about the Ranger team competition had more to do with how the activity itself was perceived.  There are some, including some parents at the Academy, who are little uncomfortable with the military nature of the activity.  For others outside of the St. Thomas community, there is the general criticism (of which I myself have heard on many occasions) that the idea of a military-themed competition and an all-boys school for that matter is yet another example of breeding the kind of “Hoorah” brand “toxic masculinity” so disdained by certain higher education departments and shaving razor commercials.

Challenging the Millennial Mindset

This thinking ignores that only a small portion of St. Thomas Academy grads go on to military service, and that there was zero recruiting done at the Arctic Raider Challenge.  Furthermore, it also neglects to note that the trials in the Challenge were no different from any other non-military themed “challenges” such as The Warrior Dash, Tough Mudder, or the even tougher Go-Ruck competitions which have all been growing not only in popularity but also in difficulty.  Given all that, is it really the military trappings of the Ranger team and its competitions that upset certain people, or is there something else underneath that disdain?

To be fair, I won't discount the idea that there are those who see anything associated with the military as representative of the kind of American values that are at odds with a contemporary progressive mindset.  However, I think it is more likely is that, living as we do in a selfie-taking, frappuccino-chugging, and video game playing youth culture, anything that runs counter to that culture will not only be seen as extreme, but even accusatory.

This is particularly true in light of the fact that we now have large swaths of young people who have been conditioned to see the inevitable difficulties in life as stemming from a whole host of “isms” and other amorphous forces that they feel are beyond their control.  From that perspective, the discipline and regimentation of a military-themed activity or school, where personal responsibility, morality, and accountability are not just expected, but demanded, will certainly come as a cold splash of water in the face of the prevailing “Why should I have to...?” mindset.

Nevertheless, in watching the St. Thomas Ranger team compete, the solution to such a mindset became apparent in the form of a memory of a scene from the 1989 movie Glory. Matthew Broderick's character (Col. Robert Shaw) is worried that his lifelong friend Thomas' enthusiasm to be in the first all-black regiment will be quashed because, as a free black man who had never done a hard day’s work in his life, he is struggling to endure basic training.  When an exhausted Thomas is kicked by the drill sergeant for collapsing before dismissal, Shaw hides his concern for Thomas by asking the sergeant whether he is being too hard on the men.  The sergeant sees right through Shaw and rhetorically asks whether the two are friends, and when Shaw answers that yes they grew up together, the sergeant has this an enduring response, “Let him grow up some more.”

And that is the answer to the current cultural ennui among the young: to grow up some more.  And it is certainly one of the things I saw among the faces and heard among the voices of the members of the Ranger team as they encouraged and “sharpened” (Prv 27:17) one another to “leave it all out there.”  Boys who were doing their best to push back against any notion that they did not have it within their power to redline themselves physically, mentally, and of course spiritually.  Boys who were doing their best to “grow up some more” into confident, capable, and hopefully holy young men who had been tested and found worthy.