SALT LAKE CITY, Utah –
Sgt. James Ranstead competed as a junior enlisted Soldier in the 2018 USARC Best Warrior Competition but didn’t win, so he came back this year with a chip on his shoulder.
“I went to school, I deployed, and then I finally got the opportunity to [compete] again. [I came with the mindset] that if I’m going, I’m gonna win the whole thing. Why do it if you’re not going to do it all the way?” said Ranstead. “Competition has always been a part of my life.”
As a young private in early 2018, Ranstead worked construction projects out of town and would fly back for battle assembly in Vancouver, Wash.
“I may or may not have come to drill the morning after flying into town, and I had forgotten to shave. I was just ate up…and my platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Jacob Dailey, was very graceful. He was like, ‘Hey, take a minute, go shave, shower, come back, and we'll reset.’”
With that grace came an opportunity. Dailey asked Ranstead how he felt about doing the Best Warrior Competition. After a brief competition overview, “I was like, yep, whatever you need. If you need somebody, I'll do it,” said Ranstead. “[Dailey] knew that I was not a bad Soldier. I had just made a mistake, and I was presented with an opportunity to prove that.”
Ranstead competed at battalion level, and won. Then brigade. Division. And on to USARC but unfortunately didn’t place as winner or runner-up.
“I found that after that first [competition], it was something I really wanted to do because it was an opportunity that I had to do things that we never did in the Reserve,” said Ranstead.
For the USARC 2023 Best Squad Competition, Ranstead ramped up his training commitment level beginning in the summer of 2022.
“I knew that the competition, in theory, would be more difficult. And so I went in with the mindset of ‘I need to be way better than I was last time.’ And trying to remind myself of where I messed up and where I could improve and going off of that and focusing. If I knew that I crushed shooting, I could probably take a little bit off in that area and focus more on some other area that I needed to train for,” stated Ranstead.
Ranstead worked with his unit and other units at the Reserve center to gain access to SINCGARs and DAGRs, getting his hands on as much equipment as possible and trying to find ways to train on any equipment that he could be tested on.
He also relied on Sgt. Thomas Shu, a friend and a civilian competitive shooter, to run him through shooting and target drills on weekends.
Studying for the board questions, however, was a daunting task while balancing his work schedule.
“It did get more time consuming as I was training for this specifically. I struggled a lot finding the motivation to study for it because it was so broad and not really a narrow focus, from weapons, Army history, NCO history, first aid. I made a lot of note cards,” he laughed.
But Ranstead’s biggest focus was on physical fitness.
“I was not anywhere close to being the top in terms of physical fitness. And that was kind of always something I accepted – that there were going to be people that are more focused on physical fitness. So I need to be able to do better on a lot of the other areas to match that,” he said.
Ranstead continued going to the gym for about an hour and a half, five to six days a week, for more than a year, which wasn’t a huge difference from his baseline, but he increased training intensity and focused on a gradual progression in strength training.
“Then I got a 35-pound weight vest. I would try to do at least two miles before every workout. And I think that's what made a really big difference not just with rucking but just with my muscular development and endurance.”
Showing up at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, on Sept. 2 for the competition, Ranstead felt ready, but nervous.
“I started second guessing whether I trained enough, whether I know the material enough, and [am] nervous and anxious because I want to win. I don't want to show up just to show up. So I think I put a lot of pressure on myself. But the pressure ends up paying off in terms of training harder, thinking harder, and just putting in more effort,” said Ranstead.
But on the first day of competition, Soldiers were briefed that individual division winners were no longer competing on their own; they were assigned to squads, as the Department of the Army competition was strictly a Best Squad Competition.
Ranstead’s squad - 12th Squad - consisted of a specialist, two corporals, himself and another sergeant.
“It was a very interesting dynamic, being in a squad and wanting to perform well in a squad, but also knowing that those people that you're in a squad with are the people you're competing against. So I can see the entire time that the other NCO on my squad was doing really well. It motivated me more to compete harder,” said Ranstead.
The squad competition challenged individuals to balance their skills and leadership with their squad members and build team cohesion. While many of the squad events were similar to the individual events, event scoring added a different dynamic. For events completed as a squad, such as night land navigation, individuals were awarded the same amount of points as their squad members.
Competition highlights for Ranstead included a crew-served weapon squad-firing event and a helocast. The squad had both the M249 and M240B, with a requirement to relocate the weapons to a firing point, fire and hit targets downrange, change barrels, and re-engage within an allotted time.
The squad then performed a helocast infill for a mission. They jumped out of a Chinook into a lake and were picked up on Zodiac boats for transport to shore. Adrenaline was pumping.
“That was definitely something I've never done before and who knows if I’ll have the opportunity to do it again,” said Ranstead.
Competitor point status was not published during the competition, so “you had to keep track of your own score and pay attention to what others were doing,” so walking into the award ceremony, “I had a pretty good idea that I had been doing well, but it was a back and forth with the other sergeant in my squad. I didn’t feel completely confident that I would get the win,” he said.
The first award presented was the Fitness Award, going to a corporal in Ranstead’s squad. Next was Top Marksman, which went to Ranstead.
“Then they announced the Best Warrior Soldier of the Year - Spc. Elihu Wagner - who also happened to be from the 807th MCDS and in my squad. I was really excited for him, but thoughts of how cool it would be for us both to win started to come through,” said Ranstead. “It was a great feeling of relief and accomplishment to hear my name called as Best Warrior NCO of the Year, but it didn’t set in right away that the work had paid off.”
Because Ranstead’s squad (nicknamed Freight Train) was composed of individual winners and not an organic squad, no matter how well the squad performed, they were ineligible to continue onto the DA level.
“Organic squads had been competing as squads and winning by relying on each other to make up for each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We couldn’t win as a squad by default, but we were competitors and were unofficial first place contenders, and we won all the individual awards,” he said.
Once the competition was over and Ranstead relaxed, he reflected on his platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Dailey, that “saw potential in me” five years ago.
“I spoke with [Staff Sgt. Dailey], and I told him thank you. [I told him], ‘You presenting me with that opportunity was huge. It changed everything. I definitely wouldn't be doing this right now without that motivation and direction,’” explained Ranstead.
Dailey responded, “It's no big deal. It is what it is. That's what we do as NCOs.”
“Then he challenged me with paying it forward. And making sure that I take this and what I've learned from it and pass it forward to younger generations of enlisted Soldiers. That hit home with me, and I look forward to doing that,” said Ranstead.
Ranstead hopes to serve as a sponsor and mentor for next year’s Best Warrior competitors.
“I always looked at [my sponsors and] mentors as people that I trusted, looked up to, and knew that they were guiding me in a direction that was going to help me. That is definitely something that I want to do. And I also feel like it's the right thing to do and I should do it, but that's not why I want to do it. I want to do it because I want somebody to have the same experience that I had. Because it went a long way,” said Ranstead.
Ranstead’s next personal goal is to compete at the Interallied Confederation of Reserve Officers Military Competition (CIOR MILCOMP), an annual reserve military pentathlon with NATO member states, testing service members in pistol and rifle marksmanship, land and water obstacles, and orienteering.
Ranstead was promoted to staff sergeant Oct. 14.