Commando Competition: Soldiers pushed to new heights for a fallen comrade

Sgt. Ian Gurnee, assigned to 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, crawls through a tunnel to reach the next part of the Air Assault Obstacle Course during the fourth annual Staff Sgt. Joshua M. Mills Commando Competition here Sept. 7. Teams earned points for time and completion during this three-day competition that honors an El Paso native and Green Beret who was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group, when he died Sept. 16, 2009, after his vehicle struck an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. For more on this story see page 8A. Staff Sgt. Photos by Thanh Pham, 24th Press Camp Headquarters.

Sgt. Ian Gurnee, assigned to 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, crawls through a tunnel to reach the next part of the Air Assault Obstacle Course during the fourth annual Staff Sgt. Joshua M. Mills Commando Competition here Sept. 7. Teams earned points for time and completion during this three-day competition that honors an El Paso native and Green Beret who was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group, when he died Sept. 16, 2009, after his vehicle struck an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. For more on this story see page 8A. Staff Sgt. Photos by Thanh Pham, 24th Press Camp Headquarters.

By Staff Sgt. Thanh Pham,  24th Press Camp Headquarters:

(El Paso, Texas, SEpt. 14, 2017)

An event that tests competitors’ strength, endurance and sheer will proved for the fourth year why it takes an elite group of service members to stand any chance of winning.

Fittingly, Soldiers created the annual Staff Sgt. Joshua M. Mills Commando Competition in honor of an elite Soldier and fallen El Paso hometown hero. Mills was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group, when he died Sept. 16, 2009, after his vehicle struck an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.

Pvt. 1st Class David Lutz climbs a 20-foot rope during the Upper Body Round Robin event during the fourth annual Staff Sgt. Joshua M. Mills Commando Competition here Sept. 6. The competitors have one minute to reach the top as many times as they can.

Units across Fort Bliss selected their best five-person teams to represent them in the competition. Across a 48-hour span, the teams completed events that tested their teamwork and introduced stress and fatigue.

The first event was the “UBRR” or upper-body round robin, a physical fitness test commonly performed in the Special Forces community. Tasks consisted of one-minute timed push-ups, sit-ups and kip-ups, which is to kick the feet up to a pull-up bar.

Other events included pull-ups, dips, a 20-foot rope climb, bench pressing 80-percent body weight, a 4-by-25 meter shuttle sprint and a five-mile run. Cadre modified the grading scale to evaluate each team’s overall performance based on their member’s individual scoring.

Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Johnson, right, assigned to the Iron Training Detachment, and his team work together to complete tasks along the tactical ruck march route during the fourth annual Staff Sgt. Joshua M. Mills Commando Competition here Sept. 7. The events included ammo carries, five-gallon water carries, buddy ruck carries and portions of sprinting.

For day two, the El Paso heat played a factor with temperatures reaching the mid-90s as teams progressed. They began with the Leader Reaction Course, consisting of multiple timed events that test teamwork and problem solving skills. The teams receive minimal items they must use to bridge and maneuver across obstacles, while having to get all personnel and equipment across before the clock expires.

They then moved to the Air Assault Obstacle Course, where they rushed to crawl, climb, jump and dive across 12 obstacles. Teams started in close intervals, so moving slowly or failing to properly perform obstacles resulted in other teams surpassing them.

Teams all expressed their admiration for Mills, and competing in his honor helped them push through adversity.

Cadre assigned to the Special Operations Recruiting Center, left, administer and grade the tactical ruck march during the fourth annual Staff Sgt. Joshua M. Mills Commando Competition here Sept. 7. The cadre ensure the teams complete the required obstacles hidden along the ruck march.

“It truly is humbling and an honor to be able to compete in an event that pays tribute to a fallen comrade, especially one of the Special Forces community,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Dejuan Roberts, assigned to Joint Task Force North. “More importantly, I got the chance to sit down with his parents and let them know what it means to me.”

Joshua’s father, Tommy Mills, took time throughout the event to speak to the competitors and convey his gratitude for what they do.

“It’s an honor and I’m very appreciative of the great lengths these competitors and the Army go through to put on this event in memory of my son and other fallen service members,” Mills said.

Sgt. Alejandro Chavez, assigned to Company C, 1st Battalion, 77th Armor Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, carefully balances on a makeshift bridge as he scales up the obstacle during the fourth annual Staff Sgt. Joshua M. Mills Commando Competition here Sept. 7. The objective of this test was to get all equipment and personnel across using the few provided items.

They are in fact facing the same challenges his son faced.

“In 2002, our son went through this very same Air Assault Course prior to going into the military, as part of an ROTC program,” Mills said. “We’re proud of our son and always will be, but to see these young men and women go through the same thing, knowing they do missions every day makes us proud of our nation as we get stronger and stronger.”

The event hits home for Sgt. 1st Class Jesse Rodriguez, assigned to Fort Bliss Special Operations Recruiting and event noncommissioned officer in charge, who is a former member of 7th Special Forces Group.

“This should be a reminder. Being a service member, especially in today’s world, is very demanding and all life is precious,” Rodriquez said. “Not just because we’re both Green Berets, but the family life he had and other things we shared in common really hits home, and reminds me to always be grateful for things I have.”

Most found gratification in just completing the event; but one team set out with a higher goal. Since the conception of the competition, there had not been repeat winners, until now. The 204th Military Intelligence Battalion were the winners of the 2016 event, and they came back determined to defend their title. They succeeded.

Chief Warrant Officer 4 Dejuan Roberts, assigned to Joint Task Force North, navigates the high bar obstacle at the Air Assault Obstacle Course with his team during the fourth annual Staff Sgt. Joshua M. Mills Commando Competition here Sept. 7. Teams must race the clock as well as other competing teams with the possibility of losing points or getting passed up.

“It’s humbling to be able to compete in an event like this, and an honor to represent for my unit, to secure a win for the second year in a row,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Matt Hattie, 204th MI Bn.

Sgt. 1st Class Donna Mowser, assigned to the Noncommissioned Officer Academy, Fort Bliss, navigates through the over-under logs at the Air Assault Obstacle Course during the fourth annual Staff Sgt. Joshua M. Mills Commando Competition here Sept. 7. She and her team competed with other teams across Fort Bliss during the Joshua Mills Competition.

The competition concluded with many already looking forward to next year, vowing to return and outdo their recent performance. As the event grows, the story and memory of our fallen service members does too. The name of Joshua Mills will continue to be a representation of strength and honor here on Fort Bliss.

Staff Sgt. Joshua M. Mills