Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Ryan Knight didn’t know what he was getting into when he signed up for a leader development course hosted by his Army peers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
He assumed he’d sit through a few days of classes and PowerPoint presentations.
It turned out Knight would spend 58 hours on his feet – marching through the woods, jumping out of helicopters and leading soldiers on a simulated combat exercise on a wooded hill in DuPont.
His younger airmen teased him that he wouldn’t make it through his looming endurance test.
“It became a running joke,” Knight, 37, laughed. “How long till Senior Knight falls out” with an injury?
But he held his own and was still on his feet at Hour No. 53 on Friday morning. He survived a first run at a new exercise at Lewis-McChord designed to improve leadership at a base that has swelled in size by thousands of service members over the past decade.
Simply put, the drill put senior soldiers through a few days of hell together.
The so-called “Mangudai” was intended to bring together senior noncommissioned officers who rarely talk to each other, giving them new connections and a better perspective about what the military asks of other service members.
“They’ll remember each other because they shared hardships together,” said Army I Corps Command Sgt. Maj. John Troxell, who organized the exercise.
Troxell returned from a one-year assignment in Afghanistan in June and is back to championing irregular training at Lewis-McChord. He teaches exercise routines that have soldiers mimicking combat movements by hurling heavy objects and sprinting with parachutes on their backs instead of heading out on long runs in sneakers.
He first organized a Mangudai – a term that refers to Mongolian warriors who put their leaders through exceptional endurance tests – at Lewis-McChord six years ago when he was the top noncommissioned officer in the base’s 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
Troxell liked the tests because they put senior soldiers through the same kind of demanding physical tasks that Army leaders ask of younger troops. He called it “validating our credentials” to lead young men and women in combat.
Back then, Troxell led about 4,000 Stryker soldiers. Now he’s a senior noncommissioned officer with sway over 27,000 soldiers in I Corps and influence over thousands more service members in the Air Force and Army Special Operations Forces.
Many of those units were represented among the 62 noncommissioned officers who participated in last week’s drills: from Special Operators who deploy year after year to infantrymen and supply experts who rarely use their weapons when they go to combat zones.
Over nearly three days, they each ate one Army Meal, Ready to Eat and one “cat food ball.”
A cat food ball is exactly what it sounds like.
“The food we did give them would make a goat puke,” Troxell said.
The exercise kicked off at 5 a.m. last Wednesday with an obstacle course. For the next 27 hours, the noncommissioned officers would march more than a dozen miles and hit a series of firing ranges.
Early Friday morning, they drove in buses to the Port of Tacoma and boarded a marine landing craft – a descendent of the kind seen in World War II movies of the D-Day invasion.
It took them to a parking lot in DuPont, where they formed two lines and trekked up a hill hauling rucksacks stuffed with gear. Bleary eyes revealed the stress of staying awake for most of the previous 50 hours.
“We’re all sucking after 50-some hours of starvation, sleep deprivation and intense physical exercise,” Troxell said.
At the top of the hill, the soldiers broke into two platoons for a simulated attack on fortified enemy trenches. Elite Green Berets from Lewis-McChord’s 1st Special Forces Group led the way in making a plan to assault the trenches. Stryker soldiers, medics and support troops followed.
“We’re one family,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jason Murray, 38. He serves in Lewis-McChord’s 593rd Sustainment Brigade, an assignment that has him working out of a warehouse supplying other units far more often than hitting the woods for 12-mile marches.
Their attack went well, except for the three friendly casualties they suffered. They regretted not taking more time to rehearse their plan the night before on the boat.
“Rehearsals save lives,” one soldier said.
Several said their time together taught them more about units they rarely see.
Knight, the senior master sergeant from the 5th Air Support Operations Squadron, often works with the Army as a close air support adviser. He said he benefited from approaching a task with an infantry mindset.
Like other service members, he had his mind on a promised feast when he finished the combat drill Friday.
“The high point is today,” he said. “The finish line is a few hours from now.”Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton@ thenewstribune.com