WEST POINT, N.Y. | When Cadet Ross Poulin vies against hundreds of cadets from around the world Friday and Saturday during the Sandhurst Military Skills Competition here, the memory of one special cadet who is not competing will help push him through the grueling events.
Poulin and then-Cadet Tom Surdyke trained together for the 2016 competition, which is designed to develop leadership in future officers.
While Poulin’s squad fared better than Surdyke’s in that contest, the two cadets still hung out and became best friends.
“It was a shared bond,” Poulin, a 20-year-old from Winslow, Maine, said Thursday.
But the chance for Surdyke to get even in a future Sandhurst competition would soon disappear.
While swimming off the coast of Long Island that summer, Surdyke helped save another man from drowning. As he did so, fatigue set in and he went under the water and briefly lost consciousness before he was pulled back to the shore.
The young cadet later died and was posthumously awarded the Soldier’s Medal for his heroic actions. Another award that is now given to the best squad leader of the competition was also introduced last year in his honor.
Surdyke’s dying act of selfless service continues to weigh on Poulin, who will compete in his third straight competition. It also drives him to replicate how his best friend once lived.
“I’m doing it in his honor, 100 percent,” a teary-eyed Poulin said. “It’s almost an obligation to him. When you’re struggling out there, I just think this isn’t for me anymore, this is for my friend. You can push yourself further than you would have ever expected.”
This year, 64 teams will compete in the Sandhurst competition, which is hosted by the U.S. Military Academy. The competing teams come not just from West Point, but also from other service academies, ROTC detachments from universities across the country, and 14 other nations.
While cadets will compete for various reasons, all of them will face 11 military-skill events such as an obstacle course, a water crossing with a zodiac boat, rifle marksmanship, land navigation, trauma care, and problem solving.
The competition assesses a cadet’s core military competence at a quick tempo and over long distances. During the 36-hour competition, cadets will carry heavy rucksacks and trek roughly 32 miles as they move from one event to the next.
“The events are designed for future leaders to make decisions under pressure whilst being fatigued physically and mentally,” said British Army Capt. Philip Anderson, the competition’s lead planner and an exchange officer at West Point.
While it can be painful, the cadets volunteer to endure the events during the competition so they can get out of their comfort zone and tap into their will to win.
“It forges better leaders and highlights the cadets who will push themselves beyond what is required to exceed the standard, which is what a leader is all about,” Anderson said.
The squad with the top overall score will receive the Reginald E. Johnson Memorial Saber. The regiment with the best aggregate company performance earns the Sandhurst Sword, which was originally presented in 1967 to the Academy by the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in England to begin the annual competition.
Cadet Kevin Shinnick’s squad ended a five-year drought for American cadets when it won last year’s competition. In previous years, teams from England, Canada and Australia hoisted up the saber.
While the accolades are nice, Shinnick, 27, of Milford, Massachusetts, is fully aware of the purpose of the competition.
“At the end of the day, we’re not just trying for a competition to compete and not just trying to become more physically fit for the sake of being more physically fit,” he said. “We’re training to lead Soldiers.”
As a former sergeant who has deployed to Afghanistan, he said he uses his prior experience to help team members and other cadets prepare for real-world missions.
The Army Ranger even once made it to the Army-level Best Warrior Competition in 2014 after he rose above the rest to become the Army Special Operations Command’s Soldier of the Year.
The Sandhurst competition, though, has proved to be more challenging for him, he said, since it relies on the success of a nine-member squad, not just one person.
“With Best Warrior, it was individual tasks,” said Shinnick, who will be a team leader for his squad. “With this, you’re working with everyone to your left and right. The preparation is entirely different. Having a squad means getting everyone up to standard and being able to perform. It’s been a huge test of my leadership.”
As a squad leader for the first time at this year’s competition, Poulin is also embracing his new leadership opportunity.
“It adds a different aspect to things. There’s more responsibility and a lot more to consider,” he said. “But I trust my team leaders and squad. Whatever they give to us, I’ll just have to say ‘execute’ and they’re going to do their jobs.”
The bonds he will make during the competition, just as he did once before with his best friend, will be Poulin’s biggest takeaway.
“What I get out of it more than anything else is friendship,” he said. “It builds bonds that will never be broken. You’re going to remember this competition, you’re going to remember all of the time and effort you put into it together.”