CAMP PENDLETON — Staff Sgt. Ben Cohen hiked 23 miles through the rugged mountains May 17 as part of the Recon Challenge. But there was more. Much more.
He helped assemble a M-240 machine gun at the bottom of a pool. Cohen even jumped from a 35-foot tall tower into a pool. Without surfacing, he swam for 30 meters as part of an abandon ship drill. And that’s just a sample of the course, completed by Cohen other Marines.
The nine-hour long Recon Challenge prepared Marines for the physical and mental rigors of combat. Beyond that, it also carried a special significance for many Marines and their families.
Throughout the course, a dog tag engraved with the name Cpl. Ryan Pape hung from Cohen’s neck. Ryan, a sniper who served in Cohen’s unit, died four years ago.
“He was the consummate professional,” Cohen said.
“Ryan was just a good guy to be around,” Cohen added. “Truly one of the most generous people I’ve known.”
Additionally, Cohen and his teammate’s backpacks had attached panels with “Pape” across them. It was their way of paying tribute to Ryan’s brother, Riley Pape — who was a Marine as well and died in 2005. Each of the 22 two-man teams that competed dedicated the course to Marines who served in reconnaissance and passed away.
Families were encouraged to attend. Standing near legs of the course, parents, friends and even children of Marines yelled out words of encouragement. One young girl bolstered her dad’s spirits during one of the obstacle courses by holding up a sign that read, “Dig Deep!”
Ryan and Riley’s parents, Ron and Shar Pape, were among the supporters. The couple flew to San Diego from Minnesota to offer encouragement for Cohen and his teammate, Gunnery Sgt. Randy Messineo, as they made their way through the Recon Challenge.
“They’ve given so much to the country,” Cohen said of Ron and Shar. “Carrying their name is the least I could do.”
Shortly before 4 a.m., Cohen geared up in the dark at San Onofre Beach for a 2,000-meter swim, the start of the Recon Challenge. And sure enough, Ron and Shar were cheering for him from the outset.
“They have 50 pounds on their backs; they’re stopping to shoot,” Ron said. “There’s so much more they have to do. It’s an eye-opener seeing what they have to go through.”
The couple was also motivated to visit because many of Ryan’s cohorts will likely be retiring or moving to different parts of the world in the next year or two.
“Once they start spreading out, it’s really hard to keep track of everyone,” Ron said.
“They’ve all come up to us and been really supportive,” Ron added.
“These guys are the best,” Shar said.
Ron and Shar watched as teams put parts of a machine gun together — no easy task considering the pieces were at the bottom of a 15-foot deep pool. One at a time, they sunk to the bottom, slowly assembling the gun while holding their breath. Once finished, they resurfaced and made sure the gun functioned properly.
An earlier leg of the course was rigged with ropes and high walls, requiring plenty of cooperation among the two-man teams. To get over the wall, Marines clutched their hands together, providing a foothold so their teammate could launch over.
On another portion of the course, there was a marksmanship challenge with rifles and pistols.
The course, open to graduates of reconnaissance classes, isn’t merely about fitness, Marine 1st Sgt. David Danel said. Skills gained ready Marines for real-life situations and combat.
“This is what these guys do on a daily basis, what they live,” Danel said. “This is who they are. This is not just a training event to them, this is a way of life.”
He added that Marines taking part in the Recon Challenge are able to survive in desolate environments.
Spectators clapped and cheered as the teams neared the home stretch. Shortly after crossing the finish line, Gunnery Sgt. Tyler Fedelchak said the challenge was “grueling.” For him, the last four miles were the toughest.
He said the support of his girlfriend and others at the event kept him going, though.
“Having them here gives you that extra nudge,” Fedelchak said.