At 5 a.m., nearly everyone on the campus of Indiana University was quiet and asleep.
But the members of the school’s ROTC Army Ranger Challenge team were hard at work. Five times each week, the team was doing the work to mold itself into a fighting unit.
The members were embarking on 10-mile hikes with 70 pounds on their back. The cadets learned how to assemble and disassemble an M16A2 rifle. Hours were spent in the weight room building strength and endurance.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Center Grove native Tyler Sykes said.
Sykes was one of the few selected through Indiana University’s ROTC program to compete in the Army Ranger Challenge. He and his fellow cadets perfected basic infantry skills such as constructing a rope bridge, navigating to a specific point in the woods and physical fitness.
In a ceremony this spring, Sykes, 21, was presented with his varsity letter from Indiana University. The cream-colored “I” was mounted on a background of crimson, framed and noted with his name.
“To be part of the team and waking up so early, putting in that hard work, going through the mentally taxing challenge, to get that in your hands is unbelievable,” he said. “It puts you in a whole different league of athletes.”
Military is a tradition in the Sykes family. He’s had grandfathers, uncles and great-uncles who have served, and it was something that he had been interested in his entire life.
Sykes, who graduated from Center Grove High School in 2011, decided to join the ROTC program his freshman year.
“I thought, what better way to honor my family and make something of myself at the same time,” he said.
During his first year as a cadet, he admired the older members who took part in the Ranger Challenge. The group trains and works separate from their normal ROTC duties, learning more intensive combat skills to be used in the field.
“It’s a lot more of a challenge, physically and mentally,” he said. “What we’re learning is the hands-on, applicable skills that come with Army training.”
By the time he was ready to start his junior year, Sykes tried out and made the Indiana University team. Weeks of training went into perfecting the skills.
To practice with actual weapons systems, the team members worked with the National Guard armory. Often, they would go into the wilderness of the Morgan-Monroe State Forest to march or hone survival skills.
Much of the training required the cadets to be in peak physical condition, said LTC Tim Hoch, commander of the Indiana University ROTC program.
Indiana University made every effort possible to ensure the ROTC program had the tools they needed to succeed. School officials allowed them to use the athletic department weight rooms and training facilities.
Sykes and the other ROTC members were doing deadlifts and squats on the same equipment the Hoosier football and basketball teams used, Hoch said.
Exercises to harden their entire bodies, such as pulling weighted sleds with heavy ropes, were completed on the university’s football practice fields.
“Our team was blessed being at IU. They gave us access to all of the facilities, the weight rooms, full access,” Sykes said.
By November, Sykes and his fellow cadets competed against ROTC programs from throughout the Midwest in a competition to see who was the best.
They gathered at Fort Knox, Kentucky, to face 37 other schools’ ROTC programs. For 12 hours, they completed shooting qualification, navigation skills and other mental and physical challenges.
The competitors marched between 18 and 20 miles, carrying an average of 40 pounds.
Their training paid off. The team was one of only seven to meet the course standards and finish in the allotted 12 hours.
Sykes was accepted into the university’s Kelley School of Business and is studying to go into business management.
After graduating from Indiana University next spring, Sykes will transition into the active U.S. Army. Though it depends on the need for specialties, his goal is to either be placed in the infantry or armored divisions.
His experience with the Ranger Challenge team, as well as ROTC in general, has given him the solid foundation that he hopes help him succeed.
“It’s crafted me into the man and the leader that I never would have imagined. I got to college very immature, and in two short years, I’m very confident with my life,” Sykes said.