FORT BENNING, Ga. -- For the first time, a pair of cyber officers is taking on one of the Army's most grueling 72 hours — the Best Ranger Competition.
Capt. Dennis Caserza of the Army Cyber Protection Brigade and Capt. Tim Graziano of the Cyber Training Battalion are company commanders based at the Army Cyber Center of Excellence at Fort Gordon, Ga. They're also Army Rangers who teamed up for this year's challenge.
The captains earned their Ranger tabs during their days as infantry officers. But both had technical education — Graziano has a degree in electrical engineering from the Virginia Military Institute. Caserza a computer science degree from the University of Southern California — and decided to make the change to cyber via the Army Voluntary Transfer Incentive Program.
"I've just always been interested in technology," Graziano said. "I saw cyber as really the nexus and the bridge between technical competency and combat power on the battlefield, and I just wanted to be part of it for that reason; be part of something new."
"We were both just interested in kind of the merge between the technical portion of the cyber branch and our combat arms backgrounds, and when the VTIP came out we were excited to jump on something at the ground level and be part of something new," Caserza added.
He would also become one of the first two Army cyber officers to complete electronic warfare schooling.
The pair met while in cyber training and talked about the Ranger competition. Caserza had competed in 2013, and he and Graziano hoped to compete in 2017. They found they didn't have enough time to prepare. But for this year, they made the time, and spent four to five months conditioning themselves for the 35th annual iteration of the competition.
Working full-time cyber jobs and getting ready to compete was tough. Caserza said they didn't get much time off just to prepare for the competition. Still they tried as much as possible to get in two 90-minute workouts a day together when they could. Their schedules made being able to train at all difficult, he added, and when they couldn't get together they'd text their workouts to each other and compete to see who could train the hardest.
"It was brutal. Those were long days," Caserza said.
And in the last few weeks before the competition, the team ramped up its preparations, meeting more often and even getting in some all-day workouts.
"There were five or six workouts when we started at 0530 or 6 in the morning and didn't end until 20 or 30 miles later at like 16-, 17-hundred," Graziano said.
Both said their cyber jobs have also helped them hone some traits and skills, such as perseverence, teamwork, technical aptitude, and coming together to solve problems, that should serve them well during Best Ranger.
But both also claimed they're at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to some of the skills that are key to the competition. For example, they said, the competition includes several shooting events that didn't have the time or ability to adequately prepare for.
And this is a competition that demands every bit of training and preparation — mental and physical — that teams can muster. The 51 teams of two Rangers each are tested to their limits over three nearly nonstop hot, wet, muddy days and nights of marching, lifting, running, climbing, shooting and problem solving, all with precise rules and demanding exacting attention to detail. Along the way they'll have unexpected obstacles tossed in their paths to test their ability to react and respond.
There are 18 competition events, including three runs (one in body armor), obstacle courses, helocasting, night orienteering, a road march, swimming, several weapons firing ranges, an urban assault course, an air assault, casualty care and evacuation, a Spartan Race, a mystery event, and more.
More than half the teams are disqualified at the end of the first day. A third of those remaining are cut on the second day.
So why are two cyber captains here taking on such a rigorous challenge?
Both said what motivated them was demonstrating that, as Caserza said, that cyber Soldiers have the resiliency and fortitude to make it through tough challenges.
"One of the main reasons I wanted to do this competition," Graziano added, "was just to show that they are Soldiers who are in cyber, they're not just computer scientists that work for the Army. The Army comes first and they're Soldiers first."
Caserza said it also helps cyber Soldiers to work and integrate with Army maneuver elements. Over the past couple of years, he said, he's been teaching brigade combat teams and divisions about the Army's Cyber-Electromagnetic Activities capabilities, and he wants his Soldiers and Army Rangers and maneuver elements to understand and interact more and better in the future.
"I think it's just a good message for the maneuver units to see that not all cyber units are not just nerds behind keyboards all the time. We can do other stuff. And for the guys that are in cyber units, seeing that you have to deal with maneuver units."
So no matter what the outcome, just competing is a win, the captains said.
"The best of the best in the Army are here at this competition, so we're grateful to have a slot and compete amongst them, and we'll be we'll be honestly happy with whatever result happens," Graziano said. "Just being here is a big deal for us."