Members of the Estonian Defense League sing the Estonian national anthem July 31, 2018 during an during an opening ceremony for the Admiral Pitka Recon Challenge held at the Mustvee Culture Centre, Mustvee, Estonia. The first Admiral Pitka Recon Challenge took place Harjumaa in 2013 and takes place every year in a different region of Estonia. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Sarah M. McClanahan)
Four days, over 90 miles, and the rapidly changing terrain, thick with the opposing force, is exactly what 29, four-person teams faced during this year’s Admiral Pitka Recon Challenge in Jõgevamaa, Estonia from July 30 to August 3, 2018.
The teams, which ranged from Estonian members to members of NATO allied countries, had to efficiently and quietly move through marshy swamps, deep bedded creeks, and forests of dense, dead vegetation to reach 10 checkpoints where they encountered reconnaissance and infantry tasks, all while avoiding detection of people acting as enemy forces.
This year there were two teams with participants from the Maryland National Guard’s 1-175 Infantry Regiment, the Trilateral Team and the Maryland 1-175 Infantry Team. The teams placed twelfth and thirteenth in the competition respectively.
The Maryland 1-175 Infantry team was composed entirely of Maryland National Guard 1-175th Inf. Regt. servicemembers and the Trilateral Team was composed of Maryland members as well as service members from Maryland State Partnership Program countries, Estonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Each member contributed different things from their training to their team, said U.S. Army 1st Lt. Nicholas Testo, A Co., 1-175th Inf. Regt. platoon leader and Trilateral Team member. Both the Bosnian and Estonian members on the Trilateral team had previous experience in this competition and the Estonian had a local lay of the land.
Maryland participants had to demonstrate their capabilities as a recon soldier in a try-out challenge that mimics the Admiral Pitka Recon Challenge and is only shorter in time and distance.
In the past, try-outs have only been open to 1-175 infantry soldiers, said U.S. Army 1st Lt. Frank Valenza, B Co., 1-175 1-175th Inf. Regt. executive officer and previous year’s competitor. However, the MDNG is looking into opening up try-outs to more than just 1-175th Inf. Regt. members.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” said Valenza. “It’s great for practice on land navigation and gets you out to Estonia for a few days.”
The competition is not just great practice for land navigation. It also challenges skills that go beyond being just an infantryman.
“It challenges preparation, planning, teamwork,” said Testo. “So you need to keep your pack light. You need to learn from people who have done it before. Which is definitely something that is important in the military. You need to train. You can’t just come out here and do 95 miles in four days with very little sleep”
In addition to requiring competitors to demonstrate physical skills, their mental willpower and resiliency is tested every step of the way.
“It challenges you to see what you’re made of,” said Testo. “In the beginning of the second day, I was hurting the most. My knee was giving out. I was chafing from walking in wet clothes. But it actually got better the more that we worked together.”
Despite any setbacks and strenuous conditions, competitors were able to challenge themselves by truly putting what it means to be a reconnaissance soldier to the test.
“This is definitely a humbling experience,” said Testo. “My teammates were great and I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Article by Senior Airman Sarah M. McClanahan, 175th Wing