A group of 12 teams, each composed of two Special Forces Green Berets and one celebrity, prepared to compete in a Tactical Challenge at Range 37 Miller Training Complex at Fort Bragg on Dec. 16.
The Green Berets volunteered for the event, and two soldiers from each of 1st, 3rd, 7th and 10th Special Forces Groups (Airborne) and four from 5th SFG (A) were in attendance.
Former NFL long snapper Andrew East, who won the competition the previous year, his wife Olympic gymnastics medalist Shawn Johnson, NFL wide receiver Eric Decker, Mixed Martial Arts fighters Dan Henderson and Ryan Bader (a Bellator Champion), country music artist and radio personality Chuck Wicks and his wife Kasi, actors Mark Valley and Charles Easton, Shawn Booth, a season 11 contestant on "The Bachelorette," three-time individual Crossfit Games veteran Jacob Heppner (who won this year's competition) and former Congresswoman, presidential candidate and U.S. Army Reserve Civil Affairs Lt. Col. Tulsi Gabbard teamed up with the Green Berets from across the country for the 2021 Tactical Challenge.
Weapons readied and targets sighted, each team competed in a series of tasks during four events.
While five contestants are repeat competitors from the inaugural event held in 2020, many celebrity competitors have had little experience with the weaponry and drills that make up the competition.
Retired Brig. Gen. Harrison Gilliam, operations director, Special Forces Charitable Trust, feels previous participants returned because they made real connections during the first event with the Green Berets.
"The soldiers they are training with left the impression," Gilliam said. "It was all about the phenomenal experience and the phenomenal soldiers they got to meet last year, and the team at the [U.S. Army John F. Kennedy] Special Warfare Center and School. It's just the professionalism and all that they do to train the next generation of Special Forces just really imprinted on them … They're all good patriots."
Jodi Burns, executive director of the Special Forces Charitable Trust, agrees.
"Bringing in the folks from last year, I think, actually really helped us because now they really understand. They understand the magic of this place as well, and how special it is that they're here, and they really forged some relationships, I think too, an understanding of the Green Berets," Burns said.
Over two days, the teams train together. The Green Berets school their celebrity counterparts on weaponry and marksmanship.
Most of the participating celebrities have little shooting experience.
"In just a little amount of time, that professionalism of the Green Berets, and they're [celebrities]hitting targets. It's pretty amazing," Gilliam said.
The event has multiple levels of purpose: to fundraise for the trust, connect the public to soldiers and expose potential recruits to the possibilities on offer through Special Operations.
A last-minute addition to the competitors, Gabbard said she was surprised when she was requested to attend. Despite the challenges of living so far from the competition in Hawaii, Gabbard said the timing worked out, and she was "grateful" to be asked and was "proud" to be a part of the fundraising.
"I'm glad to be out here today," said Gabbard.
While this was Gabbard's first competition of this kind and her participation was unexpected, she enjoyed the experience.
"It's just fun. It's a lot of fun."
She praised the men she was paired with for their coaching and patriotism.
"These Green Berets are just fantastic humans, great patriots, and for this, they have been great coaches through the practice day yesterday and have become fast friends," said Gabbard.
One of her teammates, a team sergeant from the 5th SFG(A), explained that they were notified late but spent a day on the range getting some practice in. The event he enjoyed most was an all-steel event.
"I liked the mostly all steel event. That one is a lot of fun. It is more fast-paced," he said.
The previous year's winner, East, explained that this event was the highlight of his year. His biggest takeaway from both competitions has been the impression left on him by the Green Berets.
"The reason we're out here is just to support the Special Forces," said East. "I think if there is anything I have learned, it's just how amazing these guys are. How much they sacrifice and how much they train, and how they really are the most prepared and equipped team in the world. So, just to be able to be out here side by side doing a competition with the Green Berets is amazing."
Celebrities are responsible for fundraising ahead of the Tactical Challenge and use their fame and presence to engage with the public and fundraise.
Special Forces Charitable Trust runs multiple programs which serve the seven current Special Forces Groups and their families. The trust offers a mix of programs for soldiers and their families and education grants for spouses and children.
"We focus really hard on families, is our focus, and the soldier," Gilliam explained. "Resiliency and building that resilient family and that resilient soldier, that can be there when he is needed and is ready, and then he knows his family is taken care of. That is an important aspect of working in conjunction with the commands to make sure that we help meet any requirements that they need to support their families and then support their soldiers."
With a $100,000 fundraising goal for this event, the 2021 Tactical Challenge celebrities exceeded expectations raising $210,000 with money still coming in as of the event's start.
Even more exceptional, Burns explained, is the visibility the event has garnered for the organization, explaining that the non-profit had gained almost 2,000 followers.
"Which for us that's huge because whatever we post is, of course, educating the community about who the Green Berets are and our programs and what we do," Burns said. "So, for us, that's huge."
Chuck Wicks's wife, Kasi and her sister-in-law, Brittany Aldean, raised over $40,000 by setting up an online pop-up boutique.
Wicks, who Gilliam credits with the initial idea for the Tactical Challenge, explained that this event is just getting started.
"Our goal is to continue to do this event and to have it continue to grow," said Wicks. "This should be a million-dollar event, and it's well on its way."