Whenever Ethan Erickson and his fellow cadets in the Fighting Saints ROTC Battalion go to national competitions, there is a question that is frequently asked of them … and a pattern of response that follows.
“People ask what school we’re from,” said Erickson, whose battalion is made up of students from Saint John’s University, the College of Saint Benedict and St. Cloud State University.
“When we mention Saint John’s, they always ask if we’re the Saint John’s in New York. When we say we’re the Saint John’s in Minnesota, they say they’ve never heard of us.”
That may be changing however, especially in light of performances like the one the Fighting Saints turned in at Sandhurst 2021, the prestigious annual military skills competition held April 16-17 at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.
The event – which typically features top national and international competition - was not held last year following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It returned this year, but with the spread of the virus still a concern, entry was limited to only ROTC, Service Academy and USMA Company teams from the U.S.
Still, a total of 44 squads competed. And the Fighting Saints placed fifth overall, behind only three teams from West Point (1. USMA Black; 2. USMA Gold; 3. F1) and the ROTC Squad from the University of North Georgia, a military academy with an enrollment of over 19,000.
That was impressive enough. But Erickson, a senior math major at SJU, also earned the Tom Surdyke Leadership Award, given to the squad leader who best demonstrated leadership abilities in the eyes of the graders throughout the course of the competition.
It is named in honor of Thomas Michael Surdyke, a West Point cadet who died while rescuing a civilian who had been pulled out to sea in a riptide during the summer of 2016. At the time, Surdyke had been vacationing on Long Island, New York during a one-week break between air assault and cadet field training.
Erickson’s name will go on a plaque along with those of past winners which is displayed permanently at West Point.
“That means a lot to me,” Erickson said. “Just to have my name mentioned with someone as amazing as Tom Surdyke is deeply humbling. But I didn’t do it myself. It’s a credit to the high quality of all of our cadets and how hard we work. They make me look better.
“I really felt like we were one of the most close-knit and cohesive teams in the competition, and I think that was reflected in how well we performed.”
Among the events participants competed in were rifle and pistol marksmanship and an uphill run in which competitors had to wear gas masks, testing their cardiovascular fitness.
There was even a raft race in which the Fighting Saints finished higher than teams from the Naval and Coast Guard Academies.
"The best way to look at it is really like a military decathlon,” said Lt. Col. Steven Beard, Steve Beard, a professor of military science and head of the Fighting Saints program.
“It was a series of 13 events in all held over 36 hours with very little sleep. So it was a true test of fitness and skill.”
Beard said a turning point in the competition was an eight-mile road race in the mountains around West Point. It was the final event of the first day and cadets were carrying a 45-pound rucksack with them.
The Fighting Saints finished the event first out of all the ROTC programs competing.
“Our cadets showed up and we knew we were good,” Beard said. “But I’m not sure we knew we could come in and compete against the very best teams there until after that first day. That was a real turning point for us.”
The Fighting Saints’ performance also represents a successful culmination to Beard’s three-year tour of duty with the Fighting Saints, which comes to close this spring. In May, he and his family will depart for Fort Lewis in Washington where he will become the commander of the 3-364th Brigade Engineer Battalion.
His replacement, Lt. Col. Douglas Serie, is a Little Falls, Minnesota native and a 2001 graduate of St. Cloud State. He will take command in July.
“You always want to leave an assignment in better hands than when you arrived, but around here, that’s tough to do because this has always been such a high quality program,” Beard said.
“Still, I feel really good about the state we’re in right now, and I feel comfortable passing the baton.”
Erickson agreed and said he hopes efforts like the one this past weekend will continue increasing the program’s national profile.
“We feel like we’re one of the top programs in the country, even if a lot of people haven’t heard of us yet,” Erickson said. “Hopefully performances like this will continue putting our name on the map.”