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Guardsmen brave heat, lake in training challenge
One commander hospitalized with possible heat stroke during exercise
A squad from Charlie Company walks Saturday along Lanier Valley Drive on their way from Lanier Point to the gun range on Allen Creek Road during the Cherokee Challenge. - photo by Tom Reed

It may not be Afghanistan, but North Georgia poses its own challenges, as one National Guard company found out Saturday.

Soldiers from the Army National Guard's Company C, 1st Battalion, 121st Infantry Regiment, based in Gainesville conducted the company's "Cherokee Challenge."

And a challenge it was as the men faced steep hills, heavy rucksacks and extreme heat as they rucked and swam across Gainesville.

"It was a good experience; it was good training," Spc. Kevin Suchke said.

The day did not go as smoothly as the company may have hoped for. Two men had to be taken to the hospital as a result of the extreme conditions, but the soldiers refused to allow those incidents to affect their morale.

"That's why we joined the military: to protect our country," Suchke said.

One of the company's commanders, Sgt. 1st Class Clint Cowser, suffered what is believed to be a heat stroke, Staff Sgt. Casey Taylor said.

Cowser was rushed to the hospital after he stopped breathing and collapsed during the eight-mile march to Allen Creek Soccer Complex. Medics were able to resuscitate Cowser, and he is expected to recover.

Another soldier suffered recurring back pains as a result of a previous injury.

Many from the company were shocked to learn of Cowser's collapse, as he was described as one of the toughest men in the entire company.

The soldiers had already faced a challenging day prior to the march to Allen Creek.

The company was split into nine squads consisting of six men. The challenge began at the Gainesville Armory on Alta Vista Road. The squads marched three miles to Lanier Point, where they were faced with an exhausting water challenge.

The squads were required to use Zodiac boats to paddle out 100 meters on the lake. Once they reached the 100-meter mark, the soldiers dismounted and swam back to shore.

"I thought I was a good swimmer until today," Spc. Thomas Lamb said.

Taylor said the squads expected the swim to be one of the most difficult objectives of the challenge.

"Aside from our long ruck march, our main concern today was with the boat operations and that went pretty smoothly," he said.

Some men even completed the swim back to shore and opted to dive back in to help other members of their squads.

"That's expected of an officer to go back and help your men," said 2nd Lt. John-Luke Whitmire of Flowery Branch, who swam nearly 300 meters total to help his squad.

Following the swim, the soldiers embarked on the ruck to Allen Creek Soccer Complex, but opted to only march to the Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport after Cowser's collapse. The squads then loaded up in vehicles to transport them to the Hall County Sheriff's Department's firing range.

The groups did not complete the challenge in treating and transporting a casualty, as well as the land navigation due to the injuries suffered.

At the range, soldiers conducted a "stress shoot" in which they fired three clips each into their targets.

The challenge helped prepare the men for a possible deployment or redeployment for many, Staff Sgt. Bradley Jones said.

"Every single training event we do is a learning experience, that's why it's a training event," he said. "Obviously there are things we could have planned for better and we could have prepared for and evaluated in a little bit better response time, but for the most part every training mission we do, that's just part of it."

Although the loss of a soldier during the challenge was unfortunate, the company saw it as a hurdle it must overcome because those situations will occur during operations in Afghanistan or Iraq.

"Having a heat casualty along the way, that's just part of the mission," said Jones. "It's how you react to them and how you change and modify the rest of the mission. That's what we did today."