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From Armed Forces Challenge to the ECO Challenge...

US Military Teams endure the gauntlet


            When TAPS, Inc. conducted the 2002 Armed Forces ECO Challenge (AFEC) in Alaska, the prize was for one team to continue on and compete in the ECO Challenge, an international event sponsored by Mark Burnett and ECO Challenge Lifestyles, Inc.   When the smoke cleared, the military presence at the 2002 ECO Challenge far out shadowed the initial intent of only one team participating.  Without any Department of Defense related sponsorship or support, three military teams from the AFEC as well as several individual service members managed to find their way to Fiji in the aftermath of a very demanding Alaskan qualifier.  Team America’s Air Force, Team Tri West Allied Spirit, and Team VVnW (Veteran’s of the Vietnam War, Inc.) all met again to face the rigors of an international expedition adventure race.  These teams were not the only service members to compete.  CPT Duane Patin, member of the winning team in the 2002 Best Ranger Competition and MAJ Dale Blakenship who competed with Team Ford/Marine Corps in the 2002 AFEC, also accepted the challenge, racing as Team BDA.

From October 11th to 22nd, the 2002 ECO Challenge was held in the picturesque Fiji Islands.  The Fiji archipelago is known as the crossroads of the South Pacific.  Once known as the Cannibal Isles, it consists of 333 islands, the largest of which is Viti Levu, where the majority of the race took place.  True to a land filled with a colorful history of cannibalism, a thousand miles of pristine shoreline, hundreds of waterfalls, and impenetrable rainforests, this year’s ECO Challenge challenged every competitor, in ways unexpected by all. 

Competitors were required to navigate impenetrable jungle terrain, limestone cliffs, turquoise seas, coral reefs, immense waterfalls and water filled canyons by means of jungle trekking, coasteering, canyoneering, mountain biking, river kayaking, packrafting, and fixed ropes. During the race, teams passed through more than 100 native villagers, where they were welcomed and encouraged by the Fijian people.  The Fijians brought the racers into there homes, offering them food and drink, and more often than not, suggesting easy routes through the difficult jungle terrain.  At times, villagers even accompanied teams along the course as they passed through the lands of their village..

The 2002 ECO Challenge lived up to its name as the world’s toughest expedition race.  Of 81 teams, 58 failed to complete the entire course.  Forty-three racers contracted dysentery severe enough to force them from the race, despite extensive water purification measures.  Eighteen racers were hospitalized as a result of illness or injury.  The high attrition rate of the 2002 ECO Challenge was reflected in the ranks of the military racers. 

Of the military teams, Team BDA became the first casualty after losing team member Cindy Coppola to an eel attack in the Wainatu Creek.  After being stung by the whipping tail of the eel, Cindy went into anaphylactic shock and had to be immediately extracted for the jungle.  The team withdrew from the race after losing their team member.

Team VVnW suffered a string of casualties.  After losing team member Jeff Tompkins to a knee injury sustained while navigating the Sovi River in the Medrausucu Range, the team continued on unranked, having joined forces with two members of Team Skechers WEP, Karen Doanne Dunn and Jason Cyran.  On day 4, medical personnel removed team captain Marc Hoffmeister from the course after he endured 36 hours of dysentery ending with a mountain bike crash in which he received a broken nose and mild concussion.  On day 5, Karen and Jason withdraw after Jason’s feet deteriorated from a debilitating Jungle disease to a point where he could no longer continue to walk. Team member Elise Harrington carried on with a third team until day 6 when all unranked teams were pulled from the course by race management.

Team America’s Air Force, who had tied for 1st place with Team Tri West Allied Spirit in the 2002 AFEC and were the 2001 winners of the AFEC, performed exceptionally well throughout the trials of the course.  They sacrificed their race to assist Team Bridgedale Ireland Salomon after a member of Team Irish sustained severe foot injuries, rendering him incapable of walking out of the jungle.  Team America’s Air Force physically assisted him to a location where he could be extracted.  As a result, the team was pulled from the course after missing a cut off time.

Team Tri West Allied Spirit, led by team captain Jim Benning, were the true winners for the military at this years ECO Challenge.  Out of 81 teams, only 23 teams completed the course.  Team Tri West Allied Spirit met every obstacle presented by the Fiji terrain and climate and succeeded in placing 14th against a field of internationally ranked competitors.

The Armed Forces ECO Challenge highlights a growing trend of adventure racing and the military.  As more service members become involved in the sport, their performance continues to improve to rival that of their more experienced civilian counterparts.  An example of this trend was seen at the USARA National Championships held November 7-9, 2002 in Sapphire Valley, NC. In order to even compete in the Championships, teams had to have placed in the top three of one of the 27 qualifying races in 2002.  Of the 34 qualified teams, at least four teams included service members, to include Team VVnW, racing only two weeks after competing in the ECO Challenge in Fiji. 

Through the leadership of TAPS, Inc. in instituting the Armed Forces ECO Challenge, the elite adventure racers of our nation’s military are making an increasing visual impact on national and international competition. 

For more information about the Veterans of the Vietnam War, Inc., contact them at 1-800-VIETNAM or  To find out about Team VVNW and their preparation for the Armed Forces Eco Challenge, go to



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