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817th Engineers win state marksmanship match

From left to right, Spc. Evan Messer and Staff Sgt. Adam Gehlhar, both of the 817th Engineer Company (Sapper), await their turn on the rifle range at Camp Grafton South, near Devils Lake, N.D., July 29, during the North Dakota National Guard Adjutant General's Combat Marksmanship Match. Messer and Gehlhar are members of the first place team at the marksmanship contest, which includes shooters from both the N.D. Army and Air National Guard. Messer also is a member of the All-Guard Marksmanship Team, which...

Nearly 40 of the best shooters in the state gathered at Camp Grafton Training Center the weekend of July 30 to improve their skills and see who would be named the best marksmen. When the results of the Adjutant General's Combat Marksmanship Match were read Sunday afternoon, there were few surprises. Just as they have for several consecutive years, a team of North Dakota National Guard Soldiers from Jamestown took the lead.

The 817th Engineer Company (Sapper) dominated the final results, with Spc. Evan Messer, of Fargo, Staff Sgt. Adam Gehlhar, of West Fargo, Sgt. Robert Mahoney, of Fargo, and Spc. Levi Harrington, of Jamestown, winning the team competition.

Coming in second was a team fielded by Camp Grafton, which included Sgt. 1st Class Russell Gerhardt, of Devils Lake, Maj. Kevin Miller, of Bismarck, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Larry Walford, of Devils Lake, and Master Sgt. Gregory Anderson, of Fargo.

Messer and Gerhardt are both members of the All-Guard Marksmanship Team, an elite group made up of the best marksmen nationwide in both the Army and Air National Guard.

"Marksmanship is a skill that Guardsmen must excel at, even if it's not needed frequently in missions," said Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, North Dakota adjutant general. "The Soldiers and Airmen competing this weekend understand that it's a valuable but perishable skill. By devoting their own time to improving their skills and signing on for extra duty to compete with and learn from others, they're truly leading the way in enhancing the overall marksmanship abilities of our joint force."

The Air Guard is new to the competition, having fielded its first team last year and now three teams this year. Last year, the team placed sixth. As they left the zeroing range Friday and prepared to practice on pop-up targets with their M-16A2 rifles, Tech. Sgt. Josh VonBank was hopeful for an even better showing, but acknowledged the top two places weren't realistic due to the number of strong, seasoned shooters from Camp Grafton and Jamestown. He had hopes for a third or fourth place finish for a team from the 119th Wing, and wasn't disappointed. His team, which also included Tech. Sgt. Brandon Miller, Tech. Sgt. Darrin Quam and Tech Sgt. Levi Heller, placed third in the team competition.

Team totals came from the cumulative scores of four individual shooters. Soldiers and Airmen also were ranked based on their individual scores. 

After having dominated the individual competition for 28 of the past 30 years - he was deployed for two years - Sgt. 1st Class Gary Varberg stepped back this year to offer his expertise as an internationally acclaimed shooter to his fellow Soldiers and Airmen.

"He's stomping the line and helping everybody, blue (Air Guard) and green (Army Guard)," VonBank said. "He's helping with site adjustment, helping with form. It's a 'purple' thing. He's just not helping his two teams from Jamestown."

Varberg holds two Candadian shooting records and became the highest placing American ever during one of four competitions he did in Australia. He's competed seven times in England - even getting an invitation to Buckingham Palace for dinner with the queen once - and has shot in Germany, France and South Africa, all as a member of the All-Guard Team.

In Varberg's absence, other shooters stepped up to excel. In the individual competition, Master Sgt. Brian Rook, of the 119th Wing, earned the "Top Rifle" Excellence in Competition title and Gerhardt earned the "Top Pistol" Excellence in Competition title. Gerhardt also had the best overall score, earning him "Top Gun" for the competition.

Sprynczynatyk, who fired the Combat Pistol Marksmanship Course Sunday morning with the competitors, awarded each winner a coin, hat and plaque during the awards ceremony that afternoon.

The top 12 individual shooters now advance to the Marksmanship Advisory Council Regional Competition in Camp Guernsey, Wyo., Aug. 11-14. From there, eight will have the opportunity to go to the national Winston P. Wilson matches next year in Arkansas, said Lt. Col. David Skalicky, the North Dakota National Guard's competitive sports manager.

"The best way to improve your marksmanship is to come out and shoot with the best in the state," Skalicky said.

North Dakota Army National Guard Soldiers going on to shoot with the best in the region include Messer, Gehlhar, Mahoney, Harrington, Spc. Slade Ternes, of Mandan, N.D., Spc. Jacob Aisenbrey, of Bismarck, Spc. Andrew Maley, of Fargo, and Spc. Jordan Gehlhar, of Fargo. Ternes and Aisenbrey serve with Battery A of the 1st Battalion, 188th Air Defense Artillery Regiment and Maley and Gehlhar serve with the 817th Engineer Company. North Dakota Air National Guard Airmen advancing to regionals include Rook, Tech. Sgt. Darrin Quam, Tech. Sgt. Joshua Gary and Tech. Sgt. Brandon Miller. Varberg and Von Bank will coach the shooters.