Push-ups and a pistol shoot. Live-fire maneuvers and a 10-mile run with a 50-pound backpack. For three days this month, 33 Army reservists from 16 states competed in a grueling challenge to be named the 200th Military Police Command's Best Warrior.
Most of the troops in the noncommissioned officer class were hardened MPs, but after three days and 12 events -- all basic soldier skills -- a 26-year-old motor pool mechanic from Cockeysville stood apart from the rest.
John Bullough's thoughts on victory?
"I'm just proud to be in the army," the Dulaney graduate said.
Winning the regionals at Camp Blanding, Fla., qualifies Sgt. Bullough for the annual nationwide Army Reserve Command Best Warrior Competition from May 1-7 at Fort Bragg, N.C. A win there would boost Bullough's hopes of becoming, in his dreams, an Army Ranger.
"I've got my eyes on winning this thing," said Bullough, who is stationed at Fort Meade. "I've always been one to challenge myself, and I want to do something more physical. I want to do my job in another country where I'm really needed."
Bullough joined the reserves while in college. But what began at Frostburg State as a way to pay for his schooling has blossomed into a drive to serve his country at an elite level. He showed his mettle in Florida, winning five events in the Best Warrior competition including the Ruck March, Land Navigation and the Army Physical Fitness Test. In the latter, he did 90 push-ups and 93 sit-ups, each in two minutes, and won a two-mile run.
But it was the Ruck March, a punishing foot race in uniform with helmet, rifle, boots and a weighty backpack, where he raised the bar.
"Sgt. Bullough destroyed everyone. He just blew them away, winning [by 40 minutes]," said Master Sgt. Michel Sauret, spokesman for the 200th MP Command at Fort Meade.
Bullough also scored highest on both the written essay and Oral Board, the final event in which candidates are grilled on current affairs and military policy. They must also recite the 288-word noncommissioned officers' creed by heart.
"Clearly he is smart, and he is tough," Sauret said.
Long an outdoorsman, Bullough grew up hiking the woods around Loch Raven reservoir, sometimes pretending to be a soldier.
"As a kid, every time I saw a military vehicle on the highway, with that camouflage, I thought, 'Wow, cool,'" Bullough said. "My favorite movie is Black Hawk Down; I must have seen it 80 times."
At Frostburg, he played rugby, jogged five miles a day and routinely scaled the hills of Western Maryland. His major? Earth science and geography.
"One weekend, I talked two of my fraternity buddies into climbing a mountain, scrambling over the loose boulders that kept bounding over us," Bullough said. "Not the smartest thing to do, but it was exciting for an adrenaline junkie like me. In college, whenever I saw a power line that had cut a path up a mountain, I'd have to run it all the way to the top."
Once he ran a half-marathon in Columbia, an event he hadn't officially entered. Another time, on a whim, he swam a mile in a pool -- 88 laps -- just to see if he could do it. So, the Best Warrior contest was much to his liking. He'll not forget the brutal 10-mile Ruck March over gravelly roads, which he finished in 2 hours, 3 minutes.
"The last two miles, my legs cramped up and stiffened. I felt like I was walking on stilts," Bullough said. "As I ran past the finish line, people yelled, 'Stop!' But it's hard to slow down when your legs don't listen."
His intellect helped clinch the win.
"We had to write an essay in 45 minutes, while sitting in a chow hall with no heat at 4 a.m.," he said. "Why? That's the army way."
When it came time for the Oral Board, Bullough scored again.
"I knew that if I got through that without stumbling or doing something foolish, like slapping the sergeant major in the face, I'd be OK," he said, smiling. "I spoke my answers loudly and in a confident, military manner."
Next, he'll take on the best of the entire Army Reserve Command.
"The competition can be daunting, but I think [Bullough] can win," said Staff Sgt. Landon Nordby, an MP who won the same competition in 2014. Nordby, of Rochester, Minn., will fly to Fort Meade and coach his protege for a week next month.
Bullough, he said, appears "fit and articulate. His rucking time is very impressive; I don't think anyone will take him on that. I'll look for weaknesses and get him as all-around as possible."
A victory in May could earn Bullough a spot in Ranger School, said Nordby, himself a qualified Ranger.
"It's very rare to get in there from the reserves," Nordby said, "but if he wins, I don't see why they wouldn't give him a chance."
That's what drives Bullough.
"All of this has made me a better soldier. I expect more of myself and I think I'm a better role model for my squad," he said. "[Another win] could possibly open doors for me. Maybe the army will consider me as a Ranger and invest in me. It's a very tough challenge, but it's something I've always wanted to do."