It was the final obstacle in a series of competitions that began many months ago. Twenty Soldiers from 10 Army commands underwent a grueling series of tests in the Best Warrior Competition last week at Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia.
It ended Monday, Oct. 3, at the Association of the U.S. Army annual meeting in Washington, D.C., with the announcement that Sgt. 1st Class Joshua A. Moeller, representing U.S. Army Reserve Command, won the 2016 Noncommissioned Officer of the Year award, and Spc. Robert Miller, representing U.S. Army Pacific Command, won Soldier of the Year in the Army’s premier competition.
Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel A. Dailey oversaw the 15th annual competition and called the Soldiers “the best and brightest our Army has to offer.”
Moeller, 36, is a cavalry scout serving as a senior drill sergeant with 2nd Battalion, 413th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 95th Division, 108th Training Command. He is a 16-year veteran and is working toward a bachelor’s degree in engineering management.
Miller, 24, is an explosive ordnance disposal specialist assigned to the 74th Ordnance Company. Miller is a three-year veteran and is working toward a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
Competitors were praised for their mettle, and Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Daniel B. Allyn told the audience it rained throughout the competition last week, further compounding challenges.
“The scope, scale and complexity of what the Army does every day is simply awe-inspiring and illuminates why we must remain trained and ready for the missions at hand while concurrently preparing for challenges that await us in the days, weeks and months to come,” said Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Daniel B. Allyn. “That’s why the Best Warrior Competition is so important, testing warrior aptitude and urban warfare, physical fitness, professional knowledge and warrior tasks. The 20 elite competitors from 10 commands represent the very best that America’s Army has to offer.”
During the first phase of the contest last week, Soldiers took the Army Physical Fitness Test, which included a 2-mile run, as well as a written exam on general military topics and a graded essay. They also demonstrated battle drills. If basic Army standards were met, Soldiers advanced to the second phase, which included an evaluation of their military appearance as well as board interviews from a panel of senior sergeants major.
Allyn told the Soldiers and NCOs in the audience they play a vital role in helping the Army battle current challenges while preparing for future ones.
“As you train our next generation, our Army needs your candid thoughtful feedback as we continue to grow and adapt the future force,” he said. “Your input is essential in the development of solutions, from refining our doctrine to acquiring the best systems, to approving the way we train and validating our operational concepts.”
Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Fink first entered the 2015 NCO of the Year competition to inspire his Soldiers in the Army Reserve to great things.
“I’m a platoon sergeant, and I wanted to show them that being a reservist and being in the Reserves doesn’t mean that you can’t compete at a high level,” he said during a visit to Fort Bliss in November. “I wanted to be that leader and that example that they could look to to inspire them to go outside their comfort zone as a reservist and to be successful.”
It seems to have worked. In the months since he won the competition at Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia, one of his Soldiers has already been inspired.
“I had one of my Soldiers come up to me and say that he wanted to re-enlist if I would be able to sponsor him for next year’s competition,” Fink said.
Fink, a medic with the 409th Area Support Medical Company, 307th Medical Brigade, 807th Medical Command, in Madison, Wisconsin, represented U.S. Army Reserve Command at the annual competition that also selects the Best Warrior. He competed against representatives from 12 other commands.
“They’re just great NCOs and competitors all around,” Fink said of the 26 Soldiers and NCOs who participated at Fort A.P. Hill. “Everybody had a chance at the end to win, I was just lucky enough to come out on top.”
Fink was visiting Fort Bliss with Command Sgt. Maj. Luther Thomas Jr., senior enlisted advisor for the Army Reserve. They spoke to members of Class 66 of the Sergeants Major Course at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy about the importance of the Reserve component to Army operations.
Fink was an active-duty member of the 75th Ranger Regiment of Fort Benning, Georgia, and deployed to Afghanistan twice as a combat medic with the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment.
“I hesitantly transitioned into the Reserves after my four-year stint on active duty was complete in order to finish my degree and, honestly, so that I wouldn’t be recalled,” he told members of Class 66. “The [Active Component to Reserve Component] career counselor gave me a stabilization contract so that I couldn’t be deployed and I would be able to focus on finishing my bachelor’s degree.
“I say ‘hesitantly,’ because I think anyone who has ever served on active duty either doesn’t know what the Army Reserve is about or has at some point heard the bad impressions of some — not all — in the active component have” of the Reserves.
It turned out, though, that the Reserves were exactly what Fink needed.
“I certainly had no intention of staying in the Reserves, but I would not be standing here before you today if it were not for the Army Reserve, …” he told members of Class 66. “I had lost something when I left active duty, and the Army Reserve enabled me to regain a sense of purpose and pride that civilian life alone could not do.”
He credited a sergeant first class with working with him when he first started in the Reserves and gradually increasing his responsibilities until he was fully engaged. When an opportunity arose to return to full-time duty with the Active Guard Reserve, he took it.
Fink — and his Soldiers — are glad he did.
When he first flew back to Wisconsin after being named NCO of the Year, Fink said a large group greeted him.
“My whole full-time staff picked me up from the airport, which was awesome to see,” he said. “It was in front of all the civilians (at the airport), and they didn’t really know what was going on.”
Later, he was recognized in a larger ceremony.
“To be able to share that experience with them in battle assembly, to kind of share the win with them — they were the majority of the reason why I was competing — and to have it brought home to the 409th and represent, it was a special thing,” Fink said.
Thomas was especially proud of Fink’s win, noting that representatives from the Army Reserve Command have taken the NCO of the Year title home two of the past three years.
“When I travel, I get the opportunity to meet Army Reserve Soldiers,” Thomas said, “and these Soldiers are doing some phenomenal things.”
Fink credits the support of his command and his training, both in the active and Reserve components, with helping him win the competition.
His command gave him “the resources and trainers that enabled me to get to that level.”
His time in Advanced Individual Training and then Ranger School laid the foundations for his success in both the Reserves and the Best Warrior Competition, he said, noting that the competition consists of nothing beyond Level I or II basic combat skills.
And his time in AGR prepared him to deal with the stresses of competition.
“Being an AGR Soldier, I am asked to wear many hats,” Fink said. “This gives me a breadth of knowledge that most Soldiers would not necessarily have.”
As a platoon sergeant for Soldiers coming in on their Reserve training days and the training operations NCO during the week, he said, he’s learned time management and the ability to “execute without instruction, which came in handy during my time in the Best Warrior Competition.”
He has said this year’s competition came with several surprises.
“We did a prone, unsupported zero with our M4 rifles,” Fink said. “Typically, every Soldier is used to zeroing in the prone, supported position, so that was a little surprising. In another lane we had to crawl through a tunnel system, gather some intelligence the commander wanted, then they called, ‘Gas! Gas! Gas!’ so we had to put on our protective mask and then file our report on what we observed.”
He said the scenarios they encountered throughout the competition were “incredible” and he praised the Asymmetric Warfare Group for “testing and training us.” The AWG coordinated the competition for the first time last year.
His toughest challenges in the competition were common Soldier tasks, though.
He said that, physically, the 12-mile ruck march that took place on the last day of the competition was his toughest event, because he’s a little shorter than many of his competitors.
“The most mentally challenging event for me was probably the board,” he said. “Going in front of the sergeant major of the Army and all these other high-ranking sergeants major, you think you’re ready for it until you walk in that door. It’s kind of a mental trap.”
Still, he took the advice he regularly gives to his Soldiers and persevered.
“Keep driving on and never give up,” he said. “That’s what I always tell my Soldiers. Be committed to excellence each and every day. There are going to be setbacks, but giving your best every day is what’s important.”
The Army News Service contributed to this story.
Photos from the NCO of the Year competition courtesy of 55th Combat Camera
After four days of grueling physical, mental and emotional challenges that included a 12-mile ruck march followed by a written exam, reacting to man-to-man contact in the midst of a near-riot, evacuating a casualty while wearing the most restrictive chemical-protection gear and appearing before a board that included the sergeant major of the Army, two competitors outshone the rest at the 2014 U.S. Army Best Warrior Competition at Fort Lee, Va.: Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Carpenter, the 2014 U.S. Army NCO of the Year, and Spc. Thomas Boyd, the 2014 U.S. Army Soldier of the Year.
Carpenter, an 18C Special Forces engineer sergeant with the 10th Special Forces Group at Fort Carson, Colo., represented U.S. Army Special Operations Command and ended the competition with the highest score among the 14 NCO competitors. Boyd, a 35P cryptologic linguist with Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 500th Military Intelligence Brigade, at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, represented U.S. Army Pacific and also bested 13 other Soldier competitors.
“It was kind of overwhelming to realize that, essentially since I started competing in April, it has all come to this point,” Carpenter said. “I’ve done three competitions to get to this one, and now that the final one is over, and to realize I’ve won, it’s pretty amazing”
“It’s a great relief to win, but it wasn’t easy,” Boyd said. “The competition was difficult and the other competitors were tough.”
An eventful last day
The winners were announced at an awards banquet Thursday evening that followed the last day of competition. Swapping what they did on Wednesday, the Soldier of the Year competitors made their board appearances as their NCO of the Year counterparts faced a handful of mystery events: four physical brain teasers at the Leadership Reaction Course, land navigation, inspecting Soldier uniforms and assembling weapons.
As the NCOs worked to figure out the Leadership Reaction Course’s puzzlers, they were visited by Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the chief of staff of the Army; retired Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie Adkins, who was awarded the Medal of Honor last month and who spoke at the awards dinner later that night; as well as other dignitaries curious how the Army’s best were faring in the Army’s pinnacle competition. They found NCOs leading fire teams of three Soldiers through tasks that married brains and brawn.
“The way we put them together, competitors said it was in ways they’d never seen before,” said Sgt. 1st Class Eric Morris, the NCO in charge of the team organizing the competition at Fort Lee. “I think we put together an event that was original, creative and innovative, and forced competitors to be adaptable.”
Carpenter had no problem maneuvering his Soldiers through each obstacle.
“I just remembered back to when I actually worked with privates and I had privates as subordinates,” he said. “Young Soldiers in the Army — I don’t know if it’s fear or just lack of initiative — but a lot of times, it takes clear, concise and correct direction to get them to do what they need to do. So it came down to me realizing that I had to tell them exactly what I wanted them to do. If you tell them correctly, they’ll learn from that.”
Afterward, the NCOs ventured into Fort Lee’s woods without their customary electronic aids during the land navigation event.
“We’ve relied on GPS technology — whether that’s a mobile phone, Blue Force Tracker, or some of the other stuff we have — and we’ve probably relied on it a little bit too much,” Morris said. “It’s been a while since we’ve sat down with a map, protractor and compass, and done land nav old-school style. Batteries fail, satellites go down and if you don’t keep yourself up-to-date on the basics, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”
Tasked with locating four points in three hours, the competitors had to traverse swamps, thick brush and downed trees. But compared to what they had to endure on Tuesday — eight events spread out over a 12-mile course — the land nav event was downright peaceful, Carpenter said.
“It was nice to get out there and just go for a stroll through the woods,” he said.
Boyd agreed, recalling the more difficult moments of the week.
“It was very intense physically and a little bit emotionally. It required a lot of mental strength to get through it. I’m used to working in an office, so having to run around doing ruck marches in between events, then completing tasks was intense. We did a lot of physical exercise, then we had to do complex tasks that required thinking clearly, though you’re completely exhausted.”
Thursday afternoon, the NCO competitors encountered four Soldiers in various Army uniforms, each with up to five deficiencies, said Sgt. 1st Class Elita Haupt, NCOIC of the event.
“We heard from the Soldier competitors yesterday that they really liked the uniform inspection event,” she said. “They liked having a real Soldier in front of them and being able to look at the complete picture — hairstyles, fingernails, makeup. In the course of a regular day being a leader, this is what they’d see in the field or at home.”
To ensure competitors were up-to-date on their doctrine, they included deficiencies based on uniform regulations that aren’t even a month old, Haupt said.
“The main thing is staying proficient in the changes in regulations,” she said. “We just had changes on Sept. 15, and we made sure to include those.”
The event didn’t faze Carpenter, who said he’s been studying for months all the doctrine and regulations he expected would be covered during the competition.
“You learn from your mistakes in previous competitions and apply them to the next competition, hoping you’ll do better, because as the competitions progress, each one gets tougher,” he said. “At this level, you have to be your best in order to beat the best.”
NCOs ended the day in front of a table filled with various weapons parts, tasked with assembling and performing a function check with an M-9 semiautomatic pistol, M-4 carbine, M-249 squad automatic weapon and M-240B machine gun. Though he rarely trains with any of them, Boyd said he practiced with each before the final competition.
“The Army focuses on the total Soldier concept. To win the competition you have to embody that,” Boyd said. “Though you may have your individual strengths, unless you work on everything, you’re not going to be successful. So being a well-rounded Soldier is the key, and that’s what my training was focused on — all the things I don’t normally do, so I could cover those gaps.”
A favorite ‘last time’
At the award banquet, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III grew wistful as he shared that the competition would be his last before his retirement in January.
“As you get close to retirement, there’s a series of ‘last times.’ But for me, this is one of those things that, as sergeant major of the Army, I will miss the most,” Chandler said. “That’s because it has to do with what we do as noncommissioned officers and leaders every day: being with Soldiers, training Soldiers, recognizing excellence, and helping those who may not be achieving the standard.”
Though the England-born Boyd has a master’s degree from King’s College London, he said he still learned much during the competition.
“I’ve learned so much here about effective leadership,” he said. “That’s the key thing I want to bring back and apply at my unit to help Soldiers under my charge.”
And though he was just named the Army’s best Soldier, Boyd said the title comes with an important qualification.
“It’s a great accomplishment. But I’m very much aware of all the Soldiers who couldn’t compete because they’re currently deployed or working on missions that they couldn’t be released from because their work is too important,” he said. “It’s great to win this, but I know there are other Soldiers out there who could do even better than me.”
Carpenter said he appreciated the opportunity to compete alongside the best of each command from across the Army.
“I liked being able to talk to to the other competitors,” he said. “You may be in the Army for a long time and not realize what other Soldiers do. So it’s good to be able to put a face and name behind each command and what others do. That interaction makes you even more knowledgeable. There are things I learned from other competitors in this competition that I really had no idea about. Now I can take that back, and if I have a problem [in those fields], I have contacts now — ‘Remember me from the competition? I need some help with this.’ Together we’ll accomplish the mission.”
Also placing high in the competition were the following runners-up:
1st Runner-up NCO of the Year: Staff Sgt. Adam White, an 11B infantryman with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, who represented U.S. Army Pacific.
1st Runner-up Soldier of the Year: Spc. Ryan Montgomery, an 11B infantryman with D Company, 2nd Battalion, 153rd Infantry Regiment, 39th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Arkansas National Guard, at Newport, Ark., who represented the National Guard Bureau.
2nd Runner-up NCO of the Year: Sgt. 1st Class David Smith, a 19K armor crewman with 1st Brigade, U.S. Army Cadet Command, who teaches ROTC classes at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega, Ga., and who represented U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.
2nd Runner-up Soldier of the Year: Spc. Chase Teats, a 25S satellite systems operator/maintainer with B Company, 53rd Signal Battalion, 1st Space Brigade, at Fort Meade, Md., who represented U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command.
After an exhausting Tuesday that tested competitors’ ability to apply Warrior Tasks and Battle Drills in real-world situations, the third day of the 2014 Best Warrior Competition at Fort Lee, Va., Wednesday saw those vying for NCO of the Year separate from those seeking to become Soldier of the Year.
While the latter group engaged in a handful of mystery events that challenged their tactical and technical proficiency, the 14 NCO competitors donned their Army Service Uniforms and headed to the Army Logistics University to make their appearances before a board presided by Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III and comprising some of the seniormost command sergeants major in the Army.
“I thought the board went extremely well today,” Chandler said. “I think that all the NCOs did a great job preparing and were very knowledgable about a great many things. There were, of course, some strengths and weaknesses; some folks knew they had some areas they had to improve upon. But I think overall that the board, the candidates and their sponsors did a phenomenal job.”
Competition organizers said the board was split over two days this year in order to allow extra time for the board members to scrutinize the NCO competitors.
“We train Soldiers on tasks. We train leaders to work through and solve problems. I think there’s a significant difference between the two,” Chandler said. “So we spent some time on the Army ethic and the Army Profession, and we asked some general knowledge questions that were posed as vignettes — we asked them to decide how they were going to do things based on a situation they were presented with. That focuses on the leader development we expect from our NCOs and their agility, their adaptability.”
‘I didn’t pass out. So that’s a plus’
After their appearances, each of which lasted between 30 and 45 minutes, competitors reflected on what many described as the most stressful event of the competition.
“I did the best I could and hopefully that was good enough,” said Staff Sgt. Peter Kacapyr, the U.S. Army Forces Command NCO of the Year. “It’s difficult in the same way any other part of the competition is; it’s just a different kind of difficult.”
“There’s always things you think you could have done better,” said Staff Sgt. Kevin Hopson, the U.S. Army Materiel Command NCO of the Year. “But overall, I think I prepared well, and I didn’t pass out. So that’s a plus.”
Indeed, for some competitors, their first priority was remaining calm and composed despite nerves that were nearly overwhelming.
“The board process has always been a real challenge for me,” said Staff Sgt. Devin Jameson, the National Guard NCO of the Year. “There’s just so much knowledge out there to study and try to retain. Then I get nervous being in front of all those sergeants major, so what little I do remember flees my mind in that moment. It’s pretty nerve-racking.”
“It went as well as I thought it could,” said Staff Sgt. Landon Nordby, the U.S. Army Reserve NCO of the Year. “The board has always been a really tough thing for me. SMA Chandler made it a nice environment, but I don’t think I’d ever feel comfortable.”
Competitors said they’ve been studying Army doctrine for months to prepare for this day.
“I did a lot of reading, a lot of reviewing, trying to make sure I knew the breadth of questions they could ask me,” said Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Carpenter, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command NCO of the Year. “There are a lot of possible questions they can ask you, if you look at all the manuals they could have taken questions from. So I just did a lot of studying.”
“The questions are very broad; they can be from anywhere,” Nordby said. “You could study every day and all the time on tactical stuff, technical stuff or programs. But you just never know what they’re going to ask you. You just hope you’re ready and are doing the best you can.”
“The Army comes out with new doctrine all the time, which is good,” Hopson said. “We’re keeping updated; we’re keeping fresh. It’s an adaptive Army, but you have to make sure you adapt with it. Remembering that was key to my preparation.”
Beyond studying, many competitors relied on mock boards to practice.
“I had a very dedicated group helping me out, and I attended three mock boards just last week,” said Staff Sgt. Jacob West, the Military District of Washington NCO of the Year. “They were some of the worst boards I’ve ever attended — trying to get under my skin, testing all sorts of knowledge, even asking me about the captions of pictures in [field manuals].”
But all that preparation was expected to endure long past this week’s board appearance, one competitor said.
“It’s not just about preparing for six months for this board,” Jameson said. “You should be, throughout your career, striving to understand Army doctrine and Army programs and all the different aspects of what being a Soldier and being a leader means.”
Bringing it all home
As the competition nears its end — the winners will be announced at an awards dinner Thursday night, which will be broadcast live on the Internet — many competitors looked forward to bringing home what they’ve learned this week.
“What I’ve liked the best, out of all the competitions leading up to here and including this one, is meeting all these other NCOs,” said Sgt. 1st Class David Smith, the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command NCO of the Year. “I think that’s what we’re here to do. Meeting all these NCOs and these Soldiers has made me realize how strong the Army NCO Corps and the Army’s Soldiers actually are. It’s re-energized me and motivated me to go out and do my best.”
“I’ve been able to speak with a lot of other NCOs and I’ve learned a lot from them,” said Sgt. Andres Martinez, the U.S. Army Installation Command NCO of the Year. “They’re almost all E-6s, so they’ve been able to give me a lot of good advice. I mean, it never hurts to get more information from someone else.”
“I’ll take back with me a greater appreciation for the Army as a whole,” West said. “I’ve gotten to work with people from different [military occupational specialties] here on a daily basis, and it has allowed me a much greater understanding of my place in the profession.”
“It’s been great just hanging out with these guys,” Nordby said. “It’s been a real learning experience. If anything, I’ve learned to train Soldiers better, and that is, by far, the most important thing that can come out of this.”
Thursday, the Soldier competitors will face the board while the NCOs discover what mystery events are in store for them. But the NCO competitors said they were prepared for anything.
“I hope it’s something fun. I hope it’s something challenging. And I hope it’s something I’m good at,” Smith said. “I’m just looking forward to it, no matter what it is. I think it’s what we all came here to do — to be pushed to our limits, and I think they’ve done an excellent job of doing that so far. I don’t think they’ll let us down tomorrow.”
With only one day left to compete, Chandler said it was still anybody’s to win.
“The competition is very close,” he said. “The NCOs still have to do the mystery events tomorrow and the Soldiers still have to appear before the board, but it’s very tight right now. These competitions usually are right up until the very end. Right now, we’re very close, and I expect it to become even tighter.”
After a Monday full of administrative details, essay writing and being introduced to each other and the week’s schedule, the 28 competitors of the 2014 U.S. Army Best Warrior Competition at Fort Lee, Va., were eager Tuesday to begin what is perhaps the most physically challenging day of competition. Roused hours before sunrise from their cots at their makeshift forward operating base on Fort Lee’s range complex, the competitors rode in the back of trucks to the day’s first event, the Army Physical Fitness Test. But it would be the last time they’d travel on wheels that day.
“It started out great this morning,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Terry E. Parham Sr., the command sergeant major of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Support Command and Fort Lee. “The weather was perfect for an APFT — not too cold, not too hot — and the Soldiers did very well. But for the rest of the day, to every event these Soldiers go, they have to march from Point A to Point B. By the time the day is over, they’ll have between 9 and 12 miles under their belts. And they have their 35-pound rucks with their gear on their backs.”
Competitors wended their way to eight locations along a circuitous route through Fort Lee’s ranges. They included lanes pertaining to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear skills; M-9 pistol and M-203 grenade launcher marksmanship; close-quarters marksmanship; a 45-question multiple-choice exam; medical evaluation and evacuation skills; and reacting to man-to-man contact. At each stop was a real-world scenario competitors would have to apply all their knowledge, training and experience in order to successfully complete.
“We give them the mission, but that’s about it,” said Sgt. 1st Class Naira Frazier, NCO in charge of the CBRN lane. “We don’t tell them anything, because they’re already supposed to know. These are Skill Level 1 and 2 tasks.”
Her lane, for example, consisted of an elaborate scenario that, if done to standard, would normally take competitors between an hour and an hour and a half to complete, depending on whether they were vying for the title of NCO of the Year or Soldier of the Year.
“The scenario is they are at a chemical storage facility,” Frazier said. “Because they are in a chemical environment, they have to be very cautious and take their time.”
They also were expected to know the differences among the various levels of mission-oriented protective posture gear and when each is necessary, she explained. The highest — MOPP Level 4 — requires a gas mask and head-to-toe suit that competitors found stifling.
“Being in MOPP Level 4 gear and pouring out sweat wasn’t the most fun I’ve had here,” said Staff Sgt. Brian Hester, the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command NCO of the Year. “Part of it was properly decontaminating and testing the air — you had to go by the book. At one point, I had to wait 10 minutes, and they said, ‘Here’s your stopwatch.’ So I sat there for 10 minutes in all that hot gear. There was no cutting corners.”
Part of the scenario involved evaluating, treating, evacuating and decontaminating a casualty found inside of the CBRN chamber, which meant competitors had to do lots of heavy lifting in the restrictive protective gear.
“I never like having to put that mask on and that suit,” said Staff Sgt. Victor Munoz, the U.S. Army Medical Command NCO of the Year. “You just start to sweat, and it’s so hot. Then you have to drag that [stretcher], and it’s not like you can try to catch your breath, because your breathing is restricted. It was just uncomfortable.”
But, Frazier explained, the lane showed the importance of knowing basic CBRN-related skills that every Soldier should know.
“As you can see, CBRN is no joke,” she said coughing after exiting the chamber, which was filled with CS gas. “It’s not something where you can come and automatically know how to do it.”
At the close-quarters marksmanship lane, competitors were tested on how to apply skills learned over 13 years of wartime deployments, but in an environment that isn’t a war zone.
“The scenario here is they’ve come to help this village after an earthquake has happened,” said Staff Sgt. James Shuster, the lane’s NCOIC, while casually tossing a bang-producing noisemaker to contribute to the lane’s ambience. “That’s to simulate a gas main explosion. … There’s a team on-site already, and the competitors are coming in to assist with security, because there are pockets of hostile personnel in the area.”
“Once they go through the door, they’ll be presented with hostile and non-hostile targets,” said Sgt. 1st Class Eric Morris, the NCOIC of the cell organizing the entire competition. “So they’ll have to determine on their own, based on their rules of engagement, if they’re able to shoot or not shoot, and who to shoot and who not to shoot. That right there is unique, because it’s not a combat, wartime situation, yet they’re presented with hostile intent. Seeing how they react to that, I think, will be interesting.”
The lane also features the day’s most memorable obstacle, Morris said.
“We have something we call the ‘Fun Box,’” he said. “Basically its the size of a room, but it’s a maze they’ll have to crawl through and around with all their gear, simulating what it might be like to move through a collapsed building. That right there is going to test their resilience, because they’re going to be hot and sweaty, carrying all this gear, and they’ve already done a [physical training] test and all these other events. Now they’re having to crawl through a box.”
“It’s 34 inches [tall and wide] throughout the entire thing,” Shuster said. “It starts out on the far side. They have to come under, then there’s a box they have to go over and then down. They’ll come around, then they have to go up two pretty big stairs, they’ll come across the top, then through the front, and down and out.”
The inventive obstacle made a definite impact on competitors, said Spc. Keegan Carlson, the U.S. Army Reserve Soldier of the Year.
“It looks from the outside like a small building with a small entry hole,” he said. “Then you get in there, and I thought there would be two corners maybe. Next thing I know, I’m going around five or six corners, going up inclines, crawling up, crawling down.”
“I didn’t fit in the thing,” Munoz said laughing. “It was rough. There were points in there when I started to re-evaluate my life: ‘What am I doing in here!?’”
Competitors also had to apply their Army Combatives skills to a real-world scenario at the react to man-to-man contact lane. There, they came upon a near riot in progress, explained Staff Sgt. Korento Leverette, NCOIC of the lane.
“We have two families in this village who are fighting over who is the rightful owner of this farmland,” Leverette said as dozens of role-players began chanting slogans and brandishing farming tools. “As the competitor comes in, they’ll be told that their assistance is required to help calm the situation using non-lethal force. Then, an aggressor will come up with the village elder, and in the course of their conversation, the aggressor — who is actually Army Combatives Level 2-certified — will become more aggressive, at which time the competitor will have to take control of the situation.”
“It has a combatives element to it, but it’s separate from combatives,” Morris said. “There’s a Warrior Task and Battle Drill — react to man-to-man contact — and it’s the SMA’s intent to separate the Battle Drill and the idea of training the skill of combatives.”
“The sergeant major of the Army didn’t want a combatives match,” Leverette said. “He wanted a real-world scenario, something you might encounter, where you would use the skills you’d learn in Army Combatives.”
Competitors said they appreciated the applied approach.
“We train as we fight, so I kind of came in with that mindset, that this was going to be a real scenario,” Hester said. “I was very tired. It felt like I had been walking for a year. But to get to use my combatives training in a safe environment, to test my skills, that was really good. I had to dig deep, but when it was over, I felt the adrenaline pumping.”
Competitors were expected to get a decent night’s sleep before splitting up and engaging in two very different events Wednesday: The NCO of the Year competitors will make their appearances before a board presided by Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III, while the Soldier of the Year competitors will face the mystery events. On Thursday, the two groups will switch, and the Soldier of the Year competitors will face the board. Later that night, the winners will be announced at an awards dinner at Fort Lee and live on the Internet.
Though it was the eve of him being scrutinized by the seniormost sergeants major in the Army, Wednesday’s board appearance didn’t faze Munoz.
“You never get used to walking into a room and standing before the sergeant major of the Army,” he said. “And I don’t think you can ever be completely ready. Because you’re being questioned on everything, and it’s impossible to know it all, it all comes down to how you handle yourself in there. But I’ll probably do some cramming tonight.”