By SGT. NELSON ROBLES
4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs
What was once simply known as Building 9420 in the Wilderness Complex at Fort Carson, Colo., now stands in honor of one of 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division’s fallen heroes.
The building was dedicated during a ceremony Nov. 20.
Command Sgt. Maj. Kevin Griffin, along with Maj. Thomas Kennedy, Maj. Walter Gray and USAID civilian Ragaei Abdelfattah, were killed in action while en route to a meeting with the governor of the Kunar province while deployed in Afghanistan on Aug. 8, 2012.
Griffin, a native of Riverton, Wyo., was the senior enlisted advisor to the 4th IBCT, 4th Infantry Division and the Mountain Warriors wanted to ensure that what he represented as a father, husband, Soldier and leader would never be forgotten.
Hundreds including family members, friends, and co-workers attended the dedication ceremony as Griffin’s family unveiled the plaques that would be installed on the building. These plaques will serve as a reminder to future Mountain Warriors of what a Soldier is and, more importantly, what a leader of Soldiers should be.
“You really can’t do enough to honor somebody like Command Sgt. Maj. Griffin but today was definitely a step in the right direction,” said Sgt. Andrew Mahoney who received a Silver Star Medal for actions during the attack on Aug. 8, 2013. “He was a great man and he was definitely a benefit to the Army, we would be better off if he was still in our ranks.”
Mahoney presented Griffin’s family with a memorial plaque to commemorate the occasion in front of the newly christened Kevin James Griffin Memorial Building.
“I can think of no higher tribute than to forever connect Command Sgt. Maj. Griffin with the Mountain Warrior Headquarters,” said Col. Brian Pearl, commander 4th IBCT, 4th Infantry Division. “I have no doubt he will watch over us and impact our Soldiers for years to come.”
By CAMERON M. WESSON, U.S. ARMY, RETIRED (1st SGT.) Special to the NCO Journal
In 1988, I was serving as a fire team leader when our platoon received another new lieutenant to serve as our platoon leader. He would be the platoon’s second new lieutenant in less than a year. I knew what would transpire after his arrival — inventories, inspections, training, training and more training to prepare him for the coming company and battalion field exercises. I didn’t like the seemingly constant rotation of new lieutenants; however, I didn’t have to. All I had to do was execute the orders that were given to the best of my ability.
What astonished me was that it never seemed to bother our platoon sergeants. They would take possession of the new lieutenants and start the process of training them without a word, or, at least, not one that I heard. They would train them in the job that they would have to perform when the platoonwent to war.
One day, I asked our platoon sergeant how he could train lieutenant after lieutenant without so much as a grumble. He looked at me and then his eyes hardened. When he replied his voice carried a tone of dead seriousness, “It’s my job. It’s my job to get him ready when we have to go to a two-way shooting range. If I don’t do that and don’t do it right, he ends up dead and we all end up dead.”
He let that implication sink into my thick head for another minute and then finished, “And when you become a platoon sergeant, you’ll do the same. If you don’t, you’ll let him down, your Soldiers down and probably get your platoon killed.”
My platoon sergeant was not simply outlining his responsibility of training and mentoring the new platoon leaders, he was also telling me what would be expected of me when I became a platoon sergeant.
THE ROLE OF THE NCO AS A SUBORDINATE TRAINER AND MENTOR
Field Manual 7-22.7 states, “The platoon sergeant helps the commander to train the lieutenant.” Though training and mentoring are not exactly the same, they do have similarities. The various dictionaries define a mentor as an “experienced or trusted adviser” or “an experienced person in an organization or institution who trains and counsels new employees or students.” A new lieutenant, in most cases, falls into the category of a “new employee.”
Army Regulation 600-100, Army Leadership, defines mentorship. It states that, “Mentorship is the voluntary developmental relationship that exists between a person of greater experience and a person of lesser experience that is characterized by mutual trust and respect.”
With these explanations, you can make the association that the platoon sergeant is a trainer and mentor to the lieutenant. This conclusion is based on the certainty that the platoon sergeant has more knowledge and experience in an area of expertise and that the lieutenant is searching for that same knowledge and experience in that area of expertise.
Some might argue that the relationship is not truly “voluntary” as unit assignments are directed based on Army and unit needs. The facts point out that military service is chosen and with that service the relationship is voluntary, also. It’s voluntary because the platoon sergeant understood that by accepting the position they have implicitly agreed to the task of training the lieutenant and the lieutenant has agreed and understands that the platoon sergeant has more experience than they have … and they need it!
THE NCO AS A ROLE MODEL
AR 600-100 states that, “Leaders are role models for others. They are viewed as the example and must maintain standards and provide examples of effective behaviors.” It further emphasizes what trust provides in that, “When leaders’ actions occur within a mentorship relationship, their potential impact is greatly magnified, both for the individual and for the Army. This increase is due to the high degree of trust and respect that characterize a mentoring relationship.”
The ranges of behaviors displayed by trainers and mentors are vast and varying, and you can think back on your career for examples. What behaviors, attributes, characteristics and values did some role models exhibit that influenced you in your career and made them a mentor to you? Did they lead by example? Did they take the time to show the correct way to accomplish a task? Did you respect them? Was the person someone thatyou could trust? Were they positive role models?
FOUNDATION OF TRUST and FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE
The Army understands that the new lieutenant will need assistance and training in their duties as an officer. They have been educated that they are to trust their NCOs, specifically their platoon sergeant. Remember though, this trust is not blind. It is a trust that has been instilled in them by others in their commissioning process. They have been told to lean on their platoon sergeant, and platoon NCOs, for advice and listen to their counsel. Don’t violate or misuse this trust.
A COLLECTIVE TASK
The company commander is ultimately responsible for the training and mentoring of their lieutenants. The commander also has numerous other responsibilities and requirements to manage. They remember that when they were lieutenants, they relied on platoon sergeants and the platoon’s other NCOs, for training and mentoring. Now as the commander they again utilize these resources, specifically the platoon sergeants, to support them in accomplishing the critical, collective task of training their lieutenants.
Why? The Army understands the importance of subordinate mentorship, sometimes referred to as “bottom up” mentorship. It has created a dual-rank structure that supports this relationship and bond. This relationship structure ensures that officers have an NCO working with them at the same organizational level. Lastly, at the platoon level, who knows the most about platoon operations? The platoon sergeant and platoon NCOs do.
The reality is the Army relies on this structure and on the forming of the subordinate-to-senior bond. At the platoon level this dual structure, and the bond, is critical in shaping the lieutenant. When done correctly, this relationship bond and the trust it generates is carried by lieutenants throughout their careers. This trust further builds the foundation that lieutenants will be expecting and will count on from the other NCOs who support them for the rest of their career.
I conducted a small and informal survey of 20 commissioned officers that I currently work with. They ranked from major to colonel and all of them indicated that NCOs played a significant role in training and mentoring them. The question posed was: As a lieutenant, which unit NCO did you consider your best source of mentorship — platoon sergeant, first sergeant or sergeant major? Sixteen of those officers responded that their platoon sergeant had been their best source, while four answered with first sergeant.
Again, this straw poll was very small; however, the results indicated that 80 percent of these field-grade and senior officers regarded their platoon sergeant as their subordinate mentor. Almost everyone had positive memories of the relationship and relayed a story that provided further proof of a positive relationship and how it shaped them. Not surprisingly, many had stayed in touch with each other through the years and even credit their platoon sergeant for continuing their service.
MISSION AND OBJECTIVES
In all missions, there are objectives that are expected to be accomplished to make the mission successful. These objectives are developed into objective statements. This statement provides for the desired effect, the target, the action and the purpose, or ETAP.
The desired effect in this case is to train and mentor. The target is the lieutenant. The action the Army desires is a junior leader capable of leading his or her platoon. The purpose is accomplishing the mission and caring for soldiers.
The objective statement for this is — train and mentor lieutenants to lead and care for their platoon to accomplish their assigned mission. Sounds simple, right? With the right resources it can be. The largest resource is the NCO Corps and those NCOs willing to accept the challenge.
Who will be regarded as the greatest mentor to your lieutenant? To say that it depends may be correct; however, the variables to the challenge are constant. The variables are the situation, the mentee and the mentor. The situation is success or failure, or life and death. The lieutenant, or mentee, is there to learn, gain experience and be successful. That leaves the platoon sergeant and the platoon NCOs, the trainers and mentors.
NCOs should ask themselves these questions: Will you serve as that role model? Will you provide that foundation of trust, support, encouragement and personal guidance? Will you be that benchmark NCO for that lieutenant to use for the rest of their career?
An NCO’s commitment to the task can have a huge impact on the Army. That impact is not only shaping those lieutenants and the officer corps, but also for those young Soldiers watching you execute the task, because those Soldiers are the NCO Corps and platoon sergeants of tomorrow.
Cameron Wesson is a retired first sergeant with more than 21 years of active duty experience with extensive leadership assignments in the infantry and logistics career fields. He has had numerous overseas deployments that include Central America, Korea, Europe, the Balkans and Southwest Asia. He is currently a Department of the Army civilian and serves as the deputy director for the U.S. Army Information Operations Proponent, U.S. Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
One year ago, now-Sgt. 1st Class Jason Manella was suffering from a traumatic brain injury after his third deployment. Two years ago, now-Spc. Adam Christensen was a plumber looking to do something that would make a difference. Today, they are the Army’s Best Warriors — the 2013 Army NCO of the Year and Soldier of the Year — and are exemplars of how character, commitment and competence are the hallmarks of the Army profession.
Announced Friday night, Nov. 22, after three days of grueling competition at Fort Lee, Va., that pushed the competitors representing 12 major commands to their physical and mental limits, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III called the winners the best of what the Army has to offer.
“I’m proud of them,” he said Friday. “They are the standard-bearers, the disciplined leaders and future mentors. The Army is a profession, and they represent all of us.”
Drawing on their experience
Manella, 27, a civil affairs specialist with B Company, 445th Civil Affairs Battalion, 364th Civil Affairs Brigade, represented the U.S. Army Reserve and was ready for the jokes and good-natured ribbing that those in the reserve component often hear from their active-duty colleagues.
“I feel that the challenge of being a Reservist or National Guardsman is overcoming the initial stigma,” Manella said. “Immediately, a lot of active-duty Soldiers are going to assume that you are less trained, less prepared, less competent. But that’s not necessarily the case. Winning among the entire Army, including active-duty Soldiers and those in the National Guard, proves that all Soldiers are competent, no matter which component they belong to or train in.”
Still, being a Reservist brought its challenges. Besides having to squeeze in studying and preparation for the competition in between college classes, a full-time job and weekend Reserve drills, Manella said the Reserve does one thing in particular differently which required him to adapt and overcome.
“As a Reservist, boards are not common. We don’t do oral boards for promotions,” Manella said. “But during my first tour overseas, I was attached to an active-duty battalion, which is what we always do with my [military occupational specialty]. Trying to get promoted to sergeant, I was trying to show my leadership, who were on a different base, that I was going above and beyond. So I competed in an active-duty Soldier of the Month board, and that’s how I learned reporting procedures, how to study and how to prep.”
That preparation proved to be prescient. Because the competition was so close, even into the final day, the points competitors accrued during their board appearance before Chandler and the seniormost command sergeants major in the Army proved to be the deciding factor for the entire competition, Chandler said.
“Really, the difference was the board,” Chandler said. “The board was the separator to determine who was best.”
Christensen, 29, a military policeman from the 472nd Military Police Company, 793rd Military Police Battalion, 2nd Engineer Brigade, at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, credited his NCO, Staff Sgt. Robert Norton, for helping him overcome his shortcomings with the board.
“The board has always been my weakness,” Christensen said. “Being in the field and doing the Warrior Tasks and Battle Drills, that’s where I love to be. Honestly, I have to hand it to my sponsor. Sgt. Norton sat me down, and we went step-by-step through the most important things at a board. We worked on presence, on delivery. My ability in the board is unrecognizable compared to when I first started doing these competitions, and I have Sgt. Norton to thank for that.”
Christensen, who is older than his NCO counterpart, Manella, entered the Army late after stints as a full-time student and plumber.
“I liked plumbing; I had been going to school before; I had done a lot of different things,” Christensen said. “But I asked myself, ‘Do I want to plumb for the rest of my life?’ Thinking about what I wanted to do, I just wanted to be part of something big that gives back to the community and the country.”
With only two years of service, he hasn’t had the advantage of being deployed. But he found a way to minimize that lack of experience, again thanks to his NCOs.
“I think what’s helped me get this far is just having great Army leadership,” he said. “Being able to train as we fight has helped to overcome not having the actual field experience. I think being the same age as my NCOs has helped me to approach them a lot more and ask them, ‘Hey, what was it actually like when you were deployed? What kind of pressures were you working with?’”
Hit by multiple blasts from December 2011 to May 2012, Manella was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and struggled to cope with its effects.
“The first few months, it was very difficult,” Manella said. “I’d get dizzy spells, nausea, headaches, a lot of confusion, just a general inability to concentrate or read more than a few sentences at a time. I was slurring and stumbling over words, forgetting things, getting stuck on very simple words. I was a little bit like Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean — you would just see me standing there, reeling in a circle. So I had a lot of frustration with that.
“I’ve been blessed with, essentially, a full recovery,” he said. “As it was explained to me, the brain is somewhat plastic and can kind of heal itself. There’s a window of 6 to 12 months it can do so. So I got a lot of time off to rest, a lot of therapy for cognitive stuff, as well as physical therapy for balance and equilibrium issues. Every month or so, it just got slowly better and better until now, I have pretty much nothing residual other than headaches, and reading and memorizing stuff is a little bit harder than it used to be. But I just have to try harder than I used to.”
Manella, who competed in lower levels of the Best Warrior Competition as a specialist seven years ago, decided to make training for the competition part of his therapy.
“After I got injured, I started thinking about using Best Warrior as a rehabilitation tool, because I could come back and do it as a noncommissioned officer. My benchmark was to make it at least as far as I did when I was a Soldier. I figured I’d be able to overcome everything I had gone through if I could surpass that, which I’ve done. It’s definitely rewarding.”
Representing the Army
As the champions of the Army’s premier competition, Manella and Christensen will now be the face of the Army at events nationwide during the next year. Both said they looked forward to using that bully pulpit as a way to encourage those facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
“This is an opportunity for me to help be part of a change, hopefully inspiring others with TBI-related ailments, or just wounded warriors in general,” Manella said. “A year and a half ago, I was at a low point in my life. It was a challenge just to stand up or finish a sentence. I almost gave up. But I didn’t. I feel that pulling myself through, putting in this much effort and never quitting is what the Army always talks about: ‘I will never quit.’ It’s about actually living up to the Army Values and just continuing to fight, using resilience to fight back.”
“Anything is possible,” Christensen said. “When I joined the Army, I failed the first PT test I ever took. But I told myself that, by the end of basic training, I’d be able to score a 300. I was in the bay at night with a circle of guys just doing pushups like crazy. And by the end of basic training, I had a perfect PT score. So every time I get Soldiers who have problems with their PT tests, I tell them that. If you push yourself and have the drive, no matter where you come, no matter what your MOS is, you can get yourself there. Never give up. Be professional. Keep pushing yourself.”
Both said they sacrificed many a night out to prepare for the competition. But without that hard work, failure was guaranteed.
“A lot of guys made fun of me for doing these competitions,” Manella said. “Because on the weekends, I’m not out drinking with them; I’m in studying. The next morning, I’m PT’ing hard. I think it all comes down to work ethic. One of the best motivational speeches I heard, Arnold Schwarzenegger gave, and he said, ‘You can’t climb the ladder to success with your hands in your pocket.’ You have to work your butt off. I think anyone who applies themselves, they can get here.”
Success is also found in sweating the everyday details of Soldier business, Christensen said, recalling that many of the competition’s events — changing a humvee tire, conducting an in-ranks inspection, and leading Army Physical Readiness Training, for example — judged competitors’ ability to conduct routine tasks to Army standards.
“When you do the day-to-day things — going to the motor pool, performing preventive maintenance on our trucks, laying out all of our gear so we can sign some paperwork then put it all away — you feel you’re stuck in the day-to-day grind. But when you do something like this, you realize that what you do every day matters, and being good at that is something you can take pride in.”
And though it sounds trite, Manella said his message is simple: “Don’t give up. Keep trying.”
“It seems like some sort of cliché. But I feel that I’ve learned a lot through this process,” he said. “It’s really a matter of how much effort you’re willing to put into anything. It was really difficult the first few months to study, to train and to prepare. I was getting insane headaches, getting dizzy. But I just had to learn the new limitations I had and build around them. And that’s one of the core things taught in basic training — adapt and overcome; be flexible.”
After his stint as Soldier of the Year is complete, Christensen said his aim is to finish his bachelor’s degree in linguistics and be selected for Special Forces training.
“I was putting together my packet when they asked me if I wanted to compete in the first competition,” he said. “Then, I just kept going to the next competition and the next. So [Special Forces] is my next goal. I’ve got to get back to rucking every day and just training up for it again.”
Manella hopes to become a drill sergeant or a career counselor.
“I want to diversify my career, but also help other Soldiers,” he said. “I like the idea of being a drill sergeant to instill all this information and training, to be a good leadership example to new Soldiers in the Army, to be the first example of what a leader looks like. Or being a career counselor, assisting Soldiers who are in, influencing them to stay in.”
Above all, both are looking forward to returning to the work they put on hold to become competitive at the Army’s highest level.
“I’m just looking forward to going back to soldiering,” Christensen said. “I honestly can say, despite all the good plumbing stories I have, there’s a lot more job satisfaction with what I’m doing now. Despite being only a specialist, I know I’ll get there.”
After a draining Day 1 that challenged their soldiering skills, physical stamina and Army knowledge, competitors at the 2013 Army Best Warrior Competition at Fort Lee, Va., were preparing for the worst on Day 2, Thursday, Nov. 21, and the evening that preceded it.
“I know I woke up at midnight thinking, ‘They’ve let us sleep for a couple of hours. They should be coming to mess with us right about now,’” said Staff Sgt. Andrew Gregory, the NCO of the Year competitor representing U.S. Army Materiel Command.
However, the event’s benevolent organizers allowed competitors to enjoy some much needed rest, as success in the second day’s tasks depended on having a clear and open mind.
‘It gets burned into you’
First, it was back to Fort Lee’s old airstrip where the sun rose over three lanes: conducting drills from the Army Physical Readiness Training manual, performing various weapons drills and conducting an in-ranks inspection. Evaluators were looking for precise, by-the-book actions that indicated a familiarity with Army regulations and doctrine.
“We didn’t know anything about today. It could have been easy, it could have been ridiculous like yesterday,” said Sgt. De Gosh Reed, the NCO of the Year competitor representing U.S. Army Pacific. “But it was a pretty good surprise to see that we were doing things like taking care of Soldiers, drill and ceremony, doing PRT, doing inspections — important things for the Army.”
“That was my cup of tea right there,” said Sgt. Brian Hester, the NCO of the Year competitor representing U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command. “You teach enough Soldiers how to do that stuff, and it gets burned into you permanently.”
However, some competitors’ obvious bewilderment at how to conduct the PRT drills disappointed Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III, who oversaw the entire competition as well as observed the warriors go head to head each day.
“I’m very frustrated with this,” Chandler said. “The Army has a physical fitness program. We put a lot of time and effort into developing one. It’s proven to be successful. It’s been in place across the Army for about four years, and I am not satisfied where we are. That was demonstrated out here that some folks didn’t know anything about PRT.
“I think we need to give the Army’s physical fitness program an opportunity before we say it’s no good, or try to do something else like P90X or CrossFit, or some other exercise program that’s the flavor of the year,” Chandler continued. “I’m an advocate of PRT. I believe in it. I know it works.”
From by-the-book to out-of-the-box
The next collection of events, however, no one was expected to be prepared for. Organizers created a Leadership Reaction Course that, by design, competitors could not have practiced beforehand.
“It’s definitely not something you’ll find in any manual or regulation,” said Staff Sgt. Jasmine Joyner, an evaluator for one of the LRC’s six lanes. “We actually built every lane from the ground up to be very challenging.”
Competitors had to think creatively and innovatively to solve the six puzzles, most of which involved moving their assigned fire team and some equipment across an obstacle with an added restriction to complicate matters. In one, a pallet of heavy boxes had to be moved without carrying the pallet or removing the boxes. The solution was to roll the pallet on three pipes that many competitors thought were to be used to carry the pallet.
“They’re supposed to think outside-the-box, but also follow instructions,” Joyner said. “Time management plays a big role.”
“We were trying to create something where a competitor would need to think to figure something out rather than using brawn or skill,” said Staff Sgt. Corey Damas, the NCO in charge of the course. “This is not something that just anybody could show up and complete successfully. If they have a good plan to begin with, it’s very easy. But it takes a while to develop that plan, and unfortunately, they don’t have that time. So the trial-and-error way doesn’t work so well.”
Indeed, some competitors seemed flummoxed going from a rigidly by-the-book event to lanes that required creativity and novel approaches. But, others seized the opportunity.
“That was my favorite event of this whole entire thing — taking Soldiers, executing the mission,” Gregory said.
“It was my favorite event, as well, because I got to take Soldiers who really didn’t know what was going on, and I got to shape the situation,” Reed said. “The lanes we were successful on, the Soldiers really motivated me. I didn’t want to let them down. I didn’t want to look bad in front of them.”
Chandler said the event was exactly what he hoped it would be: a venue for gauging the Army’s progress in creating adaptive, critical leaders.
“We didn’t give people a lot of instruction,” Chandler said. “We expect that you’re going to figure out how to do it. That has elements of mission command. A lot of people will say that mission command is commander-driven. Well, it is. But NCOs have huge roles in its success — elements of trust, understanding that commander’s intent, having a disciplined approach at how the mission will be accomplished. Those are all important, and we wanted to reinforce that. Plus it’s fun.”
Getting ready for the board
The competitors were given the rest of the day off to prepare with their sponsors for the final event on Friday, Nov. 22: a board composed of the sergeant major of the Army and some of the Army’s seniormost command sergeants major.
“The board is a big part of how we promote and recognize Soldiers as we have done for decades,” Chandler, the board’s president, said. “The board will be, I’m sure, a relatively comfortable experience for Soldiers, because they’ve probably practiced it a dozen times before they got to this level. I’m excited about it.”
Competitors appeared to look forward to it as well.
“I think a lot of it will be, how do you handle pressure? How well can you articulate your thoughts in front of people?” said Staff Sgt. Colby Perotti, the NCO of the Year competitor representing U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. “I mean, we’ve pretty much demonstrated what we know in all the Warrior Tasks and Battle Drills lanes, in the exam, and in the essay. So this is really going to be about how you interact, how you hold your composure, and how you answer tough questions.”
“It’s just a matter of keeping calm,” said Sgt. 1st Class Ronnie Reynolds, the NCO of the Year competitor representing U.S. Army Medical Command. “You’ll have some of the most-senior-ranking enlisted personnel in the Army there. But you’ve got to keep calm, remember that they’re human and just answer their questions.”
Friday evening, the competition concludes with an informal dinner featuring addresses by Chandler’s predecessor, retired Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston, who now is in charge of NCO and Soldier Programs for the Association of the United States Army, and the vice chief of staff of the Army, Gen. John F. Campbell. But the moment everyone will be anxiously awaiting is the announcement of the winners, the Army’s 2013 NCO of the Year and Soldier of the Year. The event will be live-streamed at http://www.dvidshub.net/webcast/3538 beginning around 7:25 p.m. Eastern time Friday night with the winners expected to be announced around 8:25 p.m.
For many of the competitors in the 2013 Army Best Warrior Competition, the first day of events began and ended in darkness — both literally and figuratively. With a map, but nary a hint of what they would be expected to accomplish at each checkpoint, the 23 competitors struck out after a pre-dawn physical fitness test early Wednesday morning, Nov. 20, into the unknown.
What they found were 10 events built to test their knowledge and skills — both routine and esoteric — over a 14-mile path through the woods and meadows of Fort Lee, Va. By the end of the day, each competitor would fire various weapons, extricate and treat a casualty in a Humvee, write an essay, don protective gear and enter a chamber filled with CS gas, react to an ambush, wend their way through a land navigation course, complete a written exam, correctly handle the discovery of an improvised explosive device in a crowded village, and change a tire on a Humvee to standard (by far, the competitors’ least favorite task).
The day was designed to see how competitors would think while on the move, said Command Sgt. Maj. James K. Sims, the command sergeant major of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Support Command and Fort Lee, who has been instrumental in planning the competition each year.
“The intent really for today is to keep the competitors motivated, to keep them on the move to see how agile and adept they are as they engage various obstacles and tasks,” Sims said. “It appears that we’ve got some good NCOs and Soldiers out there who are very confident. There’s a great competitive spirit out there.”
‘Do your best. Don’t give up.’
Before their decathlon, competitors kicked off the competition with a modified Army Physical Fitness Test in Army Combat Uniforms and tennis shoes on the tarmac of an old airstrip. Under the watchful gaze of two sergeants major of the Army — incumbent Raymond F. Chandler III and his predecessor, Kenneth O. Preston — competitors pushed themselves in the traditional pushup, situp and 2-mile run events. With their nonstandard attire and bitter chill, some were disappointed in their scores. But all received encouraging words from Chandler.
“You may not have done your personal best today, but keep your motivation up,” Chandler said. “You can be really good at the PT test, but not read or write. We’re testing the total Soldier here — physical, mental, emotional.”
Chandler noted that the difference between first and second place last year was less than a thousandth of a point.
“So do your best. Don’t give up,” he said. “You’ll have eyes on you throughout this competition not just on how you’re doing as an individual, but how you contribute to the team.”
‘The whole day was a surprise’
Reflecting after the day’s events, competitors seemed unprepared for the grueling pace.
“It was a lot more physical than I thought,” said Sgt. Erik Eaton, the Soldier of the Year competitor representing U.S. Army Medical Command. “It really took a lot of mental and physical fitness throughout the entire day.”
The day eventually became a blur, said Spc. Richard Thomas, the Soldier of the Year competitor representing U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command.
“I didn’t really know what to expect at this competition, but today really surpassed whatever I could have thought,” Thomas said. “The whole day was a surprise. We really didn’t know what was going to happen. It was a never-ending journey, it seemed like at times.”
For Spc. Michael Sands, the Soldier of the Year competitor representing the Military District of Washington, it was a day like none other in his career.
“This might be the toughest day I’ve had in the Army, quite honestly,” he said. “The situations challenged you on every level — individually, being a team leader. It was a lot of fun, but I’m glad we’re done for the day.”
‘An epic fail’
No event stymied competitors like the innocuously titled ‘Vehicle Maintenance’ lane. The task was simple: change a Humvee’s tire.
“But for me, changing the tire was just an epic fail,” Sands said.
Though most competitors have had to do that in real-world situations, few seemed to be familiar with how to do it according to what the relevant technical manual says, said Sgt. 1st Class Juan Nieves, an evaluator for the event.
“Anybody can change a tire. But can you change a tire to standard?” he said. “They weren’t expecting this.”
Sgt. Brian Hester, the NCO of the Year competitor representing SMDC, said the event was his least favorite, but also said he understood its inclusion in the Army’s premier competition.
“It is proper vehicle maintenance,” Hester said. “You’ve got to know what the standard is, and that’s one of the big plusses of the Army — everything is written down. As long as you’re willing to read, you should be able to do it.”
Prolonging the mystery
With only a third of the competition complete, competitors and organizers readied for Day 2 on Thursday — the “mystery events.”
“Tomorrow, I’m just expecting the unexpected,” Sands said.
Sims would offer only a cryptic preview of what the competition would present.
“The competitors are showing themselves to be very adaptive and very innovative,” Sims said. “But I think tomorrow, we’re going to see just how innovative the competitors are.”
Due to illness, Sgt. Ryan Lewis, the Soldier of the Year competitor representing U.S. Army Materiel Command, was unable to compete.