The fight to become the Army’s Best Warriors

T. Anthony Bell, for Soldiers magazine

Perhaps the most telling signs of the 2011 Best Warrior Competition were written on the faces and bodies of its competitors in the contest’s final hours.

The stiff-as-a-board bearing and intense game faces that accompanied many of the warriors into battle were gone, replaced by the nursing of minor injuries, body language that spoke of exhaustion and deep, breathy sighs that pointed to a climactic end for the Army’s “showcase” event, the Noncommissioned Officer and Soldier of the Year Competitions, commonly known as Best Warrior.

Best Warrior is a sergeant major of the Army-directed event that determines who best exhibits the core skills the Army deems critical to success on the battlefield, as well as the attributes that often accompany them. The five-day competition featured a written examination, physical training test and battlefield tasks like casualty evacuation and stress fire.

Fort Lee, Va., has hosted Best Warrior for eight of its 10 years. Twenty-six warriors, representing the Army’s major commands in the Soldier and NCO categories, converged at the central Virginia location Oct. 3-7. During the opening events, Soldiers appeared before a board, presided over by Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond F. Chandler. A grueling, multi-round combatives tournament closed the competition.

“It was very challenging,” said Army Medical Command’s Staff Sgt. Ilker Irmak just moments after the tournament. “It was also very painful. My feet are all hurt and blistered up. That’s the price you pay along the way.”

Once Irmak and every other warrior had expended a thousand muscle movements and millions of brain cells in pursuit of victory, the National Guard’s Sgt. Guy Mellor and Spc. Thomas Hauser of Forces Command were announced as the winners. Both received Army Commendation Medals and other awards and will now represent the Army as ambassadors in a yearlong commitment that includes media appearances and special events.

Hauser, a military policeman who is training for an upcoming deployment, said Best Warrior is a tough competition but also a world-class training event that increases skills.

“Every Soldier should be proficient in the warrior tasks and battle drills,” he said. “That’s our foundation as Soldiers, and everything we did in this competition added to that foundation,” which is what former Sgt. Maj. of the Army Jack L. Tilley had in mind when he established the event in 2002.

Tilley envisioned a standards-based competition open to all Soldiers, designed to recognize the total Soldier concept and encourage participants to share lessons learned with fellow Soldiers. He also wanted to show the American public “just how good we are in the Army.”

What began as a three-day competition in 2002 has evolved into a five-day event that requires Soldiers to perform individual warrior tasks and battle drills as well as those that necessitate leading a team of Soldiers. In 2007 then-Sgt. Maj. of the Army Kenneth O. Preston directed organizers to better reflect the operational environments of Iraq and Afghanistan in the competition.

For example, land navigation, previously performed in wooded areas, was changed to urban warfare orienteering, focusing on navigation through city streets. Organizers also added a Humvee egress event and hand-to-hand combat techniques known as combatives.

First Sgt. LaDerek Green, Fort Lee Best Warrior operations sergeant major, said most of the current tasks are relevant to how the Army fights in Southwest Asia. Its battlegrounds, he said, demand that Soldiers not only be proficient at tactics and techniques, but also resilient and prepared to respond to ever-changing conditions.

“Best Warrior evaluates critical and adaptive thinking,” he said. “Ultimately, it gives competitors a little insight into their abilities to lead in a combat environment, and provides them with the training and knowledge to become combat multipliers when they return to their units.”

To ensure the competition achieves that goal, work on Best Warrior begins as soon as the previous competition ends. Soldiers from the Combined Arms Support Command at Fort Lee are charged with fulfilling the event’s operational and logistical requirements. Army doctrine determines how events are structured, but it is up to the NCO leadership, led the past three years by CASCOM Command Sgt. Maj. C.C. Jenkins, to enhance the events in ways that are, he explained, “relevant, rigorous and realistic.”

For example, in the past, Soldiers performed the weapons system maintentance task on a table under non-threatening conditions. During the 2011 competition, however, they were required to perform the same task while “insurgents” attacked, an event that caught most of the warriors by surprise, including Sgt. 1st Class Raymond Santiago of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.

“That’s one task that everyone trains on every day,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘We got this.’ But this one surprised me, and I guarantee you it surprised everybody else.” The element of surprise was a constant, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty that only added to the stress of the competition.

“Stress is what soldiering is all about,” Santiago added. “How do you respond when you’re under stress? Can you use the snap decision-making process to make things happen quickly? Can you use common sense? That’s not in the book. That comes with experience.”

And the Best Warrior competitors, who ranged in age from 19 to 33, were experienced. Most wore combat patches and overseas service bars indicating multiple deployments. One NCO was a former Best Ranger winner, another competed in Best Warrior two years ago in the Soldier category. Seven of the competitors were infantrymen, four were military policemen, two were cannon crewmembers and one was an optical laboratory specialist.

While they were all there to win and “represent their units,” as the U.S. Army Pacific Command’s Staff Sgt. Adam Connelly put it, or to learn “as much as I can to take back to my unit,” as NCO of the Year winner Mellor said, some had more personal motivations.

Thinking about his mother and grandmother, who are both battling breast cancer, gave Sgt. Douglas McBroom, a cargo specialist from Army Materiel Command, “the strength to stay motivated and to keep a positive attitude.”

He was also inspired by hundreds of roaring Soldiers, at Fort Lee for advanced individual training, who crowded the Williams Stadium grandstands, predawn, cheering on the contestants at the first event: the Army Physical Fitness Test.

“Having the crowd cheering me on — “Hey, go No. 1, go No. 1!” — it really picked up my spirits and made me feel like a rock star,” said McBroom.

Green said that a strong start is critical to finishing the week successfully, because a sub-par performance on day one has the potential to throw off a competitor’s focus.

“It can set the tone for how some competitors will perform for the rest of the competition,” Green said. “One thing you don’t want to do is second-guess yourself. If you do that, you may find yourself in the middle of the competition trying to play catch-up with all the others.”

The board appearance was next. Clad in their Class A uniforms, Soldiers were required to knock on the door, execute facing movements and respond to a litany of questions concerning current events and military subjects. The board members were not the standard senior NCOs, however. Led by the sergeant major of the Army, the panel included six top command sergeants major from throughout the Army.

“It was extremely overwhelming,” said U.S. Army Europe’s Pfc. Travis Williams, the youngest warrior in the competition. “Back in USAEUR, when I got put into the competition there, I thought about the USAEUR (command) sergeant major. That was intimidating enough, but I said to myself, ‘If you win this, you’re going to go in front of the sergeant major of the Army.’ That didn’t register until we got here and (I) saw the SMA. There was a lot of anxiety.”

Other than a few on-the-spot critiques, there was no way for competitors to gauge their performances beyond their own assessments. Many embraced the idea that they were in competition with themselves, downplaying the performances of fellow contestants.

“I didn’t so much worry about the next guy,” said Connelly. “My goal was just to do the best I could.”

After the board appearance Soldiers had time to rest and prepare for the urban warfare orienteering events set for the next day and night, during which their objective would be to find points using a military map, protractor and GPS receiver.

“It’s attention to detail, paying attention to the task, conditions and standards,” explained Santiago, a long distance runner who ran most of the time, and completed the day course in less than an hour. “The most important thing is to make sure you plot your points right the first time, because one incorrect point can throw you off big time.”

For example, some Soldiers had covered more than 10 miles during the events, which put them at a disadvantage going into the fourth day, arguably the busiest on the schedule. It included casualty evaluation, countermeasure/improvised explosive device defeat and target engagement during urban operations.

Day four began with the casualty evaluation event. As soon as the competitors arrived on the scene, which mimicked an arrival/departure airfield control group on an airfield “in country,” simulated explosions and small arms fire erupted from the early morning darkness.

Soldiers had to quickly grab their gear and move to areas near the aircraft, where they tended to numerous casualties on the tarmac. The scene was chaotic.

“That was an intense event,” said Staff Sgt. Sean Swint, the Eighth U.S. Army representative. “Everyone was relaxed, sitting on the bus and (then) the artillery simulations (went) off. They told us we had like five seconds to get off the bus, we ran out there and there were bodies laying everywhere. They had life-like blood; guys were screaming. It was shock and awe. I didn’t expect it.”

Over the next 30 or so hours, they were evaluated on convoy operations, chemical and biological attack reactions, immediate lifesaving measures performance and moving under fire, among others.

Competitors were provided with three subordinate Soldiers to perform their tasks and traveled in Humvee convoys throughout a 3 square mile area that represented an operational environment.

“We went down the lane in a Humvee, reacted to sniper fire and one of the vehicles broke down,” said Army Medical Command’s Spc. Dustin Edwards after the countermeasure improvised explosive device event. “So we had to go back, hook up a vehicle and roll out with it. It was very realistic, and it took me by surprise.”

About 100 role players, acting as villagers during elections disrupted by militants, were on hand to add the same realism to the urban operations event. Warriors had to apply their escalation of force training and other skills to navigate through the village, clearing houses, dodging sniper fire and dealing with unruly and sometimes disruptive townspeople to root out hostile elements. Successful completion of this exercise requires decisiveness and a cool head, said Command Sgt. Maj. James K. Sims, Quartermaster School command sergeant major and one of the exercise coordinators.

“In Iraq and Afghanistan, we depend upon small units, teams and squads, to clear these villages to get the bad guys out and make it a safe place for locals,” he said. “This lane is designed to ensure the leader thinks his way through the process while maintaining his calm under fire and stress.”

To further test the Soldiers, Sims and other organizers even added a scenario to the combatives event, which has been a part of the competition for several years in tournament form.

“What we had this year was a factory that has known bomb makers working in it,” said Staff Sgt. Kirk Hoxie, a combatives evaluator. “The warriors were told to enter the building and find the high-value targets. When they got to the high-value targets, they had to detain them, position them and bring them out to a detainee transport.”

This meant the warriors had to defend themselves from all directions using techniques best suited to subduing attackers; something Hoxie said is more practical than a tournament.

“Sometimes combatives gets a bad reputation because people are always trying to relate it to UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) and MMA (mixed martial arts),” he explained. “Even thought it does have elements of jujitsu fighting, that’s not what’s it’s about. It’s about knowing how to defend yourself when your weapon malfunctions or when you can’t get to a weapon.” (The day did conclude with weapons qualification, though.)

After so many surprises, “I didn’t sleep well at all,” said Sgt. Brandon A. Kitchen of U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, referring to the last night of the competition. “I woke up every hour expecting to be awakened.” His concern was the mystery event. Held on the final morning of the competition, it has gained a reputation over the years for being a shocker. In past years, Soldiers actually have been awakened in the middle of the night to perform tasks, or even egress from Humvees in total darkness.

The 2011 mystery event began with artillery fire and a mass casualty event, and included another stress fire lane, an additional escalation of force test and a uniform inspection.

The final event of the competition was a non-evaluated combatives tournament. Organized into several rounds, the tourney pushed the will of the warriors. Williams took a swig from a bottle of water after being eliminated but didn’t want it to be over. For him, it wasn’t about gaining points but showing that points couldn’t define him as a Soldier.

“I’m sore and bleeding from all kinds of places. The combatives tournament was the last event so you kind of want to say, ‘Well it’s not evaluated, so let’s get it over with.’ But that’s not what it means to be a warrior. That’s not what it is to be in the Best Warrior Competition. You have to finish. You have to put in the effort no matter what,” he said, adding that he planned to share the knowledge he gained with the Soldiers in his unit.

“This is the pinnacle of all the competitions I’ve ever been in,” said Army Reserve Sgt. Christopher Couchot of Best Warrior. “I never thought I’d be competing against Rangers and Special Forces — the best of the best in the Army. It was pretty high-speed stuff, and it was so rewarding.”

 T. Anthony Bell works for Fort Lee Public Affairs.