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Montana Guard rancher ropes in Army's top warrior title

By Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith, National Guard Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va. - A Montana National Guard combat veteran and cattle rancher, who recently achieved "Noncommissioned Officer (NCO) of the Year" for the Army Guard competed for the U.S. Army's "2008 Best Warrior" title, and won.

Staff Sgt. Michael Noyce Merino was named the Army's "Best Warrior" and "NCO of the Year" Oct. 6 at the Association of the U.S. Army's annual meeting and exposition in Washington.

Noyce Merino is the first Guardsman to achieve the title and will represent the Army and the Army Guard at pre-eminent Soldier events throughout 2009.

"We couldn't be prouder," said Lt. Gen. Clyde Vaughn, the director of the Army Guard. "What a huge event and something that our force will look at with so much pride, and across the components there's an enormous spirit of competition. That's what it's all about."

After first competing for the Montana Guard's 163rd Cavalry Regiment NCO of the Year, Noyce Merino said he quickly learned he would face serious competitors from other Guard and active duty units. "I knew I would face stiff competition as I went up against competitors from the state, the region and the nation," he said.

Noyce Merino won the Army Guard's final competition in mid-August at Fort Benning, Ga. That achievement allowed him to match his skill and knowledge " characteristic of 360,000 Army Guard Soldiers " against 12 Soldiers representing the Army's other major commands for a final Best Warrior competition at Fort Lee, Va., Sept. 30 to Oct. 3.

He won the Army's competition to his great surprise, he said.

"I'm equally proud of winning [both competitions]," Noyce Merino said. "They were both difficult in their own way."

Noyce Merino explained that the Guard's competition was more physical with its 12-mile road march and land navigation events, while the Best Warrior competition challenged his marksmanship and ability to think under pressure.

"We just feel fortunate," said Vaughn. "We're fortunate to have all those Soldiers " regardless of component " compete. Those are the best of the best. It's a big moment for the Guard, and it's also a big moment for the Army."

In the coming year, he will leave his cattle ranch duties to his sister while he serves as a spokesman for the Army and Army Guard.

"I could not do any of this without my wife's support and my sister's support and the belief, faith and prayers from my family," Noyce Merino said.

Noyce Merino returned to Montana and joined the Guard after his release from active duty in 2007. There, his family runs a 21,000-acre cattle ranch. He also works as a shipping supervisor for United Parcel Service, and he praises that company for their support of his service.

"Now that we have settled down on the ranch, we hope to start a family," he said. "Right now we are building the operation and developing a functioning [cattle] business."

Noyce Merino was home-schooled and grew up on the ranch. "It's what I knew and loved until I joined the [active duty] Army," he said.

His 2001 active-duty enlistment took him immediately to battlefields in Afghanistan. "I was in basic training when the 9/11 attacks happened," he said. "So right away I knew I was going into combat."

He attended airborne school, was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division and deployed for six months. He returned home only to deploy to Iraq for eight months.

"After that, I re-enlisted into the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood, [Texas,]" he said. He returned again to Iraq with the 4th ID for an additional 12 months.

"I'm very proud of my service," he said. "But I don't know if I'm proud of things in [those] deployments, [because] it was a lot of hard work and a lot of good Soldiers I knew were wounded."

On one patrol, Noyce Merino used his combat lifesaver skills to apply two tourniquets to a fellow Soldier after a mortar attack in Baghdad. "He had extensive shrapnel wounds and arterial bleeding in both legs and was going in and out of consciousness," he said.

The patrol transported the Soldier to an aid station within nine minutes and was credited with saving his life.

During the recent Best Warrior competition, Noyce Merino said he faced a similar medical scenario that required treating a wounded

"Those who had not been in that situation saw what it was like to treat a casualty under fire," he said.

He added that the competition simulated battlefield conditions well. "The Army and the Guard should do as much of that as they possibly can."

Fortunately, the competition did not recall his combat stress from real-world events, he said.

He explained that "Military One Source" provided him free sessions with a counselor after his deployments and following his active-duty service. "That really helped me," he said."

He added that a "Best Warrior" is also one who knows when to treat himself.

"I don't consider myself to be the best," Noyce Merino said. "There are a lot of Soldiers and sergeants right now who are deployed, who are serving, and their duty prevents them from competing. I'm more of a representative of all NCOs and all Soldiers in the Army. I'm an example of what it takes to be one of the best."