Exhausted and worn after negotiating the night land navigation course, Army Cpl. Joseph Ryan, an assistant squad leader with the New York Army National Guard’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment, rests a moment before heading to the next event in the 2019 Army National Guard Best Warrior Competition at Camp Gruber, Oklahoma. Ryan was one of 14 Soldiers from throughout the Army Guard who took part in the grueling, three-day competition, vying to be named the Army Guard’s Soldier and Noncommissioned Officer of the Year. Pa., Md. Army Guard Soldiers named Army Guard’s best Photos and Story by Tech. Sgt. Erich B. SmithNational Guard Bureau Spc. Hunter Olson, center left, an infantryman with the Maryland Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment, and Army Staff Sgt. Erich Friedlein, center right, an infantry instructor with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 166th Regiment, stand with Army Guard and Oklahoma National Guard senior leaders after being named the Army Guard’s Soldier and NCO of the Year and winners of the 2019 Army Guard Best Warrior Competition. Olson and Friedlein will move on to compete in the Department of the Army Best Warrior Competition, scheduled to take place in October at Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia, where they will compete against Soldiers from throughout the Army to be named the Army’s Soldier and NCO of the Year. CAMP GRUBER, Okla. - Fourteen Soldiers from throughout the Army National Guard battled it out over three sweltering days at Camp Gruber, Oklahoma, July 15-18 to be named the Soldier and Noncommissioned Officer of the Year during the 2019 Army National Guard Best Warrior Competition. In the end, Spc. Hunter Olson, an infantryman with the Maryland Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment, and Army Staff Sgt. Erich Friedlein, an advanced infantry instructor with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 166th Regiment (Regional Training Institute), emerged as the Soldier and NCO of the Year, respectively. “It feels good to see that my training has made me into a better Soldier,” said Friedlein, adding the competition wasn’t to be taken lightly. "Right from the beginning, it was obvious they were the best of their regions," he said, of the other competitors. "Seeing how they were reacting on the very first graded event, I knew I had to make the least amount of mistakes possible if I really wanted to win.” Spc. Brenden Allen, a support signals specialist with the Utah Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 211th Aviation Regiment, engages targets with an M4 carbine during the competition. Competitors were tested on a variety of tactical and technical skills in a physically and mentally challenging environment. Olson had similar thoughts. "I feel really good,” he said. “All the Soldiers were incredible. I've never had competition this stiff.” According to Army Sgt. Maj. Christopher Miller, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the competition, the events were designed to be physically and mentally challenging and measure the abilities, skills and knowledge of all competing Soldiers. “It’s all the tasks on top of each and the constant stress of moving, communicating and executing that cause the most difficulty in this competition,” he said. “We wanted to find out who the best of the best was and prepare them to move on to the next level.” Friedlein treats a simulated casualty during the Army Warrior Tasks portion of the competition. For Friedlin, this sort of competition was nothing new. He was part of the team that won the 2016 Lt. Gen. David E. Grange Jr. Best Ranger Competition – the first Army Guard team to win Best Ranger. That next level is the 2019 Department of the Army Best Warrior Competition, scheduled to be held in October at Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia. There, Friedlein and Olson will compete against Soldiers from throughout the Army to be named the Army's NCO and Soldier of the Year. This sort of competition is nothing new for Friedlin, who was part of the first-place team in the 2016 Lt. Gen. David E. Grange Jr. Best Ranger Competition – the first Army Guard team to win Best Ranger. Making it to this level in the Best Warrior Competition is similar and meant lots of training, he said. For Friedlein, and all the competitors, the journey to the Army Guard competition all began at their unit. From there, they competed against Soldiers at the battalion, brigade and state levels before moving on to the regional competition. Army Staff Sgt. Nathan Bogert, assigned to the Alabama Army National Guard’s 20th Special Forces Group, plots grid coordinates on map prior to heading out on the day land navigation portion of the competition. Accuracy is key. A misplaced grid coordinate means not hitting all required points. Spc. Brenden Allen, right, a support signals specialist with the Utah Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 211th Aviation Regiment, runs alongside Olson, who was named Soldier of the Year, as they sprint it out to the finish line of the competition’s land navigation portion. The competition saw high levels of camaraderie, said Olson, adding that competitors often cheered each other on and urged each other to put forth maximum effort. The regional winners then competed in the 13-event Army Guard competition, which included land navigation, first-aid, an obstacle course, marksmanship drills and for the first time, the new Army Combat Fitness Test. For Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Houk, an electronics technician with the Missouri Army National Guard's 1107th Aviation Group, the fitness test was made more challenging by physically demanding competition events held earlier in the day. "I took it [the ACFT] at my state, and I did way better than I did just now," he said after completing it. “But we didn't have all the other [events] prior to it. It's a gut check for sure.” The land navigation portion, which began at 3 a.m. and lasted more than six hours, proved almost as challenging and left many competitors with visible scratches on their hands and faces. "I think everybody's got them, said Army Cpl. Joseph Ryan, an assistant squad leader with the New York Army National Guard's Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 169th Infantry Regiment, of the scratches. “If they are willing to dig through thorn brushes, briars and barbed wire fences just to get to a point in the woods, it shows that everybody is motivated.” The competition switched gears at the halfway point with board interviews that tested the competitors' mental prowess. Sgt. 1st Class Martin Cozens, with the New York Army Guard's Company A, 2nd Battalion, 108th Infantry Regiment, said the mental portion was just as important as the physical one. “When people think of best warrior competitions, they think that it's who can do the most push-ups or who can ruck the fastest," he said. “Your mind is probably the greatest weapon and if you can take a tactical pause from the [physical portion] and turn your mind on, it makes it an all-encompassing competition.” For many of the Soldiers, the heat would prove to be just as tough - if not tougher - than the events themselves. "Oklahoma is a brutal state in July,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jamison Yager, a military police officer with the Michigan Army National Guard's 177th Military Police Brigade. “I'd kill for just ten minutes of a Michigan winter - like the real, freeze-your-nostril kind of winter.” However, added Yager, battling the heat and humidity is all part of the competition. This year’s competition included the Army Combat Fitness Test – a first for the Army Guard competition. As part of the ACFT’s standing power throw, Army Sgt. Kurt Van De Graaff, an explosive ordnance disposal specialist with the Arizona Army National Guard’s 363rd Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company, heaves a 10-pound medicine ball for distance. “You just keep drinking water, keep putting your left boot in front of your right,” he said. But for Spc. Kenneth Klett, a Michigan Army Guard member who also competed and would sometimes pair with Yager, the hot days were welcome. “I thoroughly enjoy this," said Klett, a fire control specialist with 1st Battalion, 182nd Field Artillery Regiment. “I am not happy unless I am sweating bullets.” "That's true,” joked Yager. “Klett is crazy.” The unwavering heat lasted to the final event: a 15-mile ruck march the competitors had to complete on a day with a heat index of 110 degrees. But the camaraderie attached to the competition, said Olson, made the unforgiving sun all the more bearable. "When the heat started to ramp up, it was easy to let your mind take over and tell you how tired you are," said Olson, who charged to the ruck march finish line with Friedlein by his side. “But when you have somebody to kind of bounce off of, it's good to have company.” Friedlein agreed. While the ACFT was new, competitors also encountered traditional events, such as the obstacle course. Spc. Kenneth Klett, a fire control specialist with the Michigan Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 182nd Field Artillery Regiment, vaults a cross bar on the obstacle course’s Six Vaults obstacle while trying to complete the course in the shortest time possible. “All of us have joked around with each other,” he said. “We had the same gripes about things, we helped each other prepare for certain events. We didn’t have anybody here who was quiet and sticking to themselves or super-serious.” For Friedlein and Olson, the focus now is preparing for the all-Army Competition. "Training is a continuous process, and some days you can feel great and the very next day feel [terrible]," he said. "But as long as you stick to the process, trust that your training is going right and keep a positive attitude, you can stay on top." Olson agreed and said that while he plans to spend quality time with his wife and enjoy a hot meal, he’s already focused on the next competition. “I am going to be competing against the best in the entire Army,” he said. “What’s on my mind right now is the competition.” Simulating a gas attack, yellow smoke billows skyward as Van De Graaff pushes it out to the finish line of the competition’s 15-mile ruck march. Once competitors saw the smoke, they had to don their chemical protective mask and signal that a gas attack had occurred before continuing along the ruck march course.