POTCHEFSTROOM, South Africa – Ten New York National Guard Soldiers and Airmen endured five intense days of shooting, negotiating land and water obstacles, grenade-throwing and a four-mile combat run during the South African Defence Force Military Skills Competition Oct. 21-26.
The competition, held annually since 2006, is open to members of reserve components from other nations as well as South African active duty military members and reservists.
Along with the New York National Guard contingent, teams came from the United Kingdom, the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Federal Republic of Germany.
There were also all-male and all-female teams from the Army’s 108th Military Police Company at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
By midweek, the Guard Soldiers and Airmen who made up half the American team were finding their stride and placing points on the board, with notable successes on the pistol and rifle ranges.
The New York National Guard, which has a state partnership program relationship with South Africa, last took part in the competition in 2003.
The New York National Guard team members got word about the competition just two months out and had no time to train, according to Master Sgt. Cole Shebat, the Air Guard team coach.
By comparison, the British and German teams got a year to get ready for the event.
The Americans, though, thought they were still holding their own.
“We all had the right mindset coming into this competition. We are here to be consistent, focused and score,” said Army Guard Sgt. 1st Class Martin Cozens.
With temperatures hitting 95 degrees during the day, the New York Guard Soldiers and Airmen said they stressed hydration and maintaining energy.
Some of the obstacles were especially challenging, particularly the water obstacles.
The Americans prepared for that with their training, said Air Guard Tech Sgt. Justin Murphy.
“We took the opportunity before coming here to improve our breathing techniques and build our upper body strength – both chest and shoulders – to really develop an organized approach to competing during the obstacle course,” Murphy said.
When it was all over, the Germans won the competition among the foreign teams. But the Americans said it was all worthwhile.
The New Yorkers wanted to win, but the competition was about more than just scoring points, Shebat said. The Soldiers and Airmen “had a blast,” Shebat said.
The competition was a great opportunity to continue building the State Partnership the New York National Guard and South African National Defence Force have had for 16 years, the New Yorkers said.
The South Africans treated their visitors to a “braai,” which is the South African version of a barbecue with lots of meats, homebrewed beer and a performance by traditional Tswana dancers.
“Being at the cultural event was a really cool experience and added value of traveling here to South Africa,” said Army Guard Sgt. 1st Class Brendon Mavra.
“These experiences introduce you to the culture and gives you a memory for life,” added New York Army National Guard Sgt. Jonathan Patton.
“I can tell you, being in this competition and grudging out the different events and breaking bread with others at the cultural event is what we as Soldiers want. It’s a different element, and I personally think this is the best opportunity for retention,” Mavra added.
Command Sgt. Major Marc Maynard, the coach for the New York team, said he was looking forward to coming back.
“Competition is an excellent training tool that naturally encourages participants to excel at their best. The South Africans have done an excellent job hosting this event, which trains and tests a broad spectrum of basic military skills,” he said.
“We look forward to returning and continuing to build our partnership, he added.