CAMP NAVAJO, Ariz. –
By late morning of the second day of the 2021 Army National Guard Best Warrior Competition, Spc. Addison Smith, assigned to the Texas Army National Guard’s 1st Squadron, 112th Cavalry Regiment, admitted he was a little worn down.
After all, he just completed a 15-mile land navigation course that started at roughly 3:00 a.m., preceded by a number of physically demanding events the day before.
But the competition’s next event – firing the M320 Grenade Launcher Module – was sure to give the cavalry scout a bolt of energy.
“Lob it and chalk it,” Smith said, referring to the chalk training rounds competitors were firing.
After the impact of his first practice round, he knew what he had to do.
“Seeing that first splash of where the round impacts the ground and adjusting fire based off of that splash, that’s where the skill comes in,” he said, adding the short kick of recoil from firing the weapon was “very satisfying.”
Soldier skills would be just one thing 13 Soldiers, including Smith, showcased as they battled it out at Camp Navajo last week, hoping to be named the Army National Guard’s Soldier and Noncommissioned Officer of the Year.
When the grueling three-day competition was over, Army Sgt. William Lukens, a tactical power generator mechanic with the Tennessee Army National Guard’s 208th Area Support Medical Company, and a staff sergeant with the 19th Special Forces Group, Utah Army National Guard, emerged as the Soldier and NCO of the Year, respectively.
“A lot of preparation went into this, and it feels awesome,” said the staff sergeant, adding he never had the luxury of letting down his guard during the competition, especially during the 16-mile ruck-march event.
“I remember specifically during the ruck, I’d run a little bit, turn around, and [the other competitors] were right behind me. I just had to keep pushing,” he said. “It was tough. These guys definitely put up a good fight.”
Lukens had similar thoughts on winning top honors.
“It feels amazing,” he said, “and I am really excited to carry out what I learned here back to my unit and sharpen the skills of other Soldiers.”
In addition to obstacle courses and ruck marches, the competition included first aid, urban warfare tactics, water survival, weapons assembly and marksmanship.
For Spc. Aiden Carroll, with the Wyoming Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Company, the range events, where competitors engaged targets with a variety of weapons, proved to be the most challenging.
“As an engineer, I don’t get to shoot much other than an M4,” he said, referring to the M4 carbine, the standard individual weapon for many Soldiers.
Carroll said while training for the weapons portion of the competition, he solicited help from others in his unit.
They stressed to him that regardless of the weapon system, he needed to focus on the fundamentals of marksmanship, he said.
“You’ve got to just slow down and work on the fundamentals like breathing, trigger squeeze and sight picture,” Carroll said. “If you ignore one of them, you might as well throw them all out the window.”
With an elevation of 7,000 feet, Camp Navajo itself presented its own challenges to the competitors.
“The elevation here is not my friend,” said Army Cpl. Dakoatah M. Miller, an infantryman with the New York Army National Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 108th Infantry Regiment.
He refused, however, to let the high altitude set him back as he went from event to event.
“My leadership has a constant saying that whatever happened, happened. Whatever is after this, is after this. But right now, it’s just about getting to the next target. Anything else, just forget about it,” he said.
The high altitude and cool temperatures of Camp Navajo weren’t the only settings for the competition.
After traveling there in UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, competitors spent most of the first day enduring triple-digit temperatures on the barren, desert terrain of Florence Military Reservation, Arizona.
It’s a completely different kind of heat than I am normally used to,” said Staff Sgt. Stephen Southerlin II, an infantryman with the Texas Army National Guard’s 1st Squadron, 124th Cavalry Regiment. “Texas is hot, but Florence takes the cake with everything.”
Regardless of the terrain, precision was needed with many events, including first aid, radio operations and battlefield trauma casualty care.
“They were extremely technical,” said Spc. Adam Barlow, a fire control specialist with the Utah Army National Guard’s Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 65th Field Artillery Brigade, of the event graders. “If you mess up the smallest detail you get zero points for an event.”
But the drive to see the competition through never waivered for him or his fellow competitors, he said.
“We all just plugged along, did what we could, scored points when we could, and had a good laugh about it at the end of the day,” Barlow said.
The competitors had minimal knowledge of the events they would encounter, something Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Corcoran said he preferred.
“I don’t want to just sit there and think about whether I am proficient with the upcoming tasks or not,” said Corcoran, a recruiting and retention noncommissioned officer with the Rhode Island Army National Guard’s Recruiting and Retention Battalion. “I just want to roll up, get tested and move on to the next event.”
Sgt. Maj. Scott Flint, command sergeant major of the Arizona Army National Guard, said the competition’s events were all tailored around the Army National Guard’s primary mission – the warfight.
“One of the main reasons why we get to wear this uniform and why we are part of the National Guard is to fight and win our nation’s wars,” he said. “These competitions bring us back to why we’re really here.”
For some, making new friends would be another benefit of the competition.
“By far, my favorite part was building camaraderie and meeting Soldiers from other states,” said Lukens, the winner in the Soldier category. “We got to work with each other, challenge each other, and I am excited to see what all of us do with our careers.”
Lukens and the staff sergeant will move on to compete in the Department of the Army Best Warrior Competition, scheduled to take place later in the year, where they will compete against Soldiers from throughout the Army to be named the Army’s Soldier and NCO of the Year.