TULLAHOMA, Tenn. – Right before a rope climb, Sgt. Tyler Holloway, a fire support specialist with the Wyoming Army National Guard’s 115th Field Artillery Brigade, decided to add some levity to what otherwise might have been a nerve-racking situation at the 2022 Army National Guard Best Warrior Competition.
“If my hands get tired, I can always use my teeth,” he jokingly told other competitors.
Earlier in the week, Holloway asked another Soldier who had just completed a survival swim event a comical and rhetorical question.
“What are you? A fish?”
It’s humor, he later said, that helped him and 13 other Soldiers withstand the hardships during the grueling, five-day competition in the humidity and heat of central and west Tennessee July 25-29.
“I always try to laugh through the pain, and if I can joke around and make someone else smile and take his mind off the pain, then I know I’m making it easier for him and myself,” said Holloway, adding that a positive mindset helps him “keep truckin’.”
Holloway won the top honor in the Noncommissioned Officer of the Year category, while Sgt. Spencer Fayles, a combat medic with the Utah Army National Guard’s 144th Area Support Medical Company, won in the Soldier category.
“It feels great,” Fayles said. “I definitely put a lot of time and effort into training for this – close to nine months – from winning unit, state, regional competitions, and now this.”
But Fayles, who was recently promoted to sergeant but entered the lower-level competitions with the specialist rank, said the glory also goes to the noncommissioned officers who helped him along the way.
“In getting me ready for this, it was all about one event at a time, one task at a time and remaining focused,” he said. “They were so encouraging, and it feels great to know that I represent them well.”
Holloway said he was still in shock that he won.
“This was a goal of mine to compete at this level and win it, and this is still unreal,” he said. “The whole event just seemed like one long day.”
The competition ran the gamut of testing Soldiers’ individual and teamwork abilities in high-intensity environments. There were more than 30 graded events, including fitness tests, marksmanship drills, a high-valued target extraction, combat casualty care, water survival and a ruck march.
“These events identify the most mentally adaptive and agile of Soldiers who can physically endure austere environments and chaotic situations,” said Army Master Sgt. Dustin Rottero, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the competition and its architect.
The competition has a larger purpose, too.
Command Sgt. Maj. James D. Crockett, the state command sergeant major for the Tennessee Army National Guard, said the 14 competitors embody the warrior spirit needed to fight and win wars while motivating others.
The competition, he said, “demonstrates across the [Joint] Force that we can master those Army warrior task fundamentals” while “setting a goal for the rest of the Soldiers to get to this level.”
Operating at that high level during the competition came with expected — and unexpected — challenges.
During the water survival portion, Army Sgt. Jefferson Gwynn, a combat engineer with the West Virginia Army National Guard’s 19th Engineer Company, said swimming in a camouflaged uniform was significantly more difficult than in swim trunks.
“It almost feels like I have bricks attached to me,” he joked. “Swimming without the uniform is 10 times easier.”
But Gwynn remained committed to going the distance.
“There is nothing about these events that have been easy, and swimming is one of my weaknesses, and it’s definitely taking a toll on my body,” he said. “But we have more events left and I am ready to tackle them.”
Spc. Austin Manville, an infantryman with the New York Army National Guard’s C Troop, 1st Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment, chalks up his endurance to what he described as a “10-second memory,” which means forgetting mistakes and moving forward without hesitation.
“There really isn’t any time to collect yourself – it’s all on the fly,” he said, speaking of the stacked events of the competition.
One event turned out to be an emotional one.
The Valor Run, a series of tasks where the competitors ran to six stations covering three miles, involved completing tasks based on the actions of six Medal of Honor recipients. From hand-to-hand combat, operating in a gas chamber to performing a “Soldier’s Carry” and a “Drag and Carry,” the event covered a variety of warrior tasks.
Spc. Daniel Reading, an infantryman with the Maryland Army National Guard’s D Company, 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment, said completing the run put in perspective the sacrifices of the MOH recipients and being a Citizen-Soldier.
“Everything I did [in the competition] is nothing compared to what they did,” he reflected. “I’d do it again – for them – if I needed to.”
Sgt. Zachary Kleinfelder, an infantryman with the Tennessee Army National Guard’s 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, said the rigorous event was a fitting tribute.
“What was great about the Valor Run is the reading of the citations before the event and learning about the Medal of Honor recipients, and being able to praise them during the event,” he said.
The run was the toughest undertaking in the competition, Kleinfelder added, because of “not knowing what each event was going to be or how long the run was. Along with the sun coming up, I thought I was melting.”
Such harsh conditions meant Army Staff Sgt. Bryan Kummer, a construction engineering supervisor with the Nebraska Army National Guard’s 209th Regional Training Institute, had to maintain a critical weapon: his body.
“Especially when I went straight from the obstacle course, where you have to crawl, getting all that sand down your uniform and tearing up your skin, and then transition to a run,” he said. “That was really hard, and you can really mess up your body if you don’t clean yourself up as much as possible.”
For Spc. Nathaniel Miska, a carpentry and masonry specialist with the Minnesota Army National Guard’s 850th Engineer Construction Company, there was little room for mistakes as the competition drew to a close.
“My emotions are at their peak,” he said. “At this point, it’s all or nothing, and we have no more opportunities to ease up on the gas pedal.”
In the last event, competitors completed a 16-mile ruck march carrying the flags of the states they represented as they crossed the finish line.
“I love the state of Texas and representing it, and carrying that flag high was just an immense source of pride,” said Spc. Nickalus Johnson, a combat engineer with the 836th Sapper Company, 111th Engineer Battalion, 176th Engineer Brigade.
In the end, not even the Soldiers’ fiercely competitive spirit could diminish the camaraderie they felt for each other.
“During the middle of an event, you look left and right, and you see a bunch of guys that you’ve been laughing with, and then you’re like, ‘Hey, I need to finish before you,’” said Spc. Grayson Vaughn, a military policeman with the Tennessee Army National Guard’s 252nd Military Police Company, 117th Military Police Battalion, 194th Engineer Brigade. “But at the end of the day, these are my brothers – wearing the same uniform and in the same fight.”
Fayles and Holloway will advance to the Department of the Army Best Warrior Competition later this year.
In the meantime, Fayles’ immediate plans are a far cry from Army warrior tasks.
“I look forward to getting back home to my fiancé, relaxing a little bit, eating a lot of food and definitely sleeping more than two hours a night,” he said. “And then it’s back to training.”
Holloway’s plans involve more marksmanship and preparing for the next Army competition.
“Back home, I have my own [rifle] set up that I really enjoy shooting and practicing with – but there isn’t much time for decompressing,” he said, adding that after his leisurely activity, he will get “right back to the grind and keep truckin’.”