CAMP ROBINSON, Ark. - The sounds of a helicopter circling in to land, a boot kicking in a door, a smoke grenade "popping," explosions shattering the air and bullets hitting their target could be heard all around - but this isn't a combat zone, it's a competition.
For three stressful days that started on Monday, July 14, under exhausting conditions here, 14 Soldiers - seven noncommissioned officers and seven junior enlisted Soldiers - came together for the Army National Guard's Best Warrior Competition to see who among them would stand out above the rest.
"They are five-time winners already (at their) company, battalion, brigade, state and region," said Command Sgt. Maj. Brunk Conley, command sergeant major of the Army National Guard. "They have been through the ringer ... they demonstrate perseverance; they demonstrate competence, character and commitment ... and it's just amazing to watch."
For some of the competitors, training for each level was paramount in their advancing to the next level.
"We're always training up or at home studying before these competitions," said Army Sgt. Nathan Ross, a combat engineer with the Missouri Army National Guard's 1135th Engineer Company. "A huge part of being successful here is the amount of time you sacrifice when you are not in uniform, and that's probably what also separates us here from the guys we saw in previous competitions."
But with sacrifice comes reward for Ross.
"For me, a competition like this can introduce you to more training opportunities than any other environment can, like detonating a live claymore - I've never detonated a live claymore and never would have if I hadn't come here," he said after coming off the ordnance range.
"This is training that I can carry on and take back to my unit," Ross said.
Detonating M18A1 claymore directional anti-personnel mines, the competition's mystery event, was one of several events competitors had to both physically and mentally navigate. Others included a stress shoot, an Army Physical Fitness Test plus an additional three-mile run, weapons qualification on the M4A1 carbine, a 12-mile road march, and a sergeants-major board where competitors were tested on their Soldier and Army knowledge.
According to Spc. Ryan Montgomery, an infantryman with the Arkansas Army National Guard's 39th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, the events remained relatively the same for each level of competition.
"The competition, for the most part, is the same," Montgomery said. "There is always a little tweak here and there, but the events are mostly the same, it's just that it gets fiercer and fiercer ... and the intensity increases."
"A small mistake at this level could have just as much of an impact as a large mistake at the lower levels," he said. "But this competition is the way to find the best of the best."
The names of the Army National Guard finalists came during an awards ceremony July 17, at the National Guard's Professional Education Center, the host of this year's competition located at Camp Robinson, Arkansas. Montgomery and Sgt. 1st Class Scott Stimpson, a recruiter with the Oregon National Guard's Recruiting and Retention Battalion, were recognized as top junior enlisted Soldier and noncommissioned officer. They cited hard work and preparation as key factors in this year's competition.
Stimpson focused preparing for this competition in the two months before. "I have a full time job, so there was a lot of waking up early (to work out) and then studying as soon as I got home."
For Montgomery, winning meant all of the hard work paid off.
"I was so happy ... the tension was finally over and we knew that all of the hard work had paid off and it was worth it in the end," he said.
"This competition was rough," he continued, "and it showed me where my limitations were and it showed me where my strengths were and it let me know exactly what I need to work on ... and that I need to continue improving, to always continue improving."
The competition goes much further than pushing yourself, said Conley.
"It's about how you share what you've learned in the competition with your team members when you get back," he said. "It's great training! You can't tell me that these 14 young (men) are not going to go back (to their units) and be better team members, team leaders, squad leaders, section leaders and future platoon sergeants and first sergeants."
Montgomery has some advice for future competitors.
"Start training early and don't ever give up," he said. "It's not worth throwing in the towel early and saying ‘I don't want to do this anymore,' because at the end of the day it might be three days of hell, but it's worth it."