News: California’s Best Warrior Competition Concludes
Story by Spc. James Wilton
CAMP SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. – A warfighter is gauged by his performance under the physical and mental pressures faced in battle.
There are many ways for soldiers to display their mettle, whether through marksmanship events, physical fitness tests or even appearance boards. Take those tests, add a few more and mix in the stress of long days, unit pride and fierce competition between soldiers — that describes the Best Warrior Competition.
The California Army National Guard’s 223rd Regiment Regional Training Institute at Camp San Luis Obispo and Camp Roberts’ Task Force Warrior joined forces to put together the annual event conducted at Camp SLO the week of Sept. 9.
“The Best Warrior competition simulates the stresses of combat, [through] the long hours of preparation and the long hours of training, as well as pushing them both physically and mentally through all the events,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Harold London, the top enlisted soldier for the California National Guard. “When they walk away from this it [should feel] like they came right out of combat.”
The competition means more than just bragging rights to the soldiers. These warriors are given the chance to prove themselves on a level playing field — a true test of what it means to be a ‘Best Warrior.’
It’s a training tool that showcases a soldier’s full potential, said Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Winch, an Atascadero, Calif., native.
“If you have a competitor that does well you can take that back to the unit to motivate other soldiers to keep on [training in] their common basic soldier skills and even to push themselves farther to what they might not think they’re capable of,” said Winch, an instructor at the 223rd Regional Training Site-Maintenance. “That’s our job as leaders, to identify the potential that soldiers have and push them to the next level.”
Fifteen soldiers competed this year for the title of Soldier of the Year, with six in the ranks of private first class to specialist. Nine in the ranks of sergeant through sergeant first class competed for Non Commissioned Officer of the Year.
Day One – Monday
The competitors and sponsors met at Camp SLO to size-up their competition and receive words of encouragement from the state’s senior leaders. The day included briefs about the events ahead along with an equipment inspection to make sure the warriors were ready for what they were about to face. Many of the competitors looked forward to the challenge that lay ahead.
“I look forward to the unpredictability of the Mystery event and learning how to adapt,” said Pfc. Ian Peacock, an infantryman with 1st Battalion, 184th Infantry Regiment, 79h Infantry Brigade Combat Team. “I enjoy the physical challenge but I also feel that being tested on my military knowledge helps me to put perspective on what I need to work on and where I stand.”
This day marked the official beginning of the BWC but many of the competitors had been preparing for the competition long before it started.
“I stay physically fit in order to be ready for whatever is thrown at me. It’s more than just for a competition like this, it’s about being ready for anything that might come along in your life,” said Spc. Ryan Sealey, a combat medic with the 297th Area Support Medical Company, 115th Regional Support Group.
“I spent a lot of time doing some heavy [road] marches and I just found out that the load here is lighter, so I am hoping that that will help me out,” Winch said, a father of four. “I also got to go to a Level 2 Combatives course which was good. My command really hooked me up by, starting in July, taking me off the podium and allowing me to train.”
Day Two – Tuesday
The soldiers woke up bright and early to take an Army Physical Fitness Test. The rest of the day included a sergeant major-hosted appearance board, a media engagement event and a written test. While the written test rated the soldiers’ Army knowledge, the board and the media engagement event tested their bearing and ability to articulate clearly in front of a scrutinizing audience. Every soldier represents the Army and California Guard to the public, making tests like this a key part of BWC.
Many of the junior soldiers hadn’t experienced ordeals like these before, and turned to their sponsors for guidance.
Sponsors act as a support team for their potential ‘Best Warrior,’ serving as both mentors and guides through the rigors of the competition. Though they can’t assist during the event, the time leading up to the competition and just prior to the event is fair game. They feel it is their duty as leaders to be there for their soldiers. Some even have personnel experience in similar competitions, which is a big help.
“When I found out that he was going to be a competitor, I immediately volunteered to be his sponsor,” Sgt. 1st Class Seann Lindstrom, a combat medic with the 297th and Sealey’s sponsor. “I thought it was important as his first line supervisor to be there when he was competing and to provide him with whatever guidance I had, especially since I had done the top medic competition.”
The sponsors are involved in the preparation and selection process for the competition. Choosing the best representative for their unit is based on many factors, not just physical prowess.
“PT [was] one of the things that he took to the next level,” said Sgt. 1st Class Garrick Whitley of the 95th Civil Support Team when speaking about Sgt. Alex Zonio. “Overall preparation for the mental toughness [of the competition] was one of the things that we prepared [for], but it’s also something that we made sure he already had, before coming to the competition, which allowed him to be the selected soldier.”
Day Three – Wednesday
The day kicked off with a 5.89-mile road march, with the distance of the event not disclosed to competitors until they crossed the finish line. This was no ordinary road march. During the march the competitors were required to stop and fire the M4 carbine and M9 Beretta pistol at the qualification ranges, to include completing the Fight To Your Rifle course.
The FTYR course included various rifle and pistol targets set in boxes along a range that the soldiers had to run through, which included a 50-meter sprint to the final set of rifle targets. This was all before lunch, but these warriors didn’t come unprepared.
“I feel like my training has paid off, and that hard work really does pay off,” said Winch, 43, after the Fight to your Rifle event. “I want to keep fighting and I want to stay competitive and represent the old guys and teach these young guys what it should be like when they get to my age.”
The next challenge for the competitors was the Military Operations on Urban Terrain (MOUT) event where competitors demonstrated various combat skills needed during combat, such as tossing grenades and firing grenade launchers. The competitors also fired rubber bullets at various targets and had to save a simulated casualty. The final hurdle of the day was an obstacle course. The course included a variety of tasks, including wall jumps, dragging a weighted bag under barbed wire, a rope climb and pulling a 175-pound dummy on a litter.
The troops were exhausted after completing all of the day’s events and had little time for rest, but they pushed through to the end.
“I am in pain, my legs are tired and I am tired,” said Spc. Giovanny Guzman, a combat engineer with the 235th Engineer Company, 49th Military Police Brigade, at the end of day three. "Today and tomorrow are meant to be physically [challenging]. But I came with a game plan, to achieve every goal. If I win or if I don’t, I am still taking something away for this competition.”
Day Four – Thursday
The longest day of the competition began at 5 a.m. with a 3.5-mile run. Like the earlier road march, the distance would be unknown until they finished the route. The run ended at the gas chamber where the competitors were then subjected to an equipment confidence test, where they had to demonstrate proficiency and confidence with their protective masks.
Following the confidence test, they were required to provide a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear spot report — a skill which would be crucial in a real-life combat situation should they be subjected to a chemical attack.
The competition then moved to the rolling hills of Camp SLO where the challengers completed a land navigation course, followed by the Mystery event, a challenge kept from the competitors to test how they react to the unknown. So close to the end of the competition at that point, they braced themselves for the unknown.
The sounds of simulated gunfire and explosions rang out from the training area. They began to speculate about what they were about to face.
“It sounds like we are going to be under fire, so I think the event is a react to fire and assess a casualty under fire sort of event,” said Sgt. 1st Class Francisco Serrato, a supply sergeant with the 1106th Theatre Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group.
After starting out in a simulated Humvee rollover, the competitors were subjected to a mock combined attack, resulting in a casualty. Each troop was handed a paintball gun and required to rescue a simulated casualty while engaging various targets with paintballs. After evacuating the casualty to safety, the competitor had to assess and treat their injuries and call for a medical evacuation using proper radio procedures.
“My strongest point was I was ready for anything that they were going to throw at me,” said Spc. Roman Orlov, a human intelligence collector from the 223rd Military Intelligence Battalion, 100th Troop Command. “Especially when it comes to first aid in a combat environment, as I had just recently deployed and we trained on it heavily.”
The next challenge the competitors faced was to disassemble and reassemble an M-2 machine gun (aka .50 caliber Browning machine gun) and an M-249 light machine gun. For many soldiers the last time they had seen a .50-cal was at basic training. But they tried their best and some even took it as a learning experience.
"You learn something new every day," said Spc. Cameron Sumaya, an automated logistical specialist with the 1106th Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group. "I was unfamiliar with that weapon system but now I am and I can take that [knowledge] back to the other soldiers in my unit."
After a short break to refit their gear and clean weapons, the group met back at the land navigation course after dark for the night land navigation course.
Day Five – Friday
The last day of the competition was reserved for the Army Combatives event. The Army Combatives program prepares soldiers for hand-to-hand combat. This is a crucial skill on the battlefield, as the soldier may run out of ammo, suffer a weapon’s malfunction, or may have to restrain a person using non-lethal force.
The soldiers met in the Fight House on Camp SLO to see who would be the “master of the mat.” This event holds a special place in many competitors’ hearts.
“My greatest accomplishment [during the BWC] is competing in the combatives competition,” said Sumaya. “I have played around with [combatives] but I have never gone full-fledged like this. It was difficult but it was worth it, it was worth the challenge.”
The end of the combatives challenge brought this year’s Best Warrior Competition to a close. The competitors packed up and headed home with a feeling of accomplishment and one question on their mind: Who won?
And your Best Warrior is…
Winners of the Best Warrior Competition, along with their equivalents from the Air Guard’s and State Military Reserve’s respective competitions will be announced at a banquet in the coming months.