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    State's Best Warriors strive for top titles

    Racing To The Finish

    Photo By Staff Sgt. Lisa Crawford | Nebraska National Guard Spc. Taylor Wroblewski runs to a first-place finish in the...... read more read more



    Story by Spc. Lisa Crawford 

    111th Public Affairs Detachment

    Sometimes the biggest challenges are internal.
    Such was definitely the case on a dark, 15-degree morning as a group of Soldiers trudged through the final remnants of a blackened night as the sounds of the scuffing of boots against a gravel road and the occasional labored breaths cracked the early morning air.
    Moving steadily forward as 40-pound rucksacks bit into their already sore back muscles while ice-cold weapons chilled already clammy hands, the Army Guard Soldiers pushed on toward an unknown finish line. As the new day sun finally began to peek over a hill just conquered, the only reassurance the Soldiers received as that miles already trekked would not have to be repeated, although many more miles and many more challenges still awaited in the hours ahead.
    To call the 2017 Nebraska National Guard Best Warrior contest grueling would be an understatement, as the three-day event was designed to test the physical and mental toughness of 16 specially-selected Soldiers from across Nebraska. With minimal rest and under constant stress, each competitor battled through various Army Warrior Tasks and physical obstacles with one goal in mind: to be selected as the top Soldier or Noncommissioned Officer in the state of Nebraska.
    Sgt. Samantha Garcia, a supply specialist with Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 110th Multifunctional Medical Battalion, flashed her best smile as she hit what would be the half-way point of the ruck march portion of the competition. By the end of that event, however, the blisters that had emerged on her feet showed the real pain she’d endured.
    “That ruck march was no joke, even though we had prepped for it,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jenna Schneider, Garcia’s competition sponsor. “It can get a little discouraging, especially in the dark. It’s mile after mile, but we came around that corner and we saw the ending, and she got encouraged. I was very impressed with as fatigued as she probably was, because I know, I’ve been there. It’s tiring.”
    Since 2008, the Nebraska Army National Guard’s Best Warrior Competition has been the defining moment of the year for not only the winners, but for every Soldier who chooses to compete. According to the competition organizers, the contest is designed to test the Soldiers in multiple ways, both physically and mentally, through a series of events based upon the various skills that Soldiers are expected to have.
    “Seeing the Soldiers on day zero and then seeing their faces right now…wow,” said Master Sgt. John Ruden, a competition Trail Boss, before the final awards ceremony. “You can definitely see, like yesterday, when they were going through the ruck march portion, they were just drained, but currently now you see smiles, you see relief, you see an end in sight and almost like a sense of accomplishment regardless of how they ranked.”
    A full-time student, Garcia – one of just a handful of female Soldiers to have ever attempted to compete at the Nebraska Best Warrior Competition – said she wanted to attempt – and complete – the Best Warrior contest as a way to keep pushing herself to her limits while also gaining the experience she needs to encourage other female Soldiers to do the same.
    “Being able to better myself as both as a Soldier and a leader as well makes both myself stronger, my unit stronger and the Nebraska National guard stronger too,” Garcia said.
    Like Garcia,
    Schneider – who served as Garcia’s mentor during the competition – is one of the few female Nebraska Soldiers to have ever competed in the Best Warrior contest. She said Garcia really gave it her all during the ruck march and did well the remainder of the competition.
    “I was really encouraged this year to see there were two competitors,” Schneider said. “I’m proud of them. I always try to encourage females to compete because I have said, ‘If I can do it, anyone can do it.’ It just takes work.”
    Like Garcia, Sgt. Connor Alberts of the 72nd Civil Support Team found his motivation in an untraditional way. A 2016 Best Warrior competitor, Alberts said he was unhappy with how he finished last year’s contest. So, 2017 was about redemption.
    “After the last competition, you know, you always have that feeling that you let those who helped you down – that you let your leadership down – and so I kind of had some regret after that,” Alberts said.
    As a full-time Soldier with the Nebraska National Guard, Alberts trained the entire year with the goal of returning to the competition and placing in the top three. While this year’s competition was structured differently from the previous year, he was grateful his leadership encouraged him to compete again.
    “I’m glad I was able to come out, compete at the highest standard that I’ve set for myself and make my leadership proud of me, make my family proud of me and make myself proud,” Alberts said.
    While Alberts had nearly a year to prepare for this competition, not all were as fortunate. Spc. Hunter Smith, Troop B, 1-134th Cavalry, found out he would be competing for Best Warrior just a week prior to the start of the competition.
    Always looking for the positive in every opportunity, Smith said he considered it a gift and reported to Greenlief Training Site for the competition on his 23rd birthday.
    “I guess this is just the Army’s way of giving me a birthday present, so you can’t turn it down,” Smith said.
    With no preparation time, Smith said he just went out and did his best to push through all the challenges – even the ones he wouldn’t have been able to plan, like when his compass broke during the daytime portion of land navigation and he had to rely on alternative methods, like terrain association.
    Smith said that the competition really pushed him to the limits in multiple ways.
    “Mentally, I have to say the (Command Sergeant Major) Board (was the most difficult). I’ve never been in front of a board before,” Smith said. “Physically, the ruck march definitely pushed me to my limits.”
    Another junior enlisted Soldier, Spc. Ryan Marshall from the 623rd Engineering Company said the combination of physical and mental tasks was the greatest challenge to overcome overall. For example, he said, on the second day of the competition, the competitors moved directly from the ruck march to the obstacle course before completing a number of different Army Warrior Tasks.
    “That was probably the most difficult time for me because I was exhausted physically, and then we had to immediately go to mental tasks… it’s just a whole different type of energy that’s required and you weren’t sure in what order the AWTs were going to come in,” he said.
    “So, the surprise factor was definitely a stressor all of its own,” Marshall added.
    With barely a year and a half of military experience under his belt, Marshall said he saw the Best Warrior competition as the ultimate culmination event to practice being a Soldier.
    “If I want to make the most of a military career and learn the most that I can; it’s a great opportunity to work with those that have a lot of experience,” Marshall said. “As a very green Soldier, I wanted to jump right in and learn a lot of different drills and gain some experience from those that have been in the military a lot longer than me.”
    Marshall said he volunteered for the Best Warrior Competition to fulfill his curiosity and keep his Soldier skills sharp. He said the Best Warrior Competition helps a person gain respect for a lot of different military occupational specialties. “I’ve learned a ton, and that’s exactly what I came here to do,” he said.
    According to the state’s senior enlisted Soldier, the competition at this year’s Best Warrior contest was significant.
    “We had a good robust competition, with nine enlisted and seven NCOs,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Marty Baker, state command sergeant major, during the March 4 awards ceremony at the conclusion of the competition. “That represents just a percentage of the Nebraska National Guard. You know you guys were here, and no one else was, and I’m proud of you. Not everyone’s going to be able to win. We have one winner in each category, but in my eyes you’re all winners.”
    For the Noncommissioned Officer category, Alberts’ training and persistence paid off when he earned the NCO of the Year title. Staff Sgt. Christopher Moulton placed second and Sgt. Stephan Laboy earned third.
    “All my success falls back on my leadership,” Alberts said. “Without good leadership I wouldn’t be the Soldier I am right now.”
    In the junior enlisted category, must to his surprise, Smith took home the Soldier of the Year title, with Marshall as runner-up and Spc. Andrew Thomas in third.
    “It’s a surprise, but it feels pretty good,” Smith said. “Now I need to actually train for the regionals.”
    Both Alberts and Smith will compete at the regional Best Warrior Competition in late May. Last year, Nebraska’s Soldier of the Year, Sgt. Calvin Koziol, went on to win the regional competition and ultimately the National Best Warrior title as well, leaving this years’ winners big shoes to fill.
    “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel some pressure just because he was able to make it nationals, take that title and bring it back for Nebraska,” Alberts said. “All I can do is prepare myself, not concentrate on something that has been done in the past, but look to bring something to Nebraska in the future.”
    “The bar has been set,” Baker said, “but I have no doubt that team Nebraska is going to compete well. The tougher team sets the rule, and team Nebraska has set the rules. We’re here and everybody’s going to be chasing us.”



    Date Taken: 03.05.2017
    Date Posted: 04.04.2017 11:43
    Story ID: 229105
    Location: HASTINGS, NE, US 

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