MARYSVILLE, Wash. – Winter sunrises come late in the Pacific Northwest, but that didn’t keep the soldiers of the 364th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, a U.S. Army Reserve unit headquartered here, from holding their Best Warrior Competition on Feb. 22.
They just started it in the dark.
With temperatures in the high 20s, and snow in the forecast, three soldiers – two sergeants and a private first class - selected to represent the 364th’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company gathered at 4:45 a.m. on a Saturday morning to see who would represent HHC at the command-wide BWC, to be held in March at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
The BWC has four components: the Army Physical Fitness Test, a road march – with loaded rucksack – and a personal appearance before a board of senior noncommissioned officers who quiz the challengers on appearance, drill and ceremony, and military knowledge, and a mystery event. The fourth component in the Feb. 22 matchup was weapons qualification, performed on the Engagement Skills Trainer 2000, a laser-based training system that duplicates the conditions of an outdoor firing range.
The competition began with a weigh-in, to ensure the soldiers met the height and weight requirements of Army Regulation 600-9. If they didn’t, they would have been dropped from the contest. No questions, no appeals.
They all made weight.
With the competitors clear to go, they took on the three-event APFT: pushups, sit-ups, and two-mile run. The test is normally taken in the Army’s physical fitness uniform, but for the BWC, 364th rules said soldiers needed to wear their camouflage Army Combat Uniform.
After performing pushups and sit-ups in the gym of the Marysville Armed Forces Reserve Center, contestants and graders moved outside, where it was still dark, for the two-mile run. All three passed, and in the ten minutes before the start of the road march, switched from running shoes to combat boots.
Each contestant had a sponsor, whose job it was to assist, mentor and motivate them through the Best Warrior process; they’d also accompany them on the road march.
Master Sgt. Jude Albert, a support operations NCO with the 364th ESC, was the noncommissioned officer in charge of this year’s BWC. He said the road march portion of the competition was the toughest event.
“It’s eight miles, with a rucksack that weighs at least 35 pounds,” Albert said. “They have to finish within two hours, and the soldier with the best time wins the event.”
The sun still hadn’t risen when the scorer shouted, “Go!” and the contestants pushed off on the first leg of the march. Bodies leaned forward, backs straining with the weight of the packs.
Pfc. Cheyenne Johnson, an information technology specialist with the 364th ESC’s G-6 section, put her best foot forward during the march. The just-over-five-feet tall Johnson was hefting a pack that weighed more than 36 pounds.
With seven laps of the route left, Johnson said she was tired, but would keep pushing until the end.
“I’ve definitely seen better days,” she said with a smile.
Staff Sgt. David Hollingshead, another member of the G-6 section and Johnson’s sponsor, marched right alongside Johnson for the duration of the march, carrying his own pack. He had a slightly different view of the event.
“Just a walk in the park!” he said.
About halfway through the road march, the snow that had threatened all morning began to fall. Now, in addition to the cold February weather, the BWC contestants would have to worry about a slick road surface and wet clothes.
Despite the snow, the 364th soldiers kept going, pushing out their strides to try to beat each other to the finish.
Sgt. Lance Clifford, an intelligence analyst with the 364th’s G-2 section, crossed the line first, with a time of 1:31.05, almost a half-hour shy of the two-hour limit.
Clifford, who competed at the Army Reserve level at last year’s BWC at Fort McCoy, Wis., said he was “tired” after the road march.
“I was reaching pretty hard,” he said. “It was fun, though.”
Sgt. Bonerje Carranza, an ammunition specialist with the 364th ESC’s support operations section, was a fraction of a second behind Clifford, posting a time of 1:31.50.
“It was amazing,” Carranza said. “I kept running. I knew I couldn’t quit, couldn’t accept defeat. I just kept pushing.”
After the road march, contestants went right into weapons qualification on the EST 2000.
They weren’t told of the task beforehand; BWC organizers planned it that way, to add some additional stress on the soldiers to see how they’d react.
As it turned out, they reacted well.
After weapons qualification, the competitors hustled to change into their Army Service Uniform for what was probably the most grueling part of the contest: appearing before a board of senior NCOs who would pepper them with questions, have them perform drill and ceremony, and test them on general military knowledge.
As the three contestants waited in the hall outside the room, their sponsors ran through different scenarios.
“What’s the maximum effective range of the M-16A2?”
“Recite the Soldiers’ Creed.”
“What’s the third general order?”
As each contestant entered the room, they were required to report to Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Brashears, the 364th ESC’s command sergeant major. After reporting, the board NCOs inspected each contestant’s uniform, making sure brass was shined, ribbons were aligned correctly, and that each was generally free of errors.
Each was required to recite the Soldiers’ Creed from memory, without making a mistake. Each did. If they were nervous, they didn’t show it, or went to great lengths to hide their discomfort. Appearing before a board is never easy, especially with the possibility of representing the entire command riding on the outcome.
As each contestant finished, they went back out into the hallway, breathing a sigh of relief that the worst was over.
But only one soldier would go forward to the next level. Who would it be?
The contestants, along with the rest of the unit, would have to wait until the next day to find out.
It was Sgt. Lance Clifford, the intelligence analyst, who took top honors. Clifford posted the highest scores across the board, and his selection was unanimous.
For his victory, Clifford was awarded the Army Achievement Medal by Brig. Gen. I Neal Black, the 364th ESC’s commanding general.
Clifford will now compete alongside the winners from the 364th ESC’s three downtrace brigades, and the Los Angeles-based 311th ESC at Camp Pendleton, March 7-10.
The winner of that event will go on to represent the 364th ESC at the 79th Sustainment Support Command’s BWC, to be held May 1-4.