FORT McCOY, Wis. –
FORT McCOY, Wisc. — The U.S. Army Reserve’s Best Warrior Competition is an intense and brutal challenge for only the most skilled Soldiers. Competitors put their warrior skills to the test across more than a dozen demanding events, including weapons qualification, a 12-mile ruck march, and ambush scenarios. A competition of this caliber is nothing without the experienced noncommissioned officers providing the ammo for the weapons qualification, mapping the route for the ruck march, coordinating the UH-60 Black Hawk landing zones, and more. This team of leaders is determined to carry on the tradition of the Best Warrior Competition against all odds, even if it means moving the competition across the country in the wake of a global pandemic.
“I feel like the Army Reserve had our back and we essentially have each other's back,” said Master Sgt. Ryan Cameron, lead organizer and cadre noncommissioned officer-in-charge of this year’s competition. “We said we're going to do this boots on ground competition. And everybody said yes, let's do it. And they got behind us.”
Cameron’s first experience with the competition was back in 2014. Together with Master Sgt. Derek Fontaine, they have been planning this year's event nearly a year.
The original plan was to host the competition at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where the U.S. Army Reserve Command is headquartered. Yet, when the COVID-19 crisis worsened, Cameron and Fontaine knew that they needed to create a new plan of action because of specific travel restrictions that affected Fort Bragg.
"We met a lot of challenges in moving the competition halfway across the country, but we're doing the best we can to give these Soldiers the competition they deserve," said Fontaine.
Together, their mantra for months has been, "We want competitors, not just participants" when emphasizing the type of Soldiers they expect to show up. Likewise they wanted to put on a top-level "Best Warrior" Competition, and nothing short of the best challenges, events, firing ranges and simulations would do for these warriors.
In early April 2020, they colleagues created a decision matrix of five different directions the competition could take. It was originally scheduled for June, and one plan included staying at Fort Bragg and rescheduling the competition to August. Cameron’s leadership approved this plan, allowing the competition to carry on in 2020.
“We got closer to that date,” said Cameron, “and we noticed that everything that we were doing was still being affected by our current situation ... COVID-19.”
The Iron Mike Conference Center at Fort Bragg, the site of the awards luncheon, wasn’t available to host more than 10 people until Sept. 1, and they weren't sure if that timeline would be extended, Cameron said. Even worse, Fort Bragg started to enhance their social distancing and quarantine measures, to include a 14-day quarantine for anyone who flew commercially there. Cameron and Fontaine knew there wasn’t enough time or resources to accommodate this restriction, and they would risk downsizing his staff.
“If we lose all that support staff that is getting on ground, we're risking safety for the competitors,” Cameron said. “We're risking the competition and everything that we're working for.”
Undeterred, Cameron and Fontaine went on a search for another location and coordinated a trip to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, to see if it could be the next location for the Best Warrior Competition. There, they met with an old Army colleague, the Fort McCoy garrison senior enlisted advisor, Command Sgt. Maj. Paul Mantha.
“I know that he's very passionate about the Army Reserve and loves Best Warrior,” said Cameron. “He's checked on us, and given us every single thing that we asked for.”
“We were just very honored as a community and as an installation … that Fort McCoy was chosen for the Best Warrior Competition,” said Mantha. “This is an Army Reserve installation. This is an Army Reserve competition.”
Mantha provided support to the competition in the past as the command sergeant major of the Forces Command, U.S. Army Reserve Command, Special Troops Battalion there at Fort Bragg, and was well-acquainted with the process of planning the event. Mantha said he knew that Fort McCoy’s COVID-19 cases were low, and that they had ample boarding, ranges, and training space in order to meet the requirements of the competition safely.
Throughout the planning and execution stages, they took every precaution to minimize the risk of COVID-19 exposure for their Soldiers, staff, and civilian workforce. They were dedicated to hosting a “boots on ground competition,” but without compromising safety.
“So first we had to do a lot of research,” said Cameron. “We had to talk to the USARC surgeon; we had to get the do's and do nots.” Cameron explained that the competition was not able to use tear gas for this year’s event because tear gas is a respiratory agent. “So, that made sense once it was explained to us, but it's something we didn't know until we asked.”
The Best Warrior Competition has taken much of their guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and Fort McCoy’s own risk assessment that they created. Soldiers and cadre are required to wear facemasks, get their temperature checked and recorded daily, and wash their hands at portable hand-washing stations before entering high-traffic areas, Cameron said. There is also plenty of personal protective gear, like gloves and extra masks used throughout the week.
"Fort McCoy was amazing. They worked with Cameron and me to get an extensive competition. With all of these hurdles in the way, they provided far beyond the basics for our cadre and competitors," said Fontaine.
Fontaine said that no other installation could have provided the same level of quality while also maintaining the logistics costs low.
Despite the pandemic, there is a strong tradition behind the Best Warrior Competition that fostered the drive to continue this year. That drive has led to Cameron and his team working around the clock to prepare for the start of the competition, Sept. 4, with some having arrived as early as Aug. 19 to prepare.
“There's a ton of Soldiers that look forward to this every year,” Cameron said. “That's one of those things that if you take a year off, you are risking losing that drive and that passion.”
This competition is more than finding out who the best warrior is. It is an opportunity for Soldiers to participate, train, and learn, Cameron said. The competitors have the opportunity to work on their warrior skills, and the support staff gets to conduct their training mission with a high-profile event.
“Despite the coronavirus world pandemic happening, we’re going to prove that we can do it and do it better than we ever have,” Cameron said. “We have issues every year, but I can tell you that moving up here, I feel like this is going to be a better product than we had last year and the year before.”