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NEWS | March 21, 2024

Strength in unity: From Best Warrior to Best Squad – Centurions prepare for glory

By Capt. William Stroud 311th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary)

From March 3-7, 2024, four squads from the 311th Expeditionary Sustainment Command (ESC), “Centurions”, conducted the 2024 Best Warrior Best Squad Competition (BWBSC).

Held annually, the BWBSC, assesses squad and individual Soldier technical and tactical proficiencies in basic Soldier tasks, including individual and crew marksmanship, tactical combat casualty care, land navigation, obstacle course, and foot marches, as well as their ability to work as a disciplined and cohesive team.

When asked why the Centurions selected Fort Huachuca, the 311th ESC Command Sergeant Major, Command Sgt. Maj. Denny J. Walker said, “Fort Hunter-Liggett in California is what we have used historically for this event. This year, I asked the team to find a place that would give us a true test of endurance.” As the participants gathered for their initial briefing, Walker concluded his comments by saying, “Using this location allows us to rely on one of our brigades for logistical support. This elevation and unfamiliar terrain will test our Soldiers’ capabilities like never before.”

Founded in 1877 at the base of the Huachuca Mountains, Fort Huachuca, remains the largest military installation and economic engine in Arizona serving a prominent role in national defense missions. The home of the “Buffalo Soldiers” hosted this year’s competition, where the U.S. Army witnessed a remarkable display of skill, resilience, and teamwork. This grueling five-day event brought together four subordinate brigade commands squads. The competition categories included the Best Junior Enlisted, Best NCO, Best Squad, and an all-new category, Best Company Grade Officer.

Walker stated this about this year’s competition, “For the winners of this year's BWBSC, the competition will identify a winning squad by brigade and will also recognize individual winners for junior enlisted, NCOs, and officers. Once we identify that squad and those individual winners, we will assemble a squad and send them to the 79th Theater Sustainment Command (TSC) competition next month.”

The BWBSC represents a natural evolution in the Army's commitment to excellence. Soldiers pushed themselves to the breaking point on the individual and squad levels. Walker observed, “We will test them on their physical and mental toughness from the time they arrive to the time we finish.” The individual to squad level transition underscores the importance of teamwork and cohesion. “Soldiers are invigorated by challenges and that enthusiasm becomes systemic." This competition demonstrates how well a squad functions as a cohesive unit, leveraging each member's strengths to overcome challenges. The BWBSC centers around a team’s ability to conquer insurmountable obstacles in rapid succession. Squads solidified their mental and physical fortitude by undergoing weeks and months, of intense training and competition at the unit level before the ultimate test of willpower and teamwork.

“I believe the key takeaway is for our soldiers who are experiencing this event, and the support staff who are here to take this information back to their units and implement it,” said Walker. “One of the things that we've gotten away from is basic field craft, and we're addressing some of that at this competition. I think it's important for our soldiers to bring that back to their organizations and implement those things.”

The competition started on what the Army calls “Zero Day.” This day included the arrival and processing of the competitors and assignment to their squad (red, blue, yellow, or green). They conducted layouts and assessments of all equipment, ensuring their serviceability. They received an official inbrief for Command Sgt. Maj. Walker and the cadre of the event. As a curve ball to round out the day, competitors received their first gradable task of completing an exam and essay without notice.

“The competition itself is a relentless series of physical and mental challenges, from the Army Combat Fitness Test to land navigation,” said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Hawkins the BWBSC noncomissioned officer in Charge (NCOIC). He briefly foreshadowed what awaited the Soldiers in the days ahead, "We intentionally left the participants in the dark, to test their ability to think rapidly on their feet. In real-world scenarios, you won’t be given the solutions, you have to make them." The squads will navigate through unpredictable scenarios, testing their ability to adapt and overcome adversity.

The first day consisted of the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) where competitors test one aspect of their physical strength against their peers. After a short recovery period, they moved traverse the obstacle course with escalating difficulty. Next, soldiers performed a round-robin series of events, communications equipment assembly, map orientation, medical evaluations, and reacting to contact. Then, competitors received a weapon scenarios challenge to assess critical threats they might encounter on the battlefield. Finally, they completed the Engagement Skills Trainer (EST) for various weapons systems, designed to simulate live weapon training events that directly support individual and crew-served weapons qualification.

Spc. Ian Rohrs, a Soldier within the 304th Sustainment Brigade and cadre member of this year’s competition, spoke on what it meant to win the 2023 311th ESC BWBSC. “Winning the BWBSC Best Junior Enlisted in 2023 was something I never expected to happen.” His experience in the previous year’s competition, drove the decision for his selection as cadre. “My brigade command sergeant major and first sergeant, they thought it was a good idea for me to put my two cents in from a competitive standpoint into the competition this year.” Spc. Rohrs' knowledge and expertise led to him running his portion of the competition.

Junior enlisted soldiers are rarely allowed to act alone, as it is for the non-commissioned officer, that this responsibility is entrusted. However, Spc. Rohrs became the weapons lane NCOIC. “Today I constructed a game that helps soldiers become familiar with weapon systems that they don’t necessarily get to touch every day. The focus is for the 240B, 249, M17, .50cal, and the M4.” Rohrs' plan was to hone soldier skills and effectively build team cohesion. “It's a competition between squads to build communication skills and assemble weapons systems quickly against an enemy squad.” Spc. Rohrs gave insight into what he wanted most for the Soldiers to take away from the experience. “The best thing I can do is in providing the best training for reservists. I hope they learn one thing and take that home and teach other Soldiers.”

The competition’s second day heated up on a cold early morning with combatives in the sand pits. Competitors engaged in various scenarios further testing their physical capabilities as they fought to stay warm. Soldiers also participated in a duel of champions with the pugils. According to Sgt. 1st Class Kevin McCoy, the NCOIC of the morning’s challenge, “We must place Soldiers in uncomfortable positions and environments. Nothing better than a cold Tuesday morning to test their limits.” McCoy understood that this wouldn’t be easy, as fatigue set in. “Look it isn’t getting any easier from here. Each day build on the day prior and it’s going to separate the ones who want it from those that just kind of do.”

That afternoon brought a new aspect to the unit’s competition. Based on the guidance to challenge the Soldiers in creative and innovative ways, the cadre implemented a village scenario in the training area with paintball. The squads were pitted against an opposition force (OPFOR) while reacting to contact, conducting building clearances, nine-line MEDEVACs, and various other tasks before completing their objectives. After the event, the cadre decided to increase the stakes by having the squads go head-to-head in a winner-takes-all game of “Capture the Flag.”

The competitors were then moved to the next challenge. Land navigation during the day would challenge them as individuals for three hours amongst the heat and diverse arid landscape. After the day portion’s completion, the soldiers conducted a late lunch and began to prepare for the night portion of the event. As the sun set over the Huachuca Mountains, competitors plotted their points and took off on the final task of the day. This time, they worked in squads to collect their points over two hours. Another successful day had come to an end and the Soldiers were one step closer to finishing.

The competition’s third day moved squads to focus more on mental agility. According to Sgt. 1st Class Charles Lowe, one of the BWBSC’s NCOICs, “They’ve proven that they can handle the hard physical tasks, now we can shift focus to the fun stuff, while still testing their mental capabilities.” Lowe believed that soldiers needed this day due to the loss of core competencies over time when not actioned. “Today will serve as the opportunity to reengage the competitors on weapon systems, range etiquette and safety. It’s imperative that soldiers recall these elements when the time comes.” Soldiers qualified on the M4, M17, M249, 240B, .50cal BMG, and MK19. Upon completion of the live fire ranges, soldiers were moved to the simulated dummy grenade range, where they engaged targets utilizing proper grenade-throwing techniques.

As the sky darkened, the competitors formed up. Thinking that the long day had ended, the soldiers were informed of the night’s last challenge, the six-mile ruck march. As competitors moved to the starting line and with their 35-pound ruck, hydration system, and weapons, the signal was given, and off they went. After everyone crossed the finish line, Walker had this to say for their efforts, “I’ll tell you this much, they’ve got hearts. I’m not even sure of the time, but let’s just say it’s very late, and they didn’t stop, not one.” He knew the hardest parts were behind them and now it was a matter of finishing strong. “Tomorrow, we wrap this thing up and we crown the champions, but honestly, they’re all champions in my mind. Look someone will get the trophy, what I care more about is what they will take away and the character traits that will emerge. That’s what matter.”

The morning of the final day brought with it a sense of relief and bittersweet memories. On one hand, soldiers were excited that the competition would be over that evening, and they could finally relax after all the hard work. On the other, over the past five days, each squad had built tighter bonds and would soon have to leave their fellow teammates and return home. As with all things in life and the Army, it is on to the next journey, learning from mistakes made, growing from the challenges endured, and remembering those who helped us along the way to reach new heights.

The final day, started with the pool event. Competitors swam 200 meters in full uniform, no boots, followed by the uniform removal while staying afloat. This was an arduous task, but the Soldiers rose to the occasion and successfully overcame the challenge. Next, competitors moved to the NBC chamber off the installation. Inside the chamber, CS pellets were lit, and competitors asked to don their pro-mask while conducting a series of exercises and tasks. Upon completion, they were asked to doff their mask to understand the importance of maintaining the functionality of their equipment. Staff Sgt. P.J. Pryor, the NCOIC of the event, stated, “I’m glad they put this event in the competition. CBRN and the NBC chamber, are often overlooked in military units today. Chemical weapons usage is rare, but just like weapons, if you don’t use it, you lose it.” Pryor is the technical expert for all things chemical defense and training soldiers on threat detection and action. “It’s always fun to do these chambers. I rarely get to practice my craft these days, but I make sure to go all out when the time comes.”

The competitors were given a short reprieve before tackling the final event of the BWBSC, the board. Going before a board of senior military personnel, three command sergeants major in this case, is considered by some to be one of the most intimidating scenarios for soldiers to navigate. In the short timeframe, soldiers had very little preparation time to prepare. The board members knowing what the competitors had endured, challenged them further with questions on military history, customs and courtesies, leadership, and many other topics. Command Sgt. Maj. Walker, president of the board, stated, “The board is kind of the icing on the cake so to speak. We know they are exhausted and rightfully so. They’ve put in hard work over the last few days. But I’m still going to push to till the end” The board would go on to have each squad present themselves. In the end, Walker knew who the best squad would be but was reluctant to disclose the information. “Well, that wraps up what we needed to hear and see, we have our answer. Now it’s time to go take some pictures and present some awards.”

Before the awards ceremony, the cadre and competitors made their way to Fort Huachuca’s Reservoir Hill which oversaw the entirety of the installation and the city of Sierra Vista. There, Command Sgt. Maj. Walker and his NCOICs address the competitors, congratulating them on a job well done. They concluded by taking group photos to commemorate this year’s team and the challenges faced. Now it was on to what everyone was eagerly waiting for, the awards ceremony to crown the winners.

Later that evening, the award ceremony commenced at the Cochise Movie Theater on Fort Huachuca’s main post. This ceremony centers around common themes that were showcased during the competition. This focus this year was on celebrating a testament of teamwork, leadership, and proficiency, and embracing emerging talent. With the awards in hand, Command Sgt. Maj. Walker made his way to the podium to congratulate the competitors on a job well done. “Each of you has worked extremely hard to be here tonight. I asked a lot of you, and you exceeded my expectations. Tonight, we are going to celebrate the achievement of some high-performing individuals who excelled throughout the competition, but let me say this, you all are stellar performers in my book and I’m proud of what you accomplished here.”

As the anticipation reached its peak, the ceremony began with a testament to teamwork and the announcement of the 2024 Best Squad of the Year, the ultimate symbol of collective achievement. It came as no surprise to competitors who would win this category. The team chosen, had been standout performers throughout the competition. The award was presented to the team members of Yellow Squad. The squad consisted of soldiers from the Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC) of the 311th ESC, including Sgt. Matthew Mares (squad leader), Sgt. Reynaldo Sanchez, Spc. Brian Gonzalez, Spc. Richard Kropacek, and Julio Luevano. Command Sgt. Maj. Walker presented the award to the squad and thunderous applause went out amongst the crowd. Their victory demonstrated a triumph of technical prowess and the seamless coordination and camaraderie essential for success in squad-level operations.

In celebrating leadership and proficiency, the category shifted to a first for the Centurions, the new Company Grade Officer Award. Walker announced the winner, 2nd Lt. Cole Kerchner, of the 348 Truck Company, 336th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 653 Regional Support Group as the 2024 Best Company Grade Officer of the Year. After receiving the Army Commendation Medal (ARCOM) for his efforts, Kerchner went on to say this of his team, “I want to thank my teammates who taught me valuable lessons during this competition. It has been extremely rewarding and I’m excited to be up here to receive this award on their behalf. I couldn’t have done it without you.” He exemplified the traits required of an officer and demonstrated superb leadership.

Continuing the path of remarkable leadership and proficiency displayed by the participants, Walker quickly moved to the next category that everyone anxiously waited for, the best NCO. After a moment of silence, Walker called Sgt. Reynaldo Sanchez of the 311th HHC forward as the recipient of the 2024 Best NCO of the Year. Cheers went out amongst the crowd as the competitors heralded him as the new, best NCO. Sanchez had this say upon receiving his award, “Honestly guys, I can’t believe it. I want to thank my squad. If it wasn’t for Levano raising his hand when they were asking for participants, I wouldn’t have raised mine. If I could share this with everyone one here I would.” His unwavering dedication to the team and accomplishments throughout the competition exemplified the pinnacle of NCO leadership.

The final and most sought-after category of the night embraced the emerging talent of one promising junior enlisted soldier. With bated breath, the competitors waited as Walker announced the awardee. The 2024 Best Soldier of the Year award was given to Pfc. Jared Haggard of the 208th Transportation Company, 418 Quartermaster Battalion, 653 Regional Support Group. Haggard embodied the Army's ethos through his dedication and perseverance. Upon receiving his award Haggard said, “I want to thank the cadre for taking the time out of their day to go above and beyond for us. You made it nice and smooth. Second, I want to shout out to my squad, you guys were awesome. Lastly to the competitors, if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have pushed myself this hard. I appreciate everyone pushes me to do my best. His journey from civilian life to distinguished soldier underscored the transformative power of resilience.

Walker went on to recognize his staff who made the event possible. He began by recognizing Sgts.1st Class Hawkins and Lowe. “We started planning this event in June of 2023. Everyone has been comfortable using Fort Hunter-Liggett and I said I want to go somewhere else; I want to go to Fort Huachuca.” Walker made it known why he chose this year’s location. “The first reason is the elevation here. It’s 5001 feet at the flagpole on the main post. Where we took our photo today is much higher and where you did your ruck and ranges, is even higher. Second, we don’t get bumped from training sites like we often do at other locations.” Walker commended the NCOICs on an amazing job. “They made sure we a had barracks, great chow, and resourcing as needed.” Walker also talked about the logistics support that goes into utilizing other locations. “When we do these events, the ownness falls squarely on the 311th HHC. With us being at Fort Huachuca, the 653rd Regional Support Group, is right up the road. This allows us to focus on the competition, while stress our brigade’s logistical competency.” Walker thanked everyone in attendance by saying, “It’s a lot to ask many of you to step away from your family and your careers to come support this event. I appreciate your taking the time out of your schedules to be here.”

Walker went on to recognize more members of his team with a military award and his coin of excellence. Spc. Alec Kelly (ARCOM), Spc. Kaitlyn Keiros, Staff Sgt. Jose Reyes, Sgt. Julio Benites, Sgt. Tristan Coty, Sgt. India Jackson (AAMs), were awarded for their selfless service, commitment to excellence, and were instrumental in the competition’s success. Finally, Walker recognized Spc. Enriquez, Sgt. 1st Class Muentes, Sgt. Bishop, Sgt. 1st Class Ausua, Master Sgt. Heath, Sgt. Smith, Sgt. Kanangwe, Sgt. Orosco giving each of them his coin of excellence and he spoke on each for their significant contributions this year.

Finally, Walker called back up to the stage Hawkins and Lowe, to speak on their behalf and coin them for making this event the most successful to date. “As you know I’m a little particular about what I want, I like things done a certain way and these two guys right here this past week and even a little bit longer, to be quite honest with you, every decision that I’ve made was run through them. I wanted to make sure I was thinking straight. Am I making the right decision, the right one for the competitors, for the integrity of the competition, and for the support staff? I know they’ve probably told you that I’ve been a pain, but they do great work and that’s why they’re here.” Turning from the crowd to Hawkins and Lowe, Walker said, “I truly appreciate the time and effort that you put into the competition, and I hope to have you stay around, I truly appreciate it.”

With that, Walker opened the floor to Lowe who stated, “It’s my first time being here doing one of these. I don’t get to come out and play very much due to being responsible for the mobilization readiness team. I enjoyed getting after all the things we don’t get to do very often. Honestly, I had a great time, and I can’t wait to come back.” Lowe was followed by Hawkins who said, “I want to thank you all for coming out. For many of you, it was last minute, for others you were volunteering to come. I remember telling everyone how fast it would go. We were able to handle the obstacles that came at us. I had overwhelming support. We did it.” With that, the 2024 BWBSC ended.

At the ceremony’s close, Walker reflected on the achievements made. “The BWBSC had not only tested their mettle but had forged bonds that transcended individual achievement.” Each soldier, regardless of rank or specialty, had contributed to the collective success of his or her squad, leaving an indelible mark on the annals of Army history. “I think our Soldiers did a wonderful job putting this competition together. I'm very proud of my staff coming together, the myriad of events, the competitors, the phenomenal training, and a great experience.” Walker considered this to be a job well accomplished. “Amidst the chaos, every squad found themselves stretched beyond their limits. The competition was not just about winning; it was about growth, resilience, and learning to rely on one another. Each squad walked away with invaluable lessons that will shape their careers, benefit their units, and help shape the Army Reserve.”

In the annals of Army history, the BWBSC stands as a testament to the unwavering spirit and dedication of America's soldiers. Through perseverance, teamwork, and a commitment to excellence, these elite squads have demonstrated the pinnacle of military proficiency. As the concluding ceremony ended, the BWBSC left an indelible impression on all who had witnessed its trials and triumphs. From the leadership of company grade officers and NCOs to the camaraderie of squads and the promise of junior enlisted soldiers, the competition embodied the spirit of excellence and unity that defines the U.S. Army. As participants return to their units, they carry with them not just the accolades of victory, but also the invaluable lessons learned and shared on the battlefield of Fort Huachuca. Their journey from warrior to squad exemplifies the Army's ethos: Strength in Unity, forging a legacy of camaraderie and commitment that endures long after the echoes of battle have faded into memory.