Sponsors: A Best Warrior competitor's life line

By Story by Spc. Kimber Gillus | U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) | April 15, 2015

April 15, 2015 — JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. -- JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. -- Sgt. 1st Class Angel Lechuga, part of the support staff for 2015’s U.S. Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) Best Warrior Competition, slid the written tests across the tables one by one, “Don’t turn these over,” he said. 

Lechuga’s energy was already strained. He had been up since the early morning hours coordinating with the command group as the competitors arrived from their flights. When it came time for the written test, it was 9 p.m. 

Lechuga spotted someone turning over a test paper and yelled, “I said don’t turn these over yet. Everyone has a pen, right?” One Soldier in the back raised his hand. His pack was still on the chartered bus and in the rush to the classroom, he didn’t grab a pen. 

Lechuga shook his head, the look on his face was half disapproval and half mirth. “Not a good sign, this early on.”

Another Soldier, Staff Sgt. Martin Mann, pointed out that since travel was delayed competitors were relying on their sponsors to handle their belongings. Sponsors — sergeants that mentor Soldiers in the competition and provide them support — are an important lifeline during the challenging events. 

Lechuga has witnessed a lot of Best Warrior Competitions at USACAPOC(A). He understands the relationship between sponsors and competitors better than most. 

“I’ll tell you right now,” Lechuga said, slapping the last of the papers in his hand down on the table repeatedly. “If you make it past this level, to [U.S. Army Reserve] competition, you will not see your sponsors. Last year, they wouldn’t let us even bring our Soldiers drinks. Nothing. Prepare yourselves.”

Pfc. Kelly Dixon, with the 350th Civil Affairs Command based in Pensacola, Florida, the lowest ranking Soldier in this year’s competition, told his sponsor about the schoolwork he had to do during Best Warrior. He wasn’t alone. Many of the competitors are full-time college students.

Overhearing Dixon’s words, Lechuga smirked and shook his head. “If you have homework now, good luck with that,” he said.

Lechuga’s extensive experience is well known among sponsors. “I overheard a lot of people saying that they were glad Sgt. Lechuga was here this year,” said Sgt. Maj. Hugh Carew noncommissioned officer in charge of the competition. 

Carew is a man about his work, taking his tasks seriously but occasionally cutting in with a joke or two. “This is the only day I’m going to be nice to you,” he told competing Soldiers on Day 0. “Tomorrow, I’m going to yell at you. I’m probably going to yell for the rest of your time here.”

That’s exactly what Soldiers in the competition expect. Best Warrior takes one to their physical and mental limits, demanding competitors to complete tasks to standard under pressure. For three days, there is a constant barrage of drills and tests. The days are long. Sleep is a luxury.

As Reserve Soldiers that pressure is doubled. Having taken time off from their civilian lives to vie for the title of Best Warrior, they must balance things such as studying completing soldiering tasks and maintaining fitness training with their daily responsibilities. That is, if they even want to stand a chance in the competition. 

It would be easy for even the toughest of service members to become demoralized in a situation such as this one. That’s why they have sponsors. The role of a Best Warrior Competition sponsor is part advisor, part coach, part advocate.

Sponsors seem almost like sports agents or trainers, representing a prized athlete during playoff season. There aren’t any fans or cheerleaders around, though. It’s just dirt and sweat — and the possible reward of recognition across the U.S. Army. Last year’s Soldier of the Year at the USACAPOC(A) level, Sgt. Keegan Carlson, also won U.S. Army Reserve Soldier of the Year. 

The year before that, Sgt. 1st Class Jason Manella went all the way, and became U.S. Army Noncommissioned Officer of the Year. Manella was also a winner at the USACAPOC(A) level. Both Keegan and Manella’s names are known throughout USACAPOC(A), and Soldiers in the competition want the same recognition. 

But they can’t do it alone. So, after each draining event, the sponsors are on the scene, asking if their Soldier is hydrated or feeling any pain. 

New Jersey weather wasn’t kind on Day 2, which started with a night land navigation exercise at 1 a.m. The rain started before the sun rose, and by 11 a.m. the competitors were completing a 10-kilometer ruck march with 40-pound ruck-sacks.

Staff Sgt. Leah Serrano stood in the rain as she waited for her sponsored Soldier, Staff Sgt. Daniel Dills of the 443rd Civil Affairs Battalion located in Newport, Rhode Island. It had been an hour since the march began. 

One of the competitors came around the curve of the trail, as fast as they could move with the weight of his pack. “Are you Dills?” she shouted. 

The Soldier came closer. It wasn’t Dills. “Well, we’ll pretend you are Dills,” she said while laughing.

In the aftermath, Serrano sought out Dills, finding him sitting on the ground. “Are you okay?,” Serrano asked. Dills’s boots were pulled off. He and the other competitors, drenched in sweat, were eating what little food they had the space to carry in their packs. Some Soldiers were hurt, trying to power through their injuries and exhaustion. 

A few steps away, the rucks were being weighed post-march for event qualification. Even the slightest change in weight, and points would be deducted. Such a penalty could cost a competitor dearly.

Serrano pulled out a plastic bag and placed Dills’ worn out boots inside. “I’ll take these. Rest yourself,” she said. The next event would start in less than an hour.

Some sponsors have long-standing relationships with the Soldiers they foster. Some don’t really know them at all. 

The latter is how one could describe Sgt. 1st Class Miguel Cruz and his sponsored Soldier, Spc. Richard Elliott from the 412th Civil Affairs Battalion based in Columbus, Ohio. 

On the day of the ruck-march, Cruz looked on as Elliott was taken aside by medical personnel. Elliott sprinted the last quarter-mile of the course. The blood from his feet had seeped through his boots, coloring them a bright shade of red.

“I do not know him very well at all, I just met him here at the competition,” Cruz said later of Elliott. “But during the ruck-march, he proved himself to be a good Soldier; very strong and determined to finish what he starts,” said Cruz. 

Sponsors must walk a fine line as evaluators try to limit their time with competitors during events. As fierce as the desire is to guide their Soldiers and correct their mistakes, the sponsors must keep their distance.

“No one can tell you what you’re doing wrong,” said Carew, his voice booming over the cluster of tired yet attentive competitors. “This isn’t training. This is a competition.”

The most awe-inspiring thing about these competitors from USACAPOC(A) is their determination, not just in the spirit of competition but also in what their efforts to become Best Warrior mean to their fellow Soldiers at home.

“I want to become a sponsor myself, for Soldiers in my command that want to compete,” said Spc. Chad Shockley. Like Dills, he is also from the 443rd CA Bn. “It’s a good experience for Soldiers to train their minds and know their limits,” he said.

As the contest came to a close, both sponsors and competing Soldiers walked away with a better idea of their personal limits and valuable experience to pass on to other enlisted Reserve Soldiers.

The overall winner for 2015 USACAPOC(A) Non-Commissioned Officer of the year, Staff Sgt. Keeton Tucker of the 302th Tactical Psychological Operations Company, smiled through the shock and relief. Anticipating the challenges to come at the U.S. Army Reserve level of the competition, he credited his sponsor for keeping his morale high. 

“I honestly feel that my sponsor was absolutely paramount to my success in the competition,” said Tucker. 

“He could have been sleeping while I was doing the events, but he stayed up and provided the support and motivation for me to keep going on,” he said.


Lechuga’s energy was already strained. He had been up since the early morning hours coordinating with the command group as the competitors arrived from their flights. When it came time for the written test, it was 9 p.m. 

Lechuga spotted someone turning over a test paper and yelled, “I said don’t turn these over yet. Everyone has a pen, right?” One Soldier in the back raised his hand. His pack was still on the chartered bus and in the rush to the classroom, he didn’t grab a pen. 

Lechuga shook his head, the look on his face was half disapproval and half mirth. “Not a good sign, this early on.”

Another Soldier, Staff Sgt. Martin Mann, pointed out that since travel was delayed competitors were relying on their sponsors to handle their belongings. Sponsors — sergeants that mentor Soldiers in the competition and provide them support — are an important lifeline during the challenging events. 

Lechuga has witnessed a lot of Best Warrior Competitions at USACAPOC(A). He understands the relationship between sponsors and competitors better than most. 

“I’ll tell you right now,” Lechuga said, slapping the last of the papers in his hand down on the table repeatedly. “If you make it past this level, to [U.S. Army Reserve] competition, you will not see your sponsors. Last year, they wouldn’t let us even bring our Soldiers drinks. Nothing. Prepare yourselves.”

Pfc. Kelly Dixon, with the 350th Civil Affairs Command based in Pensacola, Florida, the lowest ranking Soldier in this year’s competition, told his sponsor about the schoolwork he had to do during Best Warrior. He wasn’t alone. Many of the competitors are full-time college students.

Overhearing Dixon’s words, Lechuga smirked and shook his head. “If you have homework now, good luck with that,” he said.

Lechuga’s extensive experience is well known among sponsors. “I overheard a lot of people saying that they were glad Sgt. Lechuga was here this year,” said Sgt. Maj. Hugh Carew noncommissioned officer in charge of the competition. 

Carew is a man about his work, taking his tasks seriously but occasionally cutting in with a joke or two. “This is the only day I’m going to be nice to you,” he told competing Soldiers on Day 0. “Tomorrow, I’m going to yell at you. I’m probably going to yell for the rest of your time here.”

That’s exactly what Soldiers in the competition expect. Best Warrior takes one to their physical and mental limits, demanding competitors to complete tasks to standard under pressure. For three days, there is a constant barrage of drills and tests. The days are long. Sleep is a luxury.

As Reserve Soldiers that pressure is doubled. Having taken time off from their civilian lives to vie for the title of Best Warrior, they must balance things such as studying completing soldiering tasks and maintaining fitness training with their daily responsibilities. That is, if they even want to stand a chance in the competition. 

It would be easy for even the toughest of service members to become demoralized in a situation such as this one. That’s why they have sponsors. The role of a Best Warrior Competition sponsor is part advisor, part coach, part advocate.

Sponsors seem almost like sports agents or trainers, representing a prized athlete during playoff season. There aren’t any fans or cheerleaders around, though. It’s just dirt and sweat — and the possible reward of recognition across the U.S. Army. Last year’s Soldier of the Year at the USACAPOC(A) level, Sgt. Keegan Carlson, also won U.S. Army Reserve Soldier of the Year. 

The year before that, Sgt. 1st Class Jason Manella went all the way, and became U.S. Army Noncommissioned Officer of the Year. Manella was also a winner at the USACAPOC(A) level. Both Keegan and Manella’s names are known throughout USACAPOC(A), and Soldiers in the competition want the same recognition. 

But they can’t do it alone. So, after each draining event, the sponsors are on the scene, asking if their Soldier is hydrated or feeling any pain. 

New Jersey weather wasn’t kind on Day 2, which started with a night land navigation exercise at 1 a.m. The rain started before the sun rose, and by 11 a.m. the competitors were completing a 10-kilometer ruck march with 40-pound ruck-sacks.

Staff Sgt. Leah Serrano stood in the rain as she waited for her sponsored Soldier, Staff Sgt. Daniel Dills of the 443rd Civil Affairs Battalion located in Newport, Rhode Island. It had been an hour since the march began. 

One of the competitors came around the curve of the trail, as fast as they could move with the weight of his pack. “Are you Dills?” she shouted. 

The Soldier came closer. It wasn’t Dills. “Well, we’ll pretend you are Dills,” she said while laughing.

In the aftermath, Serrano sought out Dills, finding him sitting on the ground. “Are you okay?,” Serrano asked. Dills’s boots were pulled off. He and the other competitors, drenched in sweat, were eating what little food they had the space to carry in their packs. Some Soldiers were hurt, trying to power through their injuries and exhaustion. 

A few steps away, the rucks were being weighed post-march for event qualification. Even the slightest change in weight, and points would be deducted. Such a penalty could cost a competitor dearly.

Serrano pulled out a plastic bag and placed Dills’ worn out boots inside. “I’ll take these. Rest yourself,” she said. The next event would start in less than an hour.

Some sponsors have long-standing relationships with the Soldiers they foster. Some don’t really know them at all. 

The latter is how one could describe Sgt. 1st Class Miguel Cruz and his sponsored Soldier, Spc. Richard Elliott from the 412th Civil Affairs Battalion based in Columbus, Ohio. 

On the day of the ruck-march, Cruz looked on as Elliott was taken aside by medical personnel. Elliott sprinted the last quarter-mile of the course. The blood from his feet had seeped through his boots, coloring them a bright shade of red.

“I do not know him very well at all, I just met him here at the competition,” Cruz said later of Elliott. “But during the ruck-march, he proved himself to be a good Soldier; very strong and determined to finish what he starts,” said Cruz. 

Sponsors must walk a fine line as evaluators try to limit their time with competitors during events. As fierce as the desire is to guide their Soldiers and correct their mistakes, the sponsors must keep their distance.

“No one can tell you what you’re doing wrong,” said Carew, his voice booming over the cluster of tired yet attentive competitors. “This isn’t training. This is a competition.”

The most awe-inspiring thing about these competitors from USACAPOC(A) is their determination, not just in the spirit of competition but also in what their efforts to become Best Warrior mean to their fellow Soldiers at home.

“I want to become a sponsor myself, for Soldiers in my command that want to compete,” said Spc. Chad Shockley. Like Dills, he is also from the 443rd CA Bn. “It’s a good experience for Soldiers to train their minds and know their limits,” he said.

As the contest came to a close, both sponsors and competing Soldiers walked away with a better idea of their personal limits and valuable experience to pass on to other enlisted Reserve Soldiers.

The overall winner for 2015 USACAPOC(A) Non-Commissioned Officer of the year, Staff Sgt. Keeton Tucker of the 302th Tactical Psychological Operations Company, smiled through the shock and relief. Anticipating the challenges to come at the U.S. Army Reserve level of the competition, he credited his sponsor for keeping his morale high. 

“I honestly feel that my sponsor was absolutely paramount to my success in the competition,” said Tucker. 

“He could have been sleeping while I was doing the events, but he stayed up and provided the support and motivation for me to keep going on,” he said.