Thursday, September 10, 2015 –
FORT JACKSON, S.C. - In 1972, the Army Reserve selected its first Drill Sergeant of the Year.
On Sept. 10, 2015, it chose its 44th.
During a ceremony held on Fort Jackson, South Carolina, Staff Sgt. Mark Mercer, 95th Training Division (IET), was presented the Ralph E. Haines Jr. award for excellence as the Army Reserve’s top drill sergeant.
For four days, Mercer competed in a head-to-head competition with Staff Sgt. Russell Vidler, 98th Training Division (IET) Drill Sergeant of the Year, for the coveted title.
“I think I’m still in shock. It’s just surreal. There are just so many emotions going through my head right now. It just shows that hard work pays off,” Mercer said.
Mercer takes over for Staff Sgt. Christopher Croslin, also from the 95th Training Division (IET), who won the competition in 2014.
The two, along with four other contestants from the active component in addition to six AIT Platoon Sergeants were pushed to their physical and mental limits in a wide range of events that included a physical fitness test, numerous obstacle courses, day and night land navigation and a grueling 12-mile ruck march under hot and humid weather conditions.
The competitors were also evaluated on their ability to perform and teach more than 50 basic combat training tasks ranging from physical readiness training to disassembly and reassembly of the M249 Squad Assault Weapon.
Both Mercer and Vidler, admitted preparation was key to the competition but with the added stressors of the numerous events not everything went always as planned.
“You can study and know everything in the book, but once you get worn out and you face physical fatigue and mental fatigue, it just wears on your mind. I just tried to stay consistent with everything,” Mercer said.
At one point, the two were asked to teach an Initial Entry Training Soldier how to perform a hand salute immediately after finishing the Fit-to-Win obstacle course. Exhausted and out of breath, competitor after competitor struggled to get the correct words out to properly instruct the young Soldier in the timed event.
“I did a lot of running and rucking. I spent a lot of time going over the modules. I tried to think about the task presented to me and what I wanted to say before I ever said anything, obviously that didn’t help,” joked Vidler during the round-robin medical tasks event.
Staff Sgt. Jonathan Miller, whose duties as the 2014 active component Drill Sergeant of the Year include setting up and running this year’s competition, disagreed.
“Truthfully, when you look at how Drill Sergeants Vidler and Mercer stacked up against the active duty Army drill sergeants, the competition was very close. You can tell they put a lot of time into this. They prepared. They studied. They pushed themselves to the limit. Those two really put their best foot forward for this years competition and it shoed,” he said.
Mercer, who became a drill sergeant in 2009, says he loves being a drill sergeant.
“You get to impart all types of knowledge on people that never knew what they were getting themselves into,” he said. “You get to see the beginning product and you get to see the end product. The changes you see are astronomical. They’re physically fit and knowledgeable. It’s very gratifying.”
Both candidates said before the competition, that if selected as Drill Sergeant of the Year, they would use their time to improve the selection process in the Reserve program.
“I want to raise the bar for the Reserve program. Drill sergeants are charged with instilling the standards and I want to ensure we are meeting or exceeding those standards; from height, weight and physical fitness to training. Training and preparedness is key and I don’t think we do that enough,” Vidler said.
The tension and anxiety finally passed as the winners were announced. Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Riti, 108th Training Command (IET) command sergeant major, presented the award and both competitors breathed a sigh of relief that the competition was over.
Though there can be only one winner, both, Mercer and Vidler, can be assured that this year everyone agreed the Army Reserve brought it’s A-game and sent the best of the best.
“It was difficult. I left everything out there. Everything I had is still out there on Fort Jackson somewhere.”