KILLEEN, Texas - After a week of high and humid temperatures, the heat of intense competition finally came to a conclusion for the best of the best in the U.S. Army Forces Command, a formation consisting of more than 730,000 troops, during the FORSCOM noncommissioned officer and Soldier of the Year awards banquet July 31.
During the week-long competition, nine noncommissioned officers and eight Soldiers jumped over every hurdle the Fort Hood, Texas-hosted FORSCOM NCO and Soldier of the Year competition threw their way.
Before announcing the two who had nabbed the top titles, the Army's largest major command's top enlisted leader Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis Carey, said as far as he was concerned all of the competitors were winners, but only two could advance.
One by one, each competitor's name was called at the banquet held at the Plaza Hotel. Finally, Sgt. Lisa Morales and Spc. Alexander Elkassamani were crowned FORSCOM's NCO and Soldier of the Year for 2008.
"My heart kept beating faster and faster," Morales said about the anticipation as each competitor was called up.
The 1st Cavalry Division's Elkassamani later admitted he had to step outside before they started the awards presentation. "I was nervous," said the father of an 11-month-old son named Gabriel. "I had to take a breath to cool my nerves."
Both winners dedicated themselves to winning the competition long before they got to this point.
"There were countless hours of studying, physical training and mental preparation," Morales of Sierra Vista, Ariz., recalled. "I went on long ruck marches and my sponsor had me go into the arms room getting weapons training.'
'It was a lot of preparation and hard work."
The down-to-earth NCO said she was excited to have won, but also very humbled to be part of such a big event and to have competed day-in and day-out with so many great competitors.
One person motivating Morales through each day of fierce competition was her brother Pfc. Stephen Chaires, one of her four siblings and a 4th Infantry Division Soldier currently on the frontlines in Iraq.
"He's been my inspiration throughout this whole thing. Him being in Iraq, doing all the infantry tasks that I've just been training to do. He's been my hero," said the 23-year-old representing the 54th Signal Battalion, who added she couldn't wait to break the news to him.
Even though her brother couldn't make it, her sponsor Sgt. 1st Class Louis Sueing of Stockton, Calif., was there throughout the week.
"The main focus of this was to have fun because if you have fun everything else seems to flow right behind it," Sueing said about the whole experience, which he later described as, "gratifying."
When teaching a new Soldier something, the most rewarding feeling comes when you know they get it, Sueing with the 9th Signal Command explained.
"When that light bulb goes off above their head, they're eyes just light up. And with her during this competition that light bulb went off a lot because even though she trained for this - studied for it - she still learned something new as she went on," said Sueing.
Watching his junior NCO claim the title was hard for the senior leader to put into words, but if he had to, he said, in one word it would be pride.
"You want to see all Soldiers win, but when it is one of your Soldiers that you train, you represent, you sponsor, it gives that little extra umph," he said. "It's almost as if you're standing on that pedestal with your Soldier because you know what he or she has done to get to that point."
One thing both Morales and Elkassamani have in common is they prepared and got through the competition with the support of others.
The Soldier of the Year said he couldn't have done so well without the endless dedication of his wife and the constant support of his leadership. He clarified by saying there was a team behind him that helped prepare him for this competition.
The infantryman's wife Sarah, who recently moved to central Texas from their hometown of Ozark, Mo., spent countless hours studying with him for the board.
"I got my technical proficiency from my wife and the tactical proficiency from my NCOs," the young trooper claimed.
Although both Morales and Elkassamani had no idea at first that company-level board would lead them down this road they stand ready to tackle the Department of the Army level.
"Look out because they are not going to see me coming," said Morales who believes you have to work hard for what you get.
"I hope (the DA-level competitors) bring their A game. They're going to need it against me," Elkassamani said with the confidence he has come to be known for by his family, friends and leadership. "I'm ready to rock the DA board."

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16