FORT LEWIS, Wash. - It was a tough week for the six Soldiers competing for the Western Region Dental Command's top annual awards - Soldier of the Year, and Noncommissioned Officer of the Year.

Two Soldiers from each state - Alaska, California and Washington - were tested Jan. 20 to 23 on multiple tasks.

Some of the warrior task lanes the Soldiers were graded on were the emergency medical technician, weapons qualification and the combatives tournament. According to 1st Sgt. Donald Whitaker, serving as Western Region Dental Command's sergeant major, they were also scored on the Army Physical Fitness Test, the oral board and an eight-mile road march.

"There were different NCOs grading lanes as they went and we kept a running tally all week," said Sgt. 1st Class Clay Davis, Operations, Western Region Dental Command.

All of the contestants did basically the same things, but the leadership challenge was made a little more difficult for the NCOs, he said.

"The combative tournament lane is always tough," Davis said. "The eight-mile road march was tough, too, because the contestants were interrupted with all kinds of dangers along the way, such as ambushes, terrorist attacks and improvised explosive devices."

All of the Soldiers in the competition are leaders who lead from the front and all were very well qualified or they would not have been there in the first place, said Col. Bob Shakespeare, commander, Western Region Dental Command.

"Everybody really wins because this gives us the opportunity to cross pollinate, to share collective training and experiences, and learn from each other," Shakespeare said. "The intent is that they take this training and experience back to their home units, which increases and improves the overall wartime readiness of the entire command."

Although the competition was close, winners for the Western Region Dental Command were:

Aca,!AcSpc. Eric E. McEllen, Alaska DENTAC, Soldier of the Year, and

Aca,!AcSgt. James K. Larsen, Fort Lewis DENTAC, NCO of the Year.

"I came last year to compete and lost badly, but that lit a fire under my butt," McEllen said.

That experience also gave him a better idea of what to expect, he said.

"I didn't have as much of an advantage as I thought, however, because they changed some things around a little. The easiest lane for me was the combative tournament because that's my bread and butter. I do marshal arts and I wrestled my last four years in high school."

For Larsen, the EMT lane was the most challenging, and the weapons qualification was the easiest, he said.

"I've just been here for six months," Larsen said. "It's been a fun week."

Both winners were presented Army Commendation Medals and will go forward to the U.S. Army Dental Command competition, Feb. 16 to 21, at Fort Hood, Texas.

"All the dental regions in the entire Army, from all over the world, will send their best Soldiers to compete at that level," Whitaker said.
Shakespeare thanked everyone for doing such a great job.

"We appreciate all of the sacrifices, time and effort everyone made to make this happen," he said. "The bottom line is that we are all dental, but we will also make sure that you are capable, trained and ready when you deploy and go downrange. So take this training and take these experiences back to your subordinates so that everybody becomes a winner."

Barbara Sellers is a reporter with Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.

Page last updated Fri February 13th, 2009 at 16:43