BAGHDAD - In the early morning hours Feb. 26, 11 Soldiers of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, gathered outside brigade headquarters at Camp Striker, Iraq for the beginning of the annual "Iron Brigade" Soldier and Non-Commissioned Officer of the Year competition.

For three days, these outstanding Soldiers competed against one another; tested on professionalism, physical fitness, Soldier skills, a timed road march, rifle marksmanship and a wide spectrum of Army knowledge.

In the end, the leadership selected a Soldier and NCO, both from 4th Battalion, 27th Field Artillery Regiment, as the best of the "Iron Brigade", Feb. 28, at Camp Striker, Iraq.

"The chain of command definitely backed us up 100 percent. They gave us the time we needed and designated the resources we needed to prepare," said Sgt. Justin Santana, of Bronx, N.Y., "Iron Brigade's" NCO of the Year.

"Our unit, and the first sergeant especially, got behind us and made sure we had the time and training we needed, and it definitely paid off," said Spc. Henry Howell, from Houston, Texas, this year's "Iron Brigade" Soldier of the Year winner.

Although only two Soldiers were able to walk away with the titles of Brigade Soldier and NCO of the Year, every competitor represented their units with excellence.

"These guys had to work extra hard to prepare for this mission," said Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Eyer, command sergeant major of 2nd BCT, 1st Armd. Div. "Their units had to help them along the way as well and what I saw during this competition was awesome. Their knowledge, their enthusiasm, and their morale was exactly what I wanted to see."

For their efforts, Santana and Howell each received an Army Commendation Medal, a four day pass, and a gift certificate from Army and Air Force Exchange Service.

The Soldier and NCO of the Year runner-ups, Spc. Greg Gordon, 2nd Battalion, 6th Infantry, and Sgt. Amar Arias, 47th Field Support Battalion, received Army Achievement Medals and a four day pass.

"The Soldiers that showed up were very capable individuals," said Eyer. "Every time I run a competition like this I have surprises, and this one was no exception. The Soldiers' ability and knowledge was above and beyond what I expected."

"There was good competition out there," said Howell. "There were some people who had us wondering where we stood [in the competition]."

Although the competition was over, the lasting effects of the experience on the competitors were something they all planned to take back to their units.

"It's made me realize how important training is," said Satana. "I'm definitely going to take all the knowledge I've gained in these past three days and take it back to my Soldiers."

"It's been some of the best training that I've had since I've been in the Army," said Howell "I'm in the best shape I've ever been in, physically and mentally."

Although Soldier and NCO of the year competitions are an annual event for all Army units, the extra effort involved in such an event while deployed effected both those who put together, and competed in the event.

"Even though we're in a war zone, and we're busy, very busy, we should take time to conduct these kinds of competitions to allow our Soldiers the opportunity to see how good they really are and to go up against fellow Soldiers," said Eyer.

"The fact that you can take time out while we're fighting a war, prep for this, and to come up here and have your leaders support you to be able to do this really makes me proud," said Col. Pat White, commander, 2nd BCT, 1st Armd. Div.

Soldiers across the Army compete in monthly, quarterly and yearly boards and competitions within their companies and battalions before competing at the brigade level. After the experience of the brigade competition, both Santana and Howell encourage other Soldiers who may consider competing in similar events to do so.

"Give 110 percent," said Howell. "You never know, you could come back at the end and blow them away. Take the training to heart and use it."

Editor's note: Although Howell competed as a Specialist in the competition and received the title of Soldier of the Year, he was promoted Mar. 1 to the rank of sergeant.

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