From failure to accomplishment: Kaiserslautern NCO's resiliency leads to competition comeback
April 23, 2012
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- Last year, Staff Sgt. Robert Donovan pushed himself too hard during the road march at the best warrior competition. He hadn't drank enough water, his muscles cramped and his legs felt shaky.
Afterward, while plotting points on his map, Donovan felt delirious and dehydrated. Alone in the woods, he radioed for help -- signaling the end to his ambition of being Installation Management Command Europe Region's NCO of the Year.
"It shook me up quite a bit, but I made a decision to get some treatment," Donovan said. "I was worried because my body had never failed me like that. It was quite a disappointment."
Yet, instead of simply accepting defeat, Donovan saw his failure as an important lesson, a motivating factor that led him back to the 2012 IMCOM-Europe Best Warrior Competition, held recently at U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr.
"I've always been competitive and I love putting myself to the test," Donovan said. "Up until that point, I didn't know what it felt like to fail."
A military police investigations supervisor at a U.S. Army Garrison Kaiserslautern, Donovan, 28, of Boston, Mass., excelled at sports in high school. In 2005, after two years studying criminal justice at New Hampshire's Saint Anselm College, Donovan enlisted as military police officer. Assigned to 118th Military Police Company (Airborne) at Fort Bragg, N.C., Donovan first tasted Army competition at the military police warfighter event. His team placed sixth of 40.
But, tougher tests lay ahead.
In 2006, he endured a 15-month deployment to Baghdad, Iraq. Returning to Fort Bragg, he underwent specialized MP training, earned sergeant's stripes and got married. Before long, he returned to combat, deploying in 2009 to Afghanistan's Logar Province -- where he helped train Afghan police, conducted security patrols and served on a quick reaction force.
On Jan. 13, 2010, while on a convoy, Donovan overheard chatter on his company's radio frequency -- Soldiers from his platoon were hit by an improvised explosive device. Donovan admired Staff Sgt. Daniel Merriweather, a squad leader who led from the front, Donovan said. Merriweather, 25, of Collierville Tenn., and Pfc. Geoffrey Whitsitt, 21, of Taylors, S.C. were killed when an insurgent detonated the IED. Another Soldier, the gunner, was severely injured. Afterward, Donovan helped carry his fallen comrades to an awaiting aircraft -- "one of those moments in the Army you'll never forget," he said.
Garrison assignment offers a change of pace
Donovan now serves in civilian clothes, conducting investigations. In Kaiserslautern, he passed a local board, earning NCO of the Quarter. At U.S. Army Garrison Baden-Württemberg, the next higher command, he earned NCO of the Year.
IMCOM-Europe's best warrior competition includes a physical training test, weapons qualification, a 12-mile road march with a 35 pound rucksack, day and night land navigation courses, written tests and essays -- plus a board appearance. In 2011, when Donovan ran the entire road march without slowing for water, it cost him dearly.
"Not drinking water led to cramping," Donovan said, looking back at his misjudgment. "By that point, I don't think any amount of water would have helped."
Back in Kaiserslautern, Donovan endured good natured ribbing from fellow Soldiers, who stacked water bottles on his desk and hung pictures of intravenous solution on office walls. He kept the water bottles, looking at them every day for nearly a year, promising himself to return to the competition and win.
That meant again winning successive boards in Kaiserslautern and Heidelberg. Meanwhile, he shed 20 pounds and practiced road marching. In April, he returned to Grafenwoehr, facing the same competition cadre who were like, "you're back, drink water," Donovan said.
"I had to live up to those promises," Donovan said. "In my heart, I knew I had what it took to win this."
Making a comeback
As dawn's first light crept across the Bavarian countryside, Donovan shouldered his 35-pound rucksack and took up a running pace along the same route that broke him nearly a year earlier. This time he planned ahead, drinking a canteen of water every three miles.
Deep thoughts motivated Donovan along the route. Since losing the previous year, he'd gone through a divorce and his grandfather died. He still was grieving the loss of friends in combat. Under the weight of full combat gear, he paced himself against another Soldier running ahead. By the halfway point, Donovan gained, determined to finish first. When the Soldier slowed to a walk, Donovan blew past.
"Dude, you're a beast," the Soldier called out.
"I just think I got a second wind," Donovan humbly replied.
Crossing the finish at 2 hours, 20 minutes, Donovan was exhausted. He broke down, just a little.
"For the first time in my life, I got emotional based on my accomplishment, shedding a few tears," Donovan said.
Command Sgt. Maj. Barry Maieritsch, IMCOM Europe Region's senior enlisted leader, greeted Donovan at the finish. A year earlier, when Donovan fell out of the competition, he promised Maieritsch to return.
"That's what life is all about, taking the knock, learning the lesson and driving on," Maieritsch said.
Donovan ambitiously swept through the land navigation course, where he faced defeat a year earlier. During common Soldier tasks, such as first aid and radio communication, he remained focused.
By the following morning, he stood in his dress uniform before sergeants major at the formal board.
"The feeling of accomplishment had already hit," Donovan said. "I wanted to finish this year's competition, win or lose, just finish it."
During an April 17 ceremony in Heidelberg, Donovan stood stoically among fellow competitors as his name was announced as 2012's NCO of the Year. He went to San Antonio, to take part in the IMCOM-level competition. Afterward, he hopes to compete at Army level.
Before the ceremony, Kathleen Marin, IMCOM Europe Region director, spoke candidly with the Soldiers about what they achieved.
"It tested you physically, mentally and academically. It tested your poise and maturity," Marin said. "This is what we need from our Soldiers, a well-rounded look. You're the whole package and we're so proud of you. You're all winners."
Over the past few months, fellow Soldiers watched as Donovan prepared himself, doing extra physical training, practice road marches, studying Army manuals and getting his uniform prepared. Donovan sets a very high standard for himself physically, mentally and professionally, said Sgt. Raymond Engstrom, an MP who works with him at U.S. Army Garrison Kaiserslautern.
"This was his competition and he was going to win no matter what," Engstrom said. "It's a proud moment for such a small unit. It's raised the bar."
As for Donovan, he's committed to competing. But he also learned a valuable lesson that he hopes other Soldiers will understand from hearing his story.
"Resiliency is most important thing an NCO can have," Donovan said. "You don't learn unless you fail at times."