WHEELER ARMY AIR FIELD, Hawaii -- Army transporters from three continents converged on Wheeler Army Air Field May 21-23 as the 599th Transportation Brigade hosted the 2012 Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command Best Warrior Challenge.

"It was like the 'Survivor' television show," said Command Sgt. Maj. Cedric Thomas, SDDC's senior enlisted leader. "We brought everyone out to the islands, to Hawaii, and at the end there was only one person standing in each category -- only one NCO and one Soldier of the Year."

All Soldiers had already won their battalion and brigade-level competitions or had been selected as a brigade NCO or Soldier of the Year before they came to compete.

After three, grueling days, the SDDC Noncommissioned Officer of the Year is Sgt. Richard Gonzalez of the 595th Trans. Bde., Camp Arifjan, Kuwait; and the command's Soldier of the Year is Spc. James Conklin, 690th Rapid Port Opening Element, 597th Trans. Bde., at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.

The first morning of competition began with a physical fitness test and weigh-in.

"You talk about tough; Sergeant Gonzalez had just flown in from Kuwait and then had to do a PT test the next day," said Thomas.

During late morning and afternoon May 21, after competitors had cleaned up and changed into their Army service uniforms, they underwent a written test, essay, and stood before a board comprised of SDDC command sergeants major. They also had to deliver on a mystery task -- prepare a 10 to 15 minute class within one hour for presentation to the board.

Staff Sgt. Jesus Grajales, 599th Trans. Bde. NCO of the Year, said he enjoyed the opportunity to take the tests and boards.

"Even though I began working for this a few months ago, there was a lot of general Army knowledge on those tests that I didn't know until I took them. It was a great opportunity to learn," he said.

The second day was the busiest of the competition. The day began with a road march that ended at Schofield Barracks' East Range obstacle course. The competitors then went right onto the obstacle course. After the course, they completed various warrior tasks, for which they were given a pass or fail grade. They then had some time to rest and change uniforms for a night land navigation exercise.

Most competitors agreed that the obstacle course was by far the most difficult event. Because the obstacle course came right after the road march, muscles were sore and less agile.

"It surprised me," added Conklin. "That was a tough course anyway, but right after the road march like that, we all had to dig deep to get through it."

The morning of the third day, competitors tested their rifle marksmanship skills at a Schofield Barracks' rifle range. They then ate a potluck lunch with the 599th Trans. Bde., followed by the presentation of NCO and Soldier of the Year awards in the afternoon.

The next level of competition for Gonzalez and Conklin is Army Materiel Command at Redstone Arsenal, Ala. The winners from the AMC event will go on to compete at the U.S. Army best Warrior Challenge.

All the SDDC Soldiers said they appreciated the camaraderie of their competitors.

"I was surprised and pleased at how much everyone tried to help each other," said Gonzalez. "It was inspiring. Even though we were competing, we were all motivating each other to complete the tasks."

"This really brought me back to basics and reminded me why I became a Soldier," added Sgt. 1st Class Andrea Luke of the 834th Trans. Bn., Concord, Calif. Luke is the 596th Trans. Bde. NCO of the Year.

"The whole experience, to be out there competing with these guys, has been so great. It is humbling to see everyone working so hard to win, and yet helping each other along," she said.

SDDC's command sergeant major said the competitors' range of ages surprised him.

"We had a 22-year-old, all the way up to 46," added Thomas.

Beyond the competition, Soldiers agreed that it was great to get all the components of SDDC together. Just as the 599th Trans. Bde. has battalions situated throughout the pacific to best extend its reach in that area of the world, so does its higher headquarters. SDDC, based in Scott Air Force Base, Ill., has brigades posted throughout the world working together to deliver surface cargo to the Warfighter.

"I get to see the other sergeants major at various events, but those are usually far away from anyone's office. This [competition] gave us a chance to really talk about things and to exchange ideas," said Command Sgt. Maj. Kevin McKeller, 599th Trans. Bde. senior enlisted leader.

McKeller said the set up for the competition was challenging.

"We don't have any assets. So we had to go outside the brigade for everything," he said.

Sgt. 1st Class LoNika Harris, 599th Trans. Bde. first sergeant, agreed.

"So many units helped us set this up," she said. "The 45th Sustainment Brigade helped us with the obstacle course and warrior tasks; [the 500th Military Intelligence Brigade helped] with the range and weapons; and the 25th Infantry Division helped with the ammunition. Every single person from the other units all had such great attitudes about helping out, too.

"I'm not even sure which unit it was that brought in the water for the low crawl. Someone just called me up out of the blue one day and asked if we minded if they wet down the pits," she said.

SDDC contestants included Sgt. Richard Gonzalez, 595th Trans. Bde. NCO of the Year, Camp Arifjan, Kuwait; Sgt. 1st Class Andrea Luke, 834th Transportation Battalion, Concord, Calif., 596th Trans. Bde. NCO of the Year; Sgt. Jeffrey Rouda, 688th Rapid Port Opening Element, 597th Trans. Bde. NCO of the Year, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.; Spc. James Conklin, 690th Rapid Port Opening Element, 597th Trans. Bde. Soldier of the Year, JB Langley-Eustis; Sgt. Kia Xiong, 598th Trans. Bde. NCO of the Year, Rotterdam, The Netherlands; and Staff Sgt. Jesus Grajales, 599th Trans. Bde. NCO of the Year, Wheeler Army Air Field, Hawaii.

Page last updated Tue May 29th, 2012 at 10:28