FORT LEE, Va. - Twenty-three competitors awoke at 4 a.m. to a brisk November morning, strapping on boots, donning ballistic vests and clipping on helmets. They stepped out into the darkness of the Virginia morning, not knowing their day would last until darkness returned.
This was only the first morning of the three-day Army Best Warrior competition, where representatives from 12 Army commands around the world came to claim the titles of Soldier of the Year and Noncommissioned Officer of the Year.
Two of those competitors were Spc. Mitchell Fromm, a combat engineer from Wausau, Wis., and Sgt. 1st Class Jason Manella, a civil affairs specialist from Fremont, Calif. They came to represent the Army Reserve Command in this year's competition, ready to show that the Reserve doesn't produce subpar, part-time Soldiers.
"These Soldiers have committed to compete and committed to be the best Soldier and the best [noncommissioned officer]," said Command Sgt. Maj. Luther Thomas, the command sergeant major of the Army Reserve.
"Their commitment spans beyond two days out of the month and 14 days out of their summer. They've committed the entire month, the entire year to this competition. There's no way you can just wait until battle assembly and say, 'Okay, I'm going to practice these two days,' and the other 28 days you don't do anything," said Thomas.
Both Manella and Fromm won the Best Warrior competition at the Army Reserve level in their respective categories in June. Since then, they've done nothing but fill their calendars with training. Cardio in the morning. Strength training in the evening. Study time in between. While their friends urged them to hang out on the weekends, they opted for mock-boards and up-hill ruck marches instead.
This should dispel the rumor that Reserve soldiers don't train as hard as the active components.
"There's definitely a stigma in being a reservist, and some sort of expectation that I'm out of shape, ill-prepared, not as competent as active duty Soldiers, but you know we train just as hard, and we train to the same standards," said Manella, who is with the 445th Civil Affairs Battalion.
In August and September, Manella and Fromm were put on active orders for two straight months. They worked with a group of drill sergeants and former competitors, straining every brain cell and every muscle to push themselves to their finest.
Sometimes, Manella and Fromm had to become creative or resourceful to train because even though the Reserve has all of the same resources available as active duty Soldiers, those resources are spread out. Unlike active soldiers living on a military installation, Reserve soldiers don't always have training equipment at their fingertips. In fact, Manella trained on his own time and dime, shooting his personal 9mm pistol and a friend's AR15 rifle to stay sharp.
"It was hard to know what to prepare for because there is so much that a Soldier should know at a basic level," said Fromm, who is a combat engineer with the 428th Engineer Company, stationed in Wausau, Wis., which belongs to the 416th Theater Engineer Command, in Darien, Ill.
Additionally, during the government shutdown in October, funding was cut for most Reserve Soldiers and their training, so both Manella and Fromm scrambled for ways to train without funded support.
They did all this while juggling their civilian lives. Fromm is a firefighter and Manella is working toward a bachelor's degree in accounting. As Reserve soldiers advance in their military career, their Army obligations begin to creep in more and more into their civilian lives. Often, senior NCOs in the Reserve stack countless hours on top of their regular jobs to juggle Army requirements.
"The Army Reserve is not a part-time Army. There's a lot of stuff that goes on in between drill weekends: between phone calls, keeping tabs on your soldiers, setting up training for the next weekend. The two weeks a year is only a minimum," said Manella.
In order to get to this stage, each competitor had to first advance in previous competitions. Fromm began his journey at the company level, which means he competed five different times just to make it here: the Super Bowl of Best Warrior Competitions. Each event before this one was somewhat of a playoff game, where only the winners advanced to the next level. Most competitors at this level have trained for more than a year to get here.
"It was such a long journey. And I've put so much effort into it. I just - It's amazing that you really can do anything you put your mind to," said Manella.
Both mind and body were tested during the challenges.
The first event of the day kicked off with the Army Physical Fitness Test held on the pavement of an old air landing strip. As soon as the Soldiers completed their two-mile run, they were given just enough time to change back into their boots and combat gear before they were off again. Each competitor received a destination point. Then, one at a time, they marched away not knowing what to expect next.
By the end of the first day, each competitor had marched at least 12 miles as he navigated from one point to the next. Along the way, they crawled beneath barbed wire, assembled and fired an M9 pistol, an M4 rifle, an M249 squad automatic weapon, put on a gas mask and chemical protective suit, changed a Humvee tire, carried ammo cans across the woods, assembled a radio, were ambushed, evacuated an amputee from a exploded Humvee, reacted to an explosion inside a village, only to finish off the day with a written test. They marched and reacted to events for a solid ten hours without even a lunch break. If they wanted to eat, they snuck in bites of food along their routes.
During an essay portion held indoors, mortar rounds dropped in the distance, followed by bursts of small arms fire. They served as an omen for what may come next.
The competitors were kept mostly separated throughout the day, tackling each event alone. Not only was the first day physically grueling, but it held a psychological component as well. Each step they took was a step into the unknown. They had to remain alert the entire time, very much like a deployment overseas.
"The confusion and the stress always adds to it. Not being able to plan for it," said Fromm. "I wasn't sure what was going to happen [next]. So a lot of it was just being aware of your surroundings."
The second day greeted them with a round-robin of drill-and-ceremony challenges and a leadership reaction course, where each competitor was assigned a team of soldiers to navigate obstacles that were more mental than physical. One challenge, for example, was to transport a barrel across a "river" using only a rope, a pole and two pieces of chain.
There was such a variety of events that it leveled the playing field without favoring one Army command over another. The Reserve contestants were just as equipped to compete as the rest of the branches. What used to be a prevalent stigma, seems to have faded over the years.
"I thought that as soon as [the other competitors] found out I was Reserve, I would immediately get outcasted or ostracized, but they've been very receptive. We tell stories from overseas. We're all NCOs, so we've been getting along really well. I don't feel that it's hindered me in any way as far as the events themselves," said Manella.
In the end, this competition was not intended to pit one branch against the other. The goal was to unite, not divide.
"That's the biggest difference between this competition and all the other competitions. We're not just here to beat each other and have a winner. We're all training together. We're all learning from each other, and regardless who wins, the Army benefits," said Fromm.