SAVANNAH, Ga. - Soldiers from Utah and Montana have been named the Army National Guard's top Soldier and noncommissioned officer of the year following two days of "Best Warrior" competition at Fort Benning, Ga.

After two grueling days with little sleep and events designed to stress the candidates both physically and mentally, the winners are:

Aca,!Ac Soldier of the Year - Spc. Jeremy Whipple of Utah's E Company, 1st Attack Helicopter Battalion, 211th Aviation Regiment.

Aca,!Ac NCO of the Year - Staff Sgt. Michael Noyce-Merino from Montana's B Troop, 1st Squadron, 163rd Cavalry Regiment.

Thirteen competed Aug. 11-13 for the right to be called the two best Soldiers among the Army Guard's more than 323,000 enlisted men and women and to advance to the Army's competition for top Soldier and NCO.

Runner-up for Soldier of the Year was Spc. Joel Cadett, from Connecticut's Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 169th Aviation Regiment. Florida's Sgt. Douglas Bishop, from C Troop, 1st Squadron, 153rd Cavalry Regiment, was named the runner-up for NCO of the Year.

The winners and runners-up were announced here Thursday night during the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States' 37th annual conference.

Whipple and Noyce-Merino, the winners, will next compete for the Department of the Army's Soldier and NCO of the Year honors in October at Fort Lee, Va.

However, they have already got the gold for the Army National Guard's equivalent of the Olympics.

"There were some phenomenal Soldiers in this competition," said Whipple. "I had even read some articles about [the other competitors] before I began. I knew the competition was going to be tough. I knew I was going to give it my best effort, but, quite honestly, I expected not to win."
"I'm shocked," Noyce-Merino said. "I never thought six months ago before I started all of this that this would ever happen in my career, so it's a bit overwhelming. Now, of course, the challenge is going to be the next level. But that's kind of the way it's been up to this point."

Even though only two individuals walked away with those titles, many felt that all the competitors who made it to this level were truly the best.

"When you get done with this competition, you can stand up to anybody at any time, and you'll have that confidence level because you'll know you have done something that very few people can say they have done or ever will do," Command Sgt. Maj. John Gipe, command sergeant major of the Army National Guard, told the competitors before the events began.

In order to make it to this level, competitors had already competed at the unit level, major command level, the state level and then the regional level. All 13 had won regional Soldier and NCO competitions.

For many, going through that process was one thing that helped them prepare for the competition at Fort Benning.

"We had the regional competition a few months ago, and I got into really good shape for that," said Cadett. "So all you have to do is maintain it. It's basically all the same events."

Those events included performing a functions check on an M-16A2 rifle, calling for artillery fire, emplacing and recovering an M18A1 Claymore mine and evaluating and treating a casualty.

The competition also included events that were much more physically demanding. The competitors began by taking a modified Army Physical Fitness Test. The pushups and sit-ups were the same, but a five-mile run replaced the traditional two-miler, and competitors then had to do pull-ups.

Later in the day, they all took part in a combat water survival test. They were required to swim in full uniform and with a weapon after jumping into the water blindfolded. The swimming event was new to some competitors.

"There have been a lot of other events here so far that I've never done before, like the combat swim," said Bishop. "That was the best. Just getting pushed off that high-dive without knowing when you're going to hit the water. I wouldn't even mind doing it a little higher next time just to get that adrenaline pumping."

But for many, the most physically demanding event was the 12-mile road march while carrying a 35-pound rucksack over Fort Benning's hilly terrain.

"The toughest part, and I didn't anticipate this, was the ruck march," said Spc. Eli Lilley, from Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 115th Fires Brigade out of Cheyenne, Wyo. "I just anticipated stepping out, jogging in a few parts, and pretty much just shutting off my mind and just ruck. But it actually took a lot of mental fortitude to get through that and that was more challenging than I expected it to be. Most other ruck marches I'm fine."

For some, preparing was the most challenging part of the competition.

"The most challenging (thing) for me was that I'm a full-time student and I usually take 18-21 credit hours per semester," said Bishop, who attends the University of Florida. "So to balance that and still try and stay on top of this has been a bit of a headache sometimes, but it's working out so far."

And preparation is the key to success, said many of the competitors. For many, that preparation came in the form of running, ruck marches, additional PT and studying possible board questions. Many of the competitors praised their unit leaders for providing much of the assistance to get ready for the event.

"All around, when they say 'I am a warrior and a member of a team,' (from the Soldier's Creed), whoever wrote that wasn't kidding. This really was a team effort," said Lilley about the help he received to get ready.

Other Soldiers got help from other resources.

"I spent a lot of time doing ruck marches and runs, typically with my dog," said Sgt. 1st Class Jennifer Butler, a course manager at the 640th Regiment (Regional Training Institute) in Riverton, Utah. "He's a pit bull, but he requires a lot of exercise, so that was one way to get out and move a lot."

And after the events were completed, many of the competitors felt positively about the experience, including the 12-mile march.

"It's been a fantastic opportunity," said Bishop. "The biggest thing is to just soak up every minute of it. You can learn so much from not only the cadre, but from the senior enlisted people you meet throughout it."