FORT MCCOY, Wis. - The staccato pop of gunfire could barely be heard over the blowing rain as Soldiers fired off rounds from their M4 assault rifles. Targets popped up and visibly wobbled in the howling winds before being knocked down by 5.56 mm rounds. Cold, wet and tired, Soldiers became frustrated and strained to focus before dropping more targets.
The 2014 412th and 416th Theater Engineer Commands' Combined Best Warrior Competition kicked off in near-freezing weather conditions adding an extra challenge for the Army Reserve Soldiers participating in the event from April 27 to May 1. The 27 Soldiers and noncommissioned officers put their competitive spirit to the test for just four spots - one junior enlisted and one NCO from each TEC - to represent the engineers at the U.S. Army Reserve Command's Best Warrior Competition scheduled for June.
Along with the M4 weapons qualification, competitors participated in a variety of tasks including an Army Physical Fitness Test, a timed road march with loaded ruck sack, Army combatives, written essays and exams, a variety of Army Warrior Tasks, multiple mystery events and the dreaded sergeants major board.
Army Reserve Lt. Col. Reginald Truss, 479th Engineer Battalion commander and officer in charge of the 2014 BWC, said he believes that combining the competition for both TECs has been a wise decision.
"We have to understand each TEC's mission anyway, and we should be able to 'plug and play' any of the 416th and the 412th's units into any of the missions that each TEC covers," Truss said. "So using the BWC to combine the two TECs is a great exercise to introduce the TECs to each other, to make us work together and to know each other's capabilities."
"This is a great that it's combined because it's an economy of effort," Truss continued. "We use 'X' amount of Soldiers to support the Best Warrior Competition as the 412th to run the operation. The 416th would do the same thing. It would be redundant operations. Economy of effort, economy of funds to do one exercise is the way to go."
The combined effort also meant more Soldiers competing with each other at the same time, all of them vying for the top spots to advance to the next level.
"What I've seen so far is that the Soldiers have an extremely competitive spirit," said Army Reserve Command Sgt. Maj. Rick Virgil, 420th Engineer Brigade command sergeant major. "The points show the end result. The fact that the points are so very close just tells me that the caliber of Soldiers between the two theater engineer commands is quite close."
Army Reserve Maj. Jesus Cruz, 479th Engineer Battalion executive officer and additional duty safety officer for the 2014 BWC, has made an effort to participate in almost every event that the Soldiers are being put through. Cruz said he believes the event to be a great opportunity for Soldiers.
"I think this event is critical. I think it validates all the work they put into it," Cruz said. "I think it motivates Soldiers to strive to be the best at what they do."
"This morning, during the ruck march, I was with three Soldiers, and I could see each of them not wanting the other guy to beat them, each of them just exhausted, but none of them quit and all three crossed the finish line at the same time," Cruz said. "Just to see that sacrifice and the opportunity for the Soldiers to share, I'm very happy to be a part of it."
Cruz said he truly appreciates all of the effort put into the competition by each individual participating.
"I hope we validated all the sacrifice they put forth, all the sacrifice they made before they got here. Most of these competitors are true reservists - they have a family, they have school and they have work," Cruz said. "They have to take time from that schedule to prepare for this competition. I hope at the end of the day, all that sacrifice was worth it. I hope they were challenged physically and mentally and they're able to go home and know that all the hard work was worth it."
And hard work it was. Most Army Reservists don't have the luxury of using their full-time jobs to train for the competition. Many are in school or have a job separate from the Reserves so they have to dip into their personal time - time that could normally be spent with girlfriends, boyfriends, friends or family. But the competitive spirit motivates them to put time into such challenges.
"Personally, I love this stuff: ruck marches and shooting," Army Reserve Spc. Doty said. "I've never shot a pistol before so that was absolutely fantastic. I'm really good at it, apparently."
"Ruck marches, land navigation, those are things that I do for fun so this was just a great chance to do everything I love," Doty said. "Even if I don't win I had a blast here.
"It was tough - the rain, the blisters and everything - but I had a lot of fun with it," Doty said.
Doty also had a great deal of respect for the competition and his fellow Soldiers. "It's a huge honor. I'm extremely honored to have that gift, that I'm competitive enough to do these kinds of things," Doty said. "These are all really top-of-their-class Soldiers. The NCOs here are the best in their units and the Soldiers are way above their years. It's really great to put yourself against those people. It's a great way to motivate yourself to be better by being around people like this."
That kind of challenge has the added side effect of increased camaraderie.
"This competition was tough for everyone," Doty said. "I could see people getting up this morning with moans and groans and putting their heads back down. When you go through that kind of misery with someone - it's like, 'Only you and me know what that kind of pain is like.'"
Many of the competitors felt the same way.
"Yeah, it's been good, it's been tough," said Benjamin Mercer of Springfield, Mo., an Army Reserve sergeant with the 688th Engineer Company out of Harrison, Ark.
"The land nav was especially tough. To finally be done, it felt good," Mercer said.
While he enjoyed almost all of the events for different reasons, a few stood out more than others.
"I love all the shooting events," Mercer said.
He shot expert on the M4 range, shot a 30 out of 30 on the pistol and scored high on the night qualification as well.
Concluding the event was the often-feared sergeants major board, in which the competitors are required to conduct facing movements, answer a series of questions about everything from Army standards and regulations to current events, and sing the Army song.
Did Mercer have any nerves about the notoriously stressful intellectual challenge?
"No, not nervous. Just haven't had time to study, no time to prepare for it," Mercer said.
Competing Soldiers were not left alone to participate in the grueling weeklong challenge. Their sponsors - other Soldiers and NCOs who have knowledge from participation in previous competitions - are brought with to coach, motivate and keep a fire lit in their hearts.
"They do have their sponsors here to assist them through the competition and make sure that they're prepared and kept on track," Virgil said.
And being a sponsor has challenges unto itself.
"It's still tough," said Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Franklin of Little Rock, Ark., who drills with Mercer at the 688th. "You know where you're supposed to be, what you're supposed to do, but some of the events you just don't get to have any interaction with the guys.
"Overall, in the week or two leading up to it, I just made sure his orders were squared away, his uniform was squared away," Franklin said. "Just trying to take care of the detail stuff so all he has to worry about is the competition."
Cruz said he thinks the Soldiers that choose to compete are aware that winning the top spots isn't the only prize to be gained.
"I think this event is critical. I think it validates all the work they put into it," Cruz added. "I think it motivates Soldiers to strive to be the best at what they do."
Cruz had high praise for the Reservists.
"I am absolutely impressed with all of the competitors. I tried to participate in all of these events and keeping up with these Soldiers was very challenging," Cruz said. "I believe the highest compliment I can pay a Soldier is to say I would go to war with them. I would go to war with every one of these Soldiers."