JOINT BASE McGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. - When Staff Sgt. James Thornton reported to Fort Jackson for his battalion's Best Warrior competition, he got a surprise.
"Where's all your stuff? You're competing!" they told him.
Originally, that wasn't the plan.
He thought he was coming to serve as cadre: to help run the weapon qualification range as the safety officer.
Instead, he drove back home (fortunately, just an hour away), packed his combat gear and rushed back. Someone gave him a copy of the Army study guide, and he did his best on the fly.
He won that competition and moved up to the Theater Engineer Command (TEC) competition, hosted by the 412th and 416th TECs at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, in late April.
"I got to do absolutely zero train-up for the TEC level," said Thornton, living in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
That would make two competitions in a row: something that might seem like a troublesome pattern.
Lazy. Distracted. Procrastinator.
How is such a Soldier expected to compete in the 2014 Army Reserve Best Warrior Competition?
Except, Thornton is anything but those things. Rather, he's a portrayal of what an Army Reserve Soldier's life often looks like.
In his civilian life, Thornton works 15 to 19-hour days as an emergency tire technician.
"I'm the guy who goes out on the side of the interstate and change tractor and trailer tires," he said.
Sometimes, he gets calls for a job late into the night after he thought his day was done. Plus he has a 9-year-old son and another baby girl on the way.
When asked about his personal interests on his data sheet, Thornton wrote: "All work, no play."
After the battalion-level competition, Thornton went straight into a three-week annual training with his unit conducting route clearance and base defense. Again: no time to study. He woke regularly at 4:00 a.m. and rarely went back to sleep before midnight. He's a platoon sergeant for the 323rd Engineer Company, keeping his life busy with administrative requirements even after battle assembly is over.
"It really is (hard to train) to be honest with you. Sometimes I get home, and if I'm lucky, I get home by 5:30, 6 o'clock, and be able to go running, but most of the time, I get a phone call interrupting my run to go do other work," he said.
His ambitions have changed over time. Life will do that. When he first joined the Army, he had high hopes to collect as many specialized tabs he could fit on his shoulder. Unfortunately, those school seats are very limited, even more so for reserve Soldiers. Yet, competing as a best Warrior has given him a new perspective of the Soldiers around him.
"All I ever wanted to do was special forces (type) stuff ... and getting up here with these guys is like a dream come true. I've always wanted to be the best, and nowadays, it's getting where I can get deployed and try out with the best, you know? And I love it," he said.
These Soldiers really do represent the best of all the commands across the Army Reserve. Unfortunately, this has been the third competition in a row where Thornton has barely had a chance to study or prepare. While his competitors were disassembling and reassembling rifles and 9 mm pistols for practice, Thornton watched his baby girl on the ultrasound monitor. Or forced a wheel lug loose as traffic blazed past him a few feet away.
Some competitors have been training for months. Thornton had to rely on a different edge to compensate for his lack of studying.
His first one was to Iraq in 2004-2005, barely six months out of high school. His second was back to Iraq in 2007-2008, where he performed route clearance missions as a combat engineer. Then a third one to Afghanistan in 2010-2011 where his unit ranked in the top two percentile of units with combat interaction during that period.
"All the little individual skills stuff, like treating a burn, searching a vehicle, I've done that in real world operations," said Thornton.
Despite that, the TEC competition was a tight one through the end. The winners for the 416th and 412th were decided by just a few points. There were a few occasions when Thornton wasn't sure he'd actually come out on top.
"My (physical fitness) test absolutely sucked. Like, I was nowhere near 270. I think I might have gotten a 210. And I don't know if you saw, but I was dead last on the ruck march," said Thornton, of his last competition.
Still he persevered and pushed through the end. He made up the points with combat experience where he lost them due to lack of preparation.
He made it to the Army Reserve level where he fared better on his run and march times. Just before coming here, he managed to squeeze in a modern Army combatives course. Between ultrasound appointments and changing tires on the highway, he tried to keep his knowledge fresh as much as possible.
This week, Thornton will find out if his deployed experience still counts enough toward the competition's challenges.
At least, this time, he didn't have to drive back home to grab his gear.