CAMP DODGE, Iowa -- Twenty-three Iowa Army National Guard Soldiers from across the state gathered at Camp Dodge Joint Maneuver Training Center in Johnston, Iowa for the annual Best Warrior Competition held March 18 -- 20. The competitors, grouped into junior enlisted and Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) categories for the competition, were faced with a variety of challenges that tested their knowledge, skills and mental endurance.

"It was a good mix of knowledge and physical activities," said Sgt. Cody L. Vantiger, a Sioux City, Iowa, native and heavy equipment operator for the 831st Engineer Company, 224th Engineer Battalion in Middletown, Iowa. "It's a tough weekend, and it's long, but we get through it."

The tough weekend consisted of the Army Physical Fitness Test, weapons qualification, drill and ceremony, an obstacle course, a 12-mile march while carrying a 35-pound rucksack, and several other events.

The Soldiers are notified of the events before the competition so they can study and train for them, but this year there was a mystery event none of the competitors knew about in advance: a three-mile run that took place directly following the physical fitness test, which itself contains a two-mile run.

"It really took me by surprise, but it's what we train for," said Staff Sgt. Jason A. England, of Polk City, Iowa, and a senior management analyst for Joint Forces Headquarters in Johnston.

Training for this competition is critical. With competitors from widely varying job backgrounds in the military -- everything from unit supply specialists to infantrymen -- there was something to challenge everyone.

"It took me five months to prepare. I spent a lot of time studying for the appearance board and the written test, and spent two to three hours a day doing physical fitness training to get into shape," said Sgt. Allison R. Knipe, an Oskaloosa, Iowa, native and unit supply specialist for Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 734th Regional Support Group at Camp Dodge.

The appearance board was a formal question and answer session in which the state's most senior enlisted personnel asked a series of wide-ranging questions about Army rules and regulations. Occasionally, Soldiers were stumped, digging deep into the recesses of their memory for an answer but finding none.

These occasional missteps and mistakes during an individual event didn't faze the competitors, though. If they made a mistake, they shrugged it off and drove on to the next event, regaining their confidence by executing another task to standard.

"I felt like I did pretty well until the ruck march," said Spc. Ethan Estabrooks, a Slater, Iowa, native and crew chief and mechanic with Company C, 2-147th Aviation in Boone. "I enjoyed the land navigation event the most. Within time I was able to find all the points which I was happy with."

For the land navigation event, the Soldiers were given eight grid coordinates, a map, a protractor and a compass. They then had to plot each grid coordinate on the map of Camp Dodge, and walk to each point on the map. Each location contained a unique stamp to prove they found it. Points were given for each grid coordinate successfully reached, and ties were settled with the fastest time.

And, in the end, it was all about trying to avoid ties in each of the events. It was about trying to be the fastest, the smartest, and the toughest. Each Soldier pushed themselves to their physical and mental limit, ignoring the bitter cold and snow during the obstacle course and ignoring the ever-growing blisters on their booted feet during the ruck march.

Each of these Soldiers tried their best to elevate their performance above the efforts of their peers. The spirit of competition was alive and well inside each and every one of the competitors.

"Competition is what drives me," said Spc. Dakota VanBrocklin, a Dubuque, Iowa, native and combat medic with the 134th Medical Company (Ground Ambulance), 109th Multifunctional Medical Battalion at Camp Dodge. "I'm very goal oriented. The competition gave me something to look forward to and train towards. Putting in the time and effort outside of drills and when you're tired and doing the things you don't want to do is really what makes you the best."

VanBrocklin's drive ultimately pushed him to victory in this competition, where he was declared the Soldier of the Year out of the nine competitors in the junior enlisted category.

Sgt. John Finken, the newly-titled Non-Commissioned Officer of the Year, shares a similar drive.

"I've always been internally motivated. That's something I've never had a problem with. If I have goals it forces me to get ready," said the Johnston, Iowa resident and military police officer with the 186th Military Police Company at Camp Dodge. "I want to push myself to always improve, and I've learned you're either on your way up or you're on your way out."

Only one Non-Commissioned Officer and one junior enlisted Soldier were given the titles of Best Warrior during the event, all of the competitors demonstrated the high values held by American Soldiers. Each of them shared the determination and drive to never accept defeat and to never quit.

"Every one of them put everything they had into it to try to be number one in either the Soldier or the NCO category," said Command Sgt. Maj. Rachel Fails, the State Command Sergeant Major for the Iowa Army National Guard.

"All these Soldiers worked extremely hard to get to the state-level competition. They've gone through a competition at the unit level and then competed at the battalion level; these Soldiers really wanted to be here. It is very rewarding to see how much effort they put into every event," she said.