PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colorado -- Seven of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command's top warriors faced off this week to determine who
would be the command's 2017 Best Warriors.

The command's regional winners descended on Peterson Air Force Base and Fort Carson to compete in a variety of Soldier skills for the command's Best Warrior Competition, May 8-12.

"Before you stand seven individuals who have competed around the world for our regional Best Warriors," said Sgt. Maj. Heather Smith, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command G-3 Operations sergeant major. "They are the best of those regions, and they have fought tooth and nail to be here."

Facing off were four noncommissioned officers and three Soldiers: Sgt. Evan G. Howell and Spc. Samuel Leznik, Company B, 53rd Signal Battalion, Fort Meade, Maryland, Eastern Region; Staff Sgt. Christian J. Budeshefsky, 1st Space Battalion, Colorado Springs, Colorado, Western Region; Sgt. Justin C. Thompson and Spc. Manuel R. Martinez, Company D, 53rd Signal Battalion, Wahiawa, Hawaii, Pacific Region; and Sgt. 1st Class Russell W. Merrill and Spc. Eduardo Herrera, Company C, 53rd Signal Battalion, Landstuhl, Germany, European Region.

"On behalf of Command Sgt. Maj. (Jerome) Wiggins, who can't be here today, I convey his gratitude for the effort that you all have put forth in this competition. You have taken it to a new level this year, Soldiers," Smith said. "Command Sgt. Maj. Wiggins has witnessed the determination in you and feels very fortunate to have met you at the ice breaker Monday night. On behalf of the command team, I congratulate each and every one you for making it this far."

The winners were announced during a ceremony May 11 at the command's operational headquarters on Peterson Air Force Base. The NCO Best Warrior is Budeshefsky and the Soldier Best Warrior is Leznik.

Budeshefsky said that he was relieved that all the hours of studying and training paid off.

"To find out that I won, felt like a big weight off my shoulders, but it's still very surreal to me," he said. "The other NCOs I competed against all pushed me to my limit and made me really push myself. It's a bit intimidating knowing you are competing against the best of the best from around the world.

"I want to thank 1st Space Battalion for all their support and mentorship and Command Sgt. Maj. (Scott) Sutherland for seeing the potential in me and pushing me from the day I arrived to the unit," Budeshefsky continued. "Not many Soldiers make it to this level, so to make it to the next level is a humbling experience."

Leznik said it was a close competition, and he was not sure he was going to come out on top.

"I was definitely stunned," Leznik said. "I feel proud to represent the Space and Missile Defense Command and especially the competitors who came out. Being out here in Colorado was by far the best part of this competition. This is a fantastic group, and I'm glad to have been able to share this time, train and compete with them."

The Soldiers competed in a series of events testing their skills including the Army Physical Fitness Test, a 12-mile ruck march, day land navigation, Warrior Tasks and Battle Drills, a mystery event, a written test and essay, and an appearance before a board.

Leznik said the ruck march was the most challenging event for him.

"The most challenging event is always the ruck march," he said. "No matter how good you feel when you start, by mile eight you're running on fumes, and with the mud we were trudging through the exhaustion was turned up to 11."

Budeshefsky agreed that the mud from the rain that week definitely made the ruck more difficult than normal saying that each foot felt like it weighed 10 pounds each. He said his favorite event was the M4 qualification.

"I love shooting and doing it competitively against others really brings out the competitor in me," he said. "The whole week gave me a sense of achievement; I say that because these competitions not only test you physically but mentally as well."

Leznik said land navigation was his least favorite event because it did not go very well, but that he was proud of his board performance.

"I want to thank the SMDC/ARSTRAT command team for making this competition happen and for giving us the opportunity to challenge ourselves," Leznik said. "A special thanks to Sgt. 1st Class (Wolfgang) McLachlan for the outstanding support he gave us all along the way and of course a big thank you to my mom for being patient and understanding all along this roller coaster."

Col. Tim Lawson, USASMDC/ARSTRAT's deputy commander for support said that he was familiar with the competition and how much work went in to them.

"There's going to be two of you who walk away as winners today, but in our minds right now all of you are winners," Lawson said. "The fact that out of 1,700 Soldiers in this command, only seven are standing here today fully volunteering to do this. You went through several phases up to this point and each phase gets a little tougher. It's just awesome that we have Soldiers willing to stand up and do the things you are doing. It says a lot about who you are as an NCO, and it says a lot about who you are as an enlisted Soldier. I want to congratulate each and every one of you. You really are winners."

Budeshefsky and Leznik will represent the command in the Military District of Washington Best Warrior Competition in August.