By Sgt. Adrian Shelton, 715th Public Affairs DetachmentJuly 12, 2017
A Citizen-Soldier from the District of Columbia National Guard emerged as the top noncommissioned officer at the Region II, Best Warrior Competition, at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, May 12, 2017.
For the last three years, D.C. National Guardsman have placed no higher than second in the competition's "Best NCO" and "Best Soldier" categories. This year, Army Sgt. Michael Cohen, an infantryman and survey team member from the DCNG's 33rd Weapons of Mass Destruction-Civil Support Team, edged out several other Soldiers to earn a distinctive place among past winners.
"He is prepared, physically fit; his heart's in it, and he is the first from the D.C. Guard to make it past the regional level of competition to advance to nationals," said Command Sgt. Maj. Michael F. Brooks, command sergeant major, Land Component Command, D.C. Army National Guard. "Sgt. Cohen's success in moving on to the national competition is proof of the enormous talent among our Soldiers and Airmen."
The Best Warrior Competition is the culminating test of the total Soldier concept for Army noncommissioned officers. Local, state, regional, and national-level BWCs are held in different locations each year, challenging each wave of competitors to engage in individual, soldier task-based competencies alongside one another in various environments.
The Best Warrior Competition brings competitors together from seven regions, and consists of an appearance board, written exam, obstacle course, road march, warrior tasks to include a "mystery event."
According to Cohen, the desire, to take on the challenges presented at competition is driven by a number of reasons.
"It's accountability, ownership and not coming up with excuses to not show up," Cohen said. "BWC makes me feel what I used to feel at Ranger Battalion. It sucks when you're doing it. You're tired and hungry, but you're going to drive forward and do what needs to be done. I love the BWC because it encompasses everything a Soldier should be, needs to be, and should want to be."
While preparing to compete, Cohen worked full time at a shipping and receiving warehouse in Virginia, where he has settled with his spouse and two children. His Army Combat Uniform appears a little baggy at times on his "lean and mean" physique, as he burns strings off his uniform with a lighter. He said he still does that because it's an old school reminder of having tasks, conditions, and standards for everything in the military, as well as the increased visibility of military lifestyles to the public.
"Like that song by Tupac Shakur, 'All eyes on me,' all eyes are always on D.C.," Cohen said. "It is the nation's capital. When people say "Capital Guardians" it's a big thing. Unlike the 50 states, D.C. doesn't have a governor. The President of the U.S. is directly in our chain of command, so when he asks for our resources and us to help with something, we have to be ready and act accordingly."
Acting accordingly is a major tenet of Cohen's life. Having volunteered, endured, and fought alongside fellow Army Rangers as part of 75th Ranger Battalion. He credits combat lifesaver skills and Ranger training that pushed his body to the limit, as he emphasizes the importance of being prepared for anything and everything.
"Regardless of who you are or your specialty, you're a Soldier first, so it behooves you to know warrior tasks and drills," Cohen said. "You're better off for the training in stressful environments, so you'll act accordingly if you are ever in a situation that will require you to act, to save someone's life; if they're in an accident, or they pass out. Even if you don't always know what to do, you'll know how to stay calm and be a positive influence, as opposed to a hindrance because you're freaking out."
In his mid-thirties, Cohen may as well be over six feet tall as he embodies, in appearance and composure, the attention-to-detail appearance of a Soldier easily encasing a history of old school, high endurance level physical and mental training. The sound of his voice resembles a tuba starting off quietly in the band, but on the verge of taking on a solo performance. One cannot help but notice and pay undivided attention when he recalls what led to his passion for the military lifestyle.
Growing up, his family moved from D.C. to Mexico, then Maryland and finally settling in Virginia. His childhood was influenced by Westerns featuring John Wayne, war movies and commercials featuring the U.S. Marine Corps, G.I. Joe, He-Man, and Masters of the Universe. He admits while in high school, his mouth got him in trouble with faculty.
After graduation, he witnessed friends remain in northern Virginia tied to high school classmates, he knew the military was his option and was driven by an urge to make something bigger of himself. It was mostly an Army Rangers advertisement on a CD-ROM that swayed his decision to join the Army, in 2000, versus the Marine Corps or Navy.
He then moved on into a three-week Ranger indoctrination program before reporting to 1st Ranger Battalion at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia.
"Ranger Battalion was stocked with more than enough infantrymen," Cohen said. "It was hard because it was clear they only needed the best. If you couldn't hack it, you were done."
Cohen's definitive military experience evolved into an even more intense six months at 75th Ranger Regiment training at Fort Benning, Georgia.
"It was hard in every way, physically, mentally and spiritually," Cohen said. "The Ranger Regiment saying was 'The scroll is our way of life, the tab is just a school.' I sweat, bled, cried, and almost died for that every day. And what l love about Ranger Regiment is that it is a volunteer unit, and they don't have to keep you."
After his enlistment which included four deployments - two tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, he separated from the military. During that time, Cohen felt a never-ending sense of pride, coupled with a lingering desire to be a part of something. He would eventually join the National Guard 11-years later.
"Having moved around a lot growing up, I'm now a part of something and represent something bigger than myself," Cohen said. "The tabs, patches, awards, and decorations mean something. I've earned every thread on my uniform and will display it proudly with integrity."
Cohen was recently promoted to the rank of sergeant, a role with added responsibility which he gladly accepts and takes on with great pride.
"Before I got my stripes I really only cared about the Ranger Creed," he said. "But now it is about the NCO creed - the responsibility for Soldiers, being the backbone, wanting to be the best at everything I do. I feel it and understand it."
Cohen dealt with an injury to both ankles during the intense night-to-day land navigation course at the beginning of the regional competition. Despite the constant pain and discomfort, failure was not an option. He pushed through and endured the challenges of the land navigation course in the rain and was rewarded, scoring one of the highest points.
"The whole time, my ankles were yelling at me, my socks and boots were soaked," Cohen said. "That's what Ranger Regiment did for me, it showed me what I was capable of. If I die, I die. I know that's extreme for Best Warrior, but that's what it would have taken for me to give up, to quit, to not keep going in that competition."
Cohen compared his desire to finish the competition while injured with the initial nervousness he felt about drill and ceremony during the Basic Leader Course. He eventually overcame the nervousness and finished the course as a distinguished leader on the commandant's list.
"The uniform has a certain kind of weight and pressure, and under no circumstances did I want to embarrass myself, my country, or the Ranger Regiment," Cohen said. "As the student first sergeant, I knew all eyes were on me at all times. So I studied hard, way more than anyone should have to at BLC. People still didn't think it was a big deal for a National Guardsman to make the commandant's list. But there's a mythos about Rangers: who we are, what we do, what we've done and continue to do. Part of that creed is 'I shall shoulder more than my share of the task, whatever it may be, 100 percent and then some.'"
"The first time I met Sgt. Cohen was in 2016, as Specialist Cohen," said Army Sgt. Maj. Robert L. Hull, D. C. Army National Guard, operations directorate, sergeant major, and former Region II BWC coordinator. "He didn't make it past the state level. I continued to motivate him, let him know it doesn't always happen the first time, but to try it again. So this year, he had more knowledge and experience which has paid off."
To prepare for the national competition, Cohen would continue to train both mentally and physically. While physically training, the focus is the body's core, boosting his strength and endurance to compete at an elite level. He describes the beads of sweat on his forehead, arms, and legs, as signs of the "mental weakness leaving the body." He also attacks his physical training sessions alone, but as if he is training with a unit full of Soldiers. His eyes are focused and he runs with an internal cadence that keeps him moving through set after set of physical conditioning.
"I represent the Guard and I live my life, on and off duty, by the Ranger and NCO creeds," Cohen said. "I can't and won't fail them. I want to win for them, for the Soldiers, for my family, my wife and our two boys."
His mentors at 74th Troop Command, his former unit, were his first examples coming into the D.C. Guard.
"Sgt. Cohen could very possibly win the national competition because of his motivation, experience, and competitive nature alone," Hull said. "He doesn't let himself fall back into complacency. If he's not doing 110--or even 120 percent--that's not good enough for him. He has high standards and does everything possible to achieve them."
Fellow Soldiers attest to Cohen's leadership and initiative to train Soldiers wherever he finds himself among them.
"When we went to the M-16 range, I was having issues zeroing my weapon and he showed me how to make the proper adjustments," said Army Sgt. Rocio Reynoso-Portal, a human resources assistant in the 74th Troop Command. "He did that with all the Soldiers there. He says 'the best way you learn something is when you teach.'"
"Sgt. Cohen is driven, strong-willed; has that desire and lights up when he's around other Soldiers," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Esmeralda Marte, the 74th Troop Command Personnel noncommissioned officer in charge, former Best Warrior competitor, and currently Region II program coordinator. "I think he could win the national competition because he is a real Soldier, one with that warrior mentality."
All eyes are on Cohen as he prepares for the national competition in July. If he wins the national competition, he will compete at the Department of the Army Best Warrior Competition, an all component competition, before the end of the fiscal year.
Cohen shares some words of advice to current and future D.C. Guard Soldiers:
"Personally answer why you're here, why you wear this uniform, and in every way, physically, mentally and spiritually distinguish yourself. Compete at Best Warrior competitions, the NCO/Soldier of the Month and Quarter boards. Do what needs to be done and ensure that it's the right thing. Take yourself seriously here, and you will be taken seriously everywhere. And while you're here, and be accountable for what you do. Make and leave your mark."