WASHINGTON -- The Army now has two more role models for all Soldiers to follow. After six days of demanding events at the Best Warrior Competition last week, a specialist and staff sergeant stood out among this year's highly-skilled competitors.

U.S. Army Pacific's Spc. Hazen Ham and Staff Sgt. Ryan McCarthy, who represented the Army Training and Doctrine Command, were officially named the Army's Soldier and NCO of the Year, respectively, during an awards luncheon Monday at the Association of the U.S. Army's Annual Meeting and Exposition.

"The group of Soldiers here is one of the finest I've ever trained and worked with," said Ham, 21, who is an infantryman with 25th Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team. "It was a pleasure to see how they performed and, honestly, I didn't think I had won because they are that good."

This year's Best Warrior had 22 competitors who excelled in other competitions at 11 major commands before they moved on to the Army-level contest. There, they faced long days of grueling tasks at Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia, that mentally and physically challenged them.

Held annually since 2002, Best Warrior tests Soldiers on their aptitude through physical fitness assessments, written exams, urban warfare simulations and other warrior tasks and battle drills. Selection boards in front of some of the Army's most senior enlisted leaders, including Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel A. Dailey, are also part of it.

Organizers purposely left Soldiers in the dark throughout the competition to better identify the eventual winners.

"The competition is designed to be very, very diverse," Dailey said. "From the time they get off the bus, they're being evaluated and some things they have no idea they are being evaluated on. What we're trying to do is actually find the best Soldier."

The uncertainty of not knowing what would occur during the events gave McCarthy -- an instructor at the Sapper Leader Course on Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri -- a taste of what he trains his students on.

"Like what I tell Sapper students all the time," said McCarthy, 27, of Belgrade Lakes, Maine, "if you treat it like it's real, you will be successful."

His leadership skills were also tested under pressure. "They really evaluated you on your ability to adapt as a leader and your ability to thrive in chaos," he said.

The most challenging part for Ham, of Hillsborough, North Carolina, was the cumulative physical and mental stress he and others endured over the week.

"Every day you were just more tired, more fatigued," he said. "But it was also very realistic. That's the way it is in the real fight."

All of the events, many of which were complex scenarios seen in combat, boiled down to one thing -- readiness, one of the Army's top priorities.

"That's the whole purpose of this competition," Ham said. "It's some of the most functional, realistic training I've ever experienced in my Army career. I'll be able to take it back and re-enact parts of it and use that for Soldiers underneath me and beside me. It'll greatly benefit the force."

While all the competitors had already won at their respective commands, Dailey expected each of them to continue giving it their all for Best Warrior.

"This is a competition," Dailey said. "This isn't 6th grade soccer where we're all going to get ice cream at the end of it. This is big boy, big girl rules."

Still, he believed those who competed are the Army's finest even if they didn't go home with a trophy.

"There are 1.18 million Soldiers in the Army and only 22 of them get to compete," he said. "It takes a lot of hard work and effort. They are all superhero kids. Any one of these kids on any given day probably could have done it, too."

TOP FINISHERS

Soldier of the Year:

1. Spc. Hazen Ham, U.S. Army Pacific

2. Spc. Grant Reimers, Army National Guard

3. Pfc. Rowan Lovell, U.S. Army Special Operations Command

NCO of the Year:

1. Staff Sgt. Ryan McCarthy, Army Training and Doctrine Command

2. Sgt. 1st Class Brenden Shannon, Army Forces Command

3. Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Garcia, U.S. Army Pacific