After a week of exams, essays, exercise and extra studying came exhilaration for Sgt. Matthew Phelan as he was selected as the U.S. Army Research Development and Engineering Command's Noncommissioned Officer of the Year.

A communications NCO with the Communications Electronic Research, Development and Engineering Center at Fort Monmouth, N.J. Phelan preserved to edge out the other competitors.

"I just tried the best that I could and counted on the training to get me through the hard parts," he said.

"It does feel good to win after hours and hours of studying and working extra hard in the gym. For me it really boiled down to committing myself to a lot of time to do a lot of studying," Phelan said.

"This is extremely important in the career of a soldier, specifically when we are talking about this year being recognized by the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the Army as the Year of the NCO," said Command Sgt Maj. Hector G. Marin, RDECOM Command Sergeant Major.

"As NCOs we have to continue to improve ourselves by educating ourselves and by setting the example. What these NCOs have done today is stepped up in among their peers by taking a step forward and accepting this challenge to be able to educate themselves to be become better leaders in to the future," said Marin.

The first day of the competition required the Soldiers to take the Army Physical Fitness Test and go through a land navigations course. Day two involved weapons qualifications on the M-4 Rifle and M-9 Pistol and go through Reflective Fire procedures and warrior tasking drills. Day three was a run through the Edgewood Area Obstacle course followed by an essay and an exam. Day four was the board and the announcement.

The four non-commissioned officers represented different elements of the command competed for the title.

"Boards like this are extremely helpful in shaping a person's leadership skills. It also helps you find out what you don't know. Knowing what you don't know is as important as knowing what you do know," said Sgt. Alycia Hackemer, a military police NCO at Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Natick, Mass., who finished second in the competition.

"When a Soldier wins, they set the standard for the rest of the organization," said Sgt Maj. Steve Hornbach, ARL. "It gives the individual inspiration and for others it is motivation. It's a significant accomplish to win one of these. Not every Soldier can do it and when they do get selected they get well deserved recognition."

Others participating in the competition agree that the results of boards like this have long lasting affects.

"If you are looking at making sergeant Major one day, boards like this are very important," said Staff Sgt. Sean Lathrop, Army Research Laboratory at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. "It's an event that separates you from your peers. It shows a certain degree ambition, intelligence and dedication."

No one can be certain when military boards were created but the tradition of competitions to identify the best soldier in a unit has existed for many years.

"I can't say when it started but I do know military history identifies the Roman army as having held contests to identify and evaluate who was their best Soldier," said Sgt. Maj. Timothy Weatherspoon, RDECOM G3, operations sergeant major.

The NCO of the Year selection board members were: Marin (board president), Hornbach, Weatherspoon, Sgt. Maj. Wendy Thompson, 389th US Army Band (AMC's Own) at APG and MSG James Laverty, Aviation Applied Technology Directorate, Fort Eustis, Va.

Phelan will next compete at the Army Materiel Command NCO of the Year Board. To assist him in his preparation, the RDECOM G3 and CERDEC will develop a training program designed to introduce him to aspects of the Army he may not have readily available.

According to Weatherspoon to succeed at the next level, the four-star command level, it will take dedication, time and a commitment.

"It takes preparation from both the Unit and the Soldier. It is an investment in time and energy that will last throughout a Soldiers lifetime," Weatherspoon said.

As this year's top NCO, Phelan received cash award from two local credit unions, a free overnight stay and breakfast from a national hotel chain, a trophy from the local Association of the United States Army chapter, a back pack full of retention promotional items, a RDECOM Grill kit and was presented with the Army Commendation Medal.

"I'm happy to receive this honor but in order to compete at the next level I am going to have to train harder and become more proficient with some of the hands on common tasks I don't do every day," said Phelan.