WASHINGTON -- Grueling obstacle courses. Marches and missions at 2:30 a.m. Barely any sleep or food.
These were just a few of the challenges faced by the top Soldiers as they competed in the Army's national competitions this year, including Best Warrior, Best Ranger, Best Medic, and Drill Sergeant of the Year competition. Throughout the contests, Soldiers distinguished themselves by their determined character, finely-tuned tactical skills, mental sharpness, and physical grit.
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.
"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."
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 2017 Soldier and NCO of the Year, respectively, after the grueling competition at Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia, in October.
All of the events during the competition, 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."
In July 1981, the Ranger department was asked to design and conduct a Ranger Olympics to identify the best two-man buddy team.
From the very beginning, the objective was clear: the competition should place extreme demands on each buddy teams' physical, mental, technical and tactical skills as Rangers. The standards of performance were to test the mettle of those Ranger-qualified Soldiers who dared to compete.
Thirty-six years later, the competition remained as tough as ever. The events were purposely scheduled back-to-back and around the clock for 58 hours, allowing little time for rest and meals. Of the original 53 teams to begin the 2017 competition, only 21 completed the buddy run on the final day.
The 75th Ranger Regiment team of Capt. Michael Rose and Master Sgt. Josh Horsager won the 2017 Best Ranger Competition at Fort Benning in April. The team maintained their number one ranking going into the third and final day of the competition, even after an obstacle course, water confidence course and the final buddy run.
From Oct. 29 to Nov. 2, 56 U.S. Army medics competed as two-person teams in the punishing 72-hour Army Best Medic Competition at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and Camp Bullis, Texas.
The Army's Best Medic Competition was hosted by the U.S. Army Medical Command and by the U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School. The competition is designed to test the medic's medical proficiency and leadership while working together as a team.
Competitors must be adaptive leaders who are tested in physical fitness (walking up to 30 miles throughout the competition), tactical pistol and rifle marksmanship, land navigation, and overall knowledge of medical, technical, and tactical proficiencies through hands-on tasks.
Staff Sgt. Joseph M. Rangel and Staff Sgt. Richard Philbin made up the 2017 first place team, representing the 75th Ranger Regiment.
Rangel explained his and Philbin's winning strategy for approaching the competition. "We had a lot of buddies who attended the U.S. Army Best Ranger Competition and they had hints for us, like stretch out between each event, make sure we are constantly hydrating, and to make sure we are not always trying to push ourselves to the extreme," he said. "Don't try and get first place in everything but just try and land among the top five so we have some gas for the next activity or lane."
Staff Sgt. Chad Hickey of Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, won the 2017 Drill Sergeant of the Year competition on his home turf.
The staff sergeant had pushed his body to its limits throughout the entire competition, until he felt weary and exhausted. The day before the closing ceremony, he and his competitors had gone 20 hours without sleep, while engaging in fitness exercises and performing drills that could save lives in combat.
Staff Sgt. Ryan Moldovan, the 2016 Reserve Drill Sergeant of the Year and 2017 competition planner, said he geared the Drill Sergeant of the Year contest to meet the changing needs and standards of the Army.
"The competition evolves just as the Army evolves," he explained. "The regulations are constantly changing with the times, with the way our enemies are changing and evolving. And the way we fight is changing and the way we shoot is changing. So we wanted to make sure the competition was completely up to date."
One of Moldovan's planning priorities was to create tests that push Soldiers to extreme limits by scheduling contrasting events after each other. Moldovan and his planning team broke the land navigation course into two parts, one after a round-robin event, and scheduled the other at 2:30 a.m. The contestants, equipped with a compass and a map, had to scour through the night among the brush and pine for predetermined plot points.
Staff Sgt. Bryan Ivery, one of the competition's best athletes, earned Platoon Sergeant of the Year honors and the Tobias C. Meister physical fitness award, and placed first among Advanced Individual Training platoon sergeants. Even though Ivery tries to exercise at least twice a day, even he found the physical demands of the contest daunting.
"I think we have stiff competition here. You don't end up here by chance," Ivery said. "It's definitely been trying -- challenging physically and mentally as well."
(Editor's Note: This article is part of a series reflecting on the top Army events of 2017. This article is a compilation of four different articles, whose links are below: "Top Soldier, NCO named after grueling Best Warrior contest" by Sean Kimmons, "75th Ranger Regiment team wins 2017 Best Ranger Competition" by 75th Ranger Regiment Public Affairs, "Ranger medics win 2017 Army's Best Medic competition" by Wesley Elliott, and "On his home turf, Soldier wins grueling contest to become 2017 Drill Sergeant of the Year" by Joe Lacdan.)