WASHINGTON -- The 22 Soldiers had barely settled into their rooms at Fort Lee, Virginia, when they faced their first test of the annual Best Warrior competition.

At midnight, they boarded a bus and traveled 90 minutes north to Fort A.P. Hill, in the rural wilderness of Virginia. Then, carrying their M-4 carbine, four magazines and a total of 50 pounds of gear, they began an unknown mileage ruck march in the early morning darkness.

Some Soldiers struggled with the heavy weight on their shoulders. Others tried to push themselves to their limits.

Four of the Soldiers, including eventual Soldier of the Year winner Cpl. Matthew Hagensick, banded together in a pack, pacing themselves to their designated location. Hagensick is from 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Fort Benning, Georgia.

"I think [the Best Warrior Competition] 100 percent prepares [us] because you never know what you're going to face in combat," said Sgt. 1st Class Sean Acosta, who was named 2018 NCO of the Year. Acosta is a civil affairs specialist from the 1st Special Warfare Training Group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

TACKLING TOUGH TERRAIN

Throughout the competition, planners from the Asymmetric Warfare Group told contestants that the roads were unsafe. And that meant rucking in full gear. Everywhere.

The Soldiers agreed the heavy ruck marches tested their cognitive and physical abilities, especially the opening morning march that turned out to be 16 miles.

"It was a long distance," Hagensick said. "So that obviously plays with people's mental abilities; not knowing how hard to push."

In A.P. Hill's uneven terrain, they had to ruck over streams and hilly brush. Their uniforms occasionally would get caught in thorny bushes. "A lot of us got caught pretty often," Hagensick said.

The consistent theme by competition planner 1st Sgt. Mike Kriewaldt was tackling the unknown. Soldiers must be prepared to react and manage crisis situations during deployments. The annual contest tests Soldiers on "warrior tasks" presented in the Soldier's Manual of Common Tasks received in basic training.

"You go on a patrol expecting one thing; 100 different things could happen while you're out on patrol and you have to react to those," Acosta said.

Spc. Caden Emmons took a momentary break during the competition and noticed the red scrapes and scratches across his back. Carrying a rucksack with full gear had taken its toll.

Planners gave the Soldiers specific problem scenarios to solve by communicating with the civilian population. They placed competitors in a simulated foreign country. The role players spoke a foreign language or spoke broken English. Competitors had to devise their own solutions for communication.

"If they were trying to tell you something using their words, but if you couldn't understand what they were saying, you had to figure out how to communicate by other means; hand signals, pointing," said Staff Sgt. Joseph Hansen.

In another scenario, competitors were told to board a waiting helicopter, only to be informed moments before arrival that they needed to render first aid to injured bystanders. And other times, Soldiers needed to use their land navigation skills to find their way to a designated location.

"It's very realistic," said Cpl. Jacob Bee, the Soldier of the Year runner-up, "and it causes you to use creative thinking, on the go, on the spot. It's not drawn out for you prior to hitting any certain situation."

"It's not always about being the strongest, fastest person," said Kriewaldt, a 19-year veteran who drew on experience from eight combat deployments to create the contest's challenges. "It's more than just physical fitness. Being able to accomplish all the tasks in the right amount of time is key. You have to be able to get to where you're going and have enough energy and mental capacity."

Hansen, a military policeman and drill sergeant with Echo Company, 787th Military Police Battalion at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, said he relied on his experience from two deployments to Afghanistan.

Acosta deployed four times to locations in Afghanistan, Africa and Haiti.

"The environment they immersed us in was very similar to what I experienced while deployed," Acosta said.

AWARDS CEREMONY

Kriewaldt and members of the Asymmetric Warfare Group kept specifics of the contest so secret that knowledge of the competition was limited up until the awards luncheon at the AUSA annual meeting in Washington, D.C., Monday.

With family members, a Medal of Honor recipient, and more than a dozen sergeants major in attendance, Gen. James McConville, vice chief of staff of the Army, lauded the efforts of the contestants.

"The winners and all the competitors in this competition understand that winning matters," McConville said. "You didn't come here to participate. You didn't come here to try hard. You came here to win. And that's the American spirit -- the spirit that we have in the Army. And that's what American Soldiers do. There's no second place or honorable mention in combat."

Acosta held his wife, Genevieve, in a tight embrace after winning NCO of the Year. Genevieve Acosta served in the Army as a combat medic before a training accident left her disabled and unable to walk without a cane. Acosta said his wife provided him steady support throughout the 10 months he spent training and competing for Best Warrior.

"Everything I've done in my military career, she's always been the one to back me," said Acosta, a 12-year veteran. "She's always been my biggest cheerleader, so I couldn't do anything without her. I love her to death … She's the reason why I live to do what I was able to do."

Hagensick said he didn't change his exercise regimen outside of normal Ranger physical training. He ran 40-50 miles per week leading up to the contest. Ranger training includes moving quickly while carrying heavy weights and spending three hours a day doing long-distance endurance.

"As a Ranger, I came here expecting to show what the Ranger Regiment is all about," Hagensick said. "And I came in on the expectation of myself that I need to win to uphold that. And I did everything in my power to work hard for that."