GRAFENWOEHR, Germany - Thirteen Soldiers and Noncommissioned Officers from garrisons throughout Installation ManA,A!agement Command-Europe gathered here May 10-13 to compete for the titles of IMCOM- E 2009 Soldier of the Year and NCO of the Year.

"This experience is going to test you mentally, physically, and if you believe in a higher power, spirituA,A!ally. That's what this competition is designed to do," said Command Sgt. Maj. Tracey Anbiya, Installation ManA,A!agement Command-Europe region command sergeant major. "But regardless of whether you win or lose, you stand shoulders above your peers because you comA,A!peted."

At the welcome barbecue May 10, particA,A!ipants got to know the competition and discussed their expectations and goals for the event.

Soldier of the Year competitor Spc. Travis Kennedy, U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden, said, "I hope to find a lot out about myself and what it takes to push myself past the limit and actually win a competition like this ... How I look at it is I need to do the best that I can do. If somebody prepared more than me, then they deA,A!serve to win."

Each participant went through varying kinds of competitive mental and physical preparation with their sponsor and chain of command at their installation.

Soldier of the Year competitor Spc. Justin Benge, USAG Grafenwoehr, said he had a lot of support from his NCOs. During the work-week "we do a study session for eight hours and before and after we do (Physical Training). Normally in the mornings we do a run, and normally in the evenings we do ruck marches," said Benge.

The competitors and sponsors - NCOs or peers who were present in support of each competitor - enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of the barbecue and were able to meet other competitors and mentally prepare themselves before the intensity of the competition began.

The competition commenced May 11 with an Army Physical Fitness Test.

Competitors performed sit-ups, push-ups, and a timed two-mile run. Challengers crossed the finish line of the run to the sound of shouting and cheering from sponsors and onlookers.

The day continued at the firing ranges where the soldiers and NCOs, donning Kevlar and protective gear, zeroed their weapons and tested their marksmanship.

Later, weapons' maintenance exercises also tested the competitors' knowledge on the safety, cleaning, disassembly and malfunction procedures for the M16-series rifle.

Their mental stamina was further challenged during a written exam and essay which rounded out day-one of the competition.

Day two began at 4:50 a.m. with a 12-mile ruck march. Each competitor carried a 35-pound ruck sack on their backs and approximately 20 pounds of other gear, to include a supply of water, a rifle, and Interceptor Body Armor.

The march took competitors through both wooded and populated areas of the Grafenwoehr training area.

Many competitors did not perform the challenge alone. Their sponsoring NCO walked and ran the length of the rout alongside the Solider, shouting words of encouragement and support.

NCO of the Year competitor Staff Sgt. Ronald White, USAG Stuttgart, crossed the finish-line first with a time of 2 hours, 29 minutes and 57 seconds.

White, who did a ruck march every week for the past four weeks to train for the event, said, "I pushed myself, gave everything I had, and didn't leave anything."

He said he felt the competition was important to build "Esprit de Corps, that warrior spirit. And it's really good when the Soldiers see us out here doing this kind of stuff. It motivates them - this is why I joined the Army! It's even more important because it's the Year of the NCO, and it would mean a lot to me to win this in the Year of the NCO."

Benge, who prepared for the event with the 2008 IMCOM-E and IMCOM Soldier of the Year winner, Spc. Marco Garced, from Garmisch, did ruck marches every other day to get ready.

Benge said, "He told me even with our training it wasn't going to be the same. He was right. It was a little bit more difficult out there than it looks."

Offering tips for what it takes to be competitive, Benge said, "You've got to have a lot of focus, a lot of heart. You have to just stay with it, not give up, and not let everything that happens get to you. Just keep a positive attitude and have positive people around you."

After a chance to eat breakfast, the Soldiers and NCOs were taken to a land navigation course.
Armed with a compass and map, the competitors raced to locate four points in the wooded navigation area.

Amongst the trees of the course, competitors were also tested on a set of warrior tasks and drills, to include administering first aid, radio communications, interacting with the media and Nuclear, Biological and Chemical equipment exercises.

That evening, the challengers faced a two-hour nighttime land navigation course.

The final day of the competition posed the longest and most difficult mental challenge to the participants - the selection board.

Seven command sergeants major from installations across IMCOM-E performed a final review of the Soldiers and NCOs.

Competitors were asked a wide array of questions, ranging from uniform regulations, to their role in combating sexual assault, to current events.

USAG Vicenza Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Hartless said, "It was an awesome competition. Everybody poured their hearts into it ... In three days, a lot of stuff happened here and there was no break time. They went from one event to the next to the next. That's what makes it really tough. Especially today (during the board), everybody's really tired, and you come in front of all these sergeants major and you are under a microscope."

Command Sgt. Maj. William Berrios, USAG Grafenwoehr, host of this year's event, said, "We can see the effects of the training today. We have tested them physically and mentally, but that's what we want to do so that we can pick the best of the best."

USAG Stuttgart Command Sgt. Maj. Mark Barbary agreed, saying that this type of competition "ensures that these outstanding Soldiers continue to be recognized for their outstanding abilities. In this thorough competition we see warrior leaders performing at their ultimate best."

The competitors will gather again May 28 in Heidelberg, Germany, when the 2009 Soldier of the Year and 2009 NCO of the Year are to be announced.

Competitors are:

Spc. Justin Benge - USAG Grafenwoehr
Spc. Josiah Bos - USAG Bamberg
Spc. Jason Boatwright - USAG Heidelberg
Spc. Travis Kennedy - USAG Weisbaden
Spc. Jonathan Conerly - USAG Schweinfurt

Staff Sgt. Michael Martin - USAG Grafenwoehr
Staff Sgt. Jay Janish - USAG Bamberg
Staff Sgt. Ronald White - USAG Stuttgart
Sgt. Curtis Bosworth - USAG Baumholder
Staff Sgt. Daniel Gaumer - USAG Vicenza
Staff Sgt. Noel Schwandt - USAG Weisbaden
Staff Sgt. Isaac Ayala - USAG Ansbach
Sgt. Dujuan Hunter - USAG Benelux