FORT PICKETT, Va. -- Soldiers assigned to the Fort Belvoir-based Headquarters Battalion, 29th Infantry Division took home top honors at the annual Virginia National Guard Best Warrior Competition Feb. 24, 2019, at Fort Pickett, Virginia. Spc. Esther Alger of Front Royal was named Soldier of the Year and Sgt. 1st Class Paul Bosserman of Harrisonburg earned the title of NCO of the Year after three mentally and physically grueling days of competition against Soldiers and NCOs from six different VNG major subordinate commands.

"As far as I'm concerned, all of you are winners," said Brig. Gen. Lapthe Flora, the Virginia National Guard Assistant Adjutant General -- Army. "Just showing up, taking the initiative and having the courage to compete makes you a winner. I can't tell you how proud we are of you to stand up and want to be the best of the best to represent us in the coming weeks and months."

Alger and Bosserman will now go on to compete in the regional Best Warrior competition in May against National Guard Soldiers from five other states.

Spc. Austin Turner, assigned to the 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, was the runner up for Soldier of the Year and Sgt. Devin Piotrowski, assigned to the Fort Pickett Maneuver Training Center, was the runner up for NCO of the Year. Both will represent Virginia at the regional competition if the winners are unable to.

"Although we only can crown two Soldiers today as the best warrior and NCO, all of our competitors have exhibited a winning warrior spirit," said Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald L. Smith, the Virginia Army National Guard command sergeant major. "Today's warriors must be versed in a variety of warrior tasks outside their primary military occupational specialty and you were tested on that this weekend."

The 2019 Best Warrior Competition began with a written exam Thursday night. The first full day of competition began before sunrise on Friday with a helicopter air insertion into the land navigation course. After finding their points and completing the land navigation event, the competitors completed an 8-mile ruck march to the M4 rifle and M9 pistol range. After qualifying with both weapons, they spent the evening completing multiple Army Warrior Tasks.

Saturday's events included the Army Combat Fitness Test, the hand grenade throw and an on-camera media engagement. The evening concluded with a formal dinner with senior NCOs from throughout the state.

On Sunday morning all of the competitors endured an appearance board in front of a panel of sergeants major before the scores were tallied and the winners announced.

A variety of awards for achievement during the competitions were also awarded. Piotrowski received certificates for the highest ACFT score and for scoring 40 out of 40 on the M9 qualification. Staff Sgt. Jimmy Gause, assigned to the 91st Cyber Brigade, was recognized for completing the ruck march with the fastest time and fewest penalties and for the highest test score on the written exam for an NCO.

Alger scored the highest score on the written exam for a Soldier and Bosserman achieved the highest M4 score with 36 out of 40.

In addition to the titles they earned, Alger and Bosserman both received Army Commendation Medals and hotel rooms and tickets to the Virginia National Guard Management Group Conference in April.

"It was tougher than I thought it'd be," Bosserman said. "The weather was tough. Damp and cold was the theme of the weekend. I think the early morning land nav in the rain and then the ruck march did damage to everyone."

But according to Bosserman, it helped that the competitors all realized they were on the same team and a sense of togetherness developed.

"We're all going through it together so even though we're competing, we all encouraged each other to keep going no matter how bad it was," Bosserman said.

For Alger, moving on after each event was over was the toughest part.

"Instead of focusing on something I did bad on, I just had to stay focused and move on," she said. "I couldn't dwell on things."

Both Soldiers gave credit to the unit leadership for preparing them for the competition.

"They put forth everything they could," Bosserman explained. "Whatever we needed was provided. They were there the entire time for us."

Flora and Smith both made a point to thank the NCOs from throughout the state who helped make the competition happen.

"This was an outstanding event this weekend," Smith said. "Thank you for your dedication and what you put in as Soldiers and as leaders. None of this would be possible without a lot of great support from the Virginia National Guard team."

Flora echoed those thoughts.

"This event wouldn't have happened without your support," he said to the NCOs in attendance. "But you did it with enthusiasm and dedication. Thank you very much and congratulations on a great event."

As Alger and Bosserman look to the regional competition they both have an idea of what they need to improve upon and prepare for.

Alger, who has been in the Army less than two years, plans to focus her preparation on physical events such as land navigation, the Army Combat Fitness Test and the ruck march.

Bosserman also plans to work on the ruck march.

"That's something you have to condition your legs and your feet," he said. "But I also want to brush up on some of the more basic Soldier skills. As a senior NCO you get caught up in higher level things stuff that you come to something like this where you're drilling down to Army Warrior Tasks. I need to go back and brush up on them."