By Eric PilgrimApril 12, 2019
"Where's your helmet, little fellah!?"
Sergeant Maj. Robert Whitely smiled as he and nine noncommissioned officer competitors waited at the start of the stress shoot event April 9 for 19-year-old Pfc. Tony Ladebu to get his helmet from the stands.
Though the only junior enlisted competitor at this year's combined Fort Knox Best Warrior competition at Fort Knox April 8-12, Ladebu successfully completed all the events to earn the honor as the U.S. Army Cadet Command/Fort Knox 2019 Soldier of the Year.
"I really wasn't expecting this much. I knew there was a board so I studied a lot of regulations to prepare myself, and also trying to gain some confidence in myself," said Ladebu. "Physically, I did [physical training] every day, but I wasn't really tracking many of the other things in the competition itself."
The paralegal specialist at Cadet Command arrived at Fort Knox six months ago fresh out of basic and advanced individual training. He said there were a lot of tasks in the competition with which he was unfamiliar.
"I was sort of voluntold to do it, but at the same time I'm like, 'Well, if I have to do it, I'm going to do it to the best of my capabilities; I'm going to do the absolute best I can.'"
This year's Fort Knox Best Warrior was a departure from past competitions where units would generate several individual competitions at the Army post throughout the spring. After receiving guidance from Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel Daily last year to generate cost savings and efficiency, Whitely and Master Sgt. Terrance Sampson - in charge of organizing the competition - developed a plan to incorporate several Fort Knox unit competitions into the one.
Sampson said he started five months ago.
"It has been a very intense schedule consisting of coordination and communication, trying to get the right people in the right places at the right time," said Sampson.
The results saw 10 Soldiers from Cadet Command, Fort Knox, 19th Engineer Battalion and U.S. Army Human Resources Command compete in 20 tests that organizers said are similar to previous year's basic soldiering standards at major command and U.S. Army levels.
"We would have liked more participation from the local units on Fort Knox," said Sampson. "Since this is a big competition, we would have liked about 25 competitors."
The one event that seemed new this year for the veteran competitors was a stress shoot. Some said while it proved challenging, it also seemed to be a favorite among them.
While observing the March 9 stress shoot event, Command Sgt. Maj. Mario Terenas, senior enlisted advisor for Cadet Command and Fort Knox, said unlike the Best Ranger contest, Best Warrior is open to any and all Soldiers regardless of job description.
"They've had competitions at their own brigade organizations, now they're at the installation and they'll go on to TRADOC or FORSCOM, and from there, they will select those folks to go on and compete for Soldier of the Year and NCO of the Year for Army.
"I think we have a pretty good chance because we've got some senior, senior noncommissioned officers with a lot of experience that are physically fit, mentally capable and stand a really good chance to win this thing."
For Friday's culminating event at Waybur Theater, Whitely, as guest speaker, took the time to get a snapshot of some amazing feats he saw throughout the week. He then named this year's winners: Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Kotzgoodenough, 12B Military Science instructor at Vanderbilt University for Cadet Command; Sgt. 1st Class Derek Leonhardt, 19D talent manager with HRC; and, Ladebu.
"HRC, you guys sent a rock star!" Whitely exclaimed about Leonhardt. Whitely also praised an E-5 who nearly won against several senior NCOs. He highlighted an NCO who showed up and competed with only a couple of days' notice.
Whitely explained how at Cadet Command, the difference between first and second place was two points. He recalled a military policeman who collapsed at the finish of the 12-mile ruck march from giving it everything he had - having last rucked eight years prior. He said the Special Forces competitor set the standard on the board.
Last but not least, Ladebu. "Yeah, he was the only competitor, but that does not mean we gave the little fellah a freebie." Whitely explained that Ladebu received a lot of invaluable hands-on experience, and still had to pass all the events to earn Soldier of the Year.
"It's all about these guys, honestly," said Whitely, as guest speaker. "We had a really, really good competition. That being said, I want everyone here to communicate it to your personnel that we're going to take it to the next level next year; we're going to take it up a notch.
"It's going to be something you'll really want to come to."
The three winners will next compete in their respective higher command competitions in June.