FORT KNOX, Ky. - "I didn't realize anything could be so exhilarating and exhausting at the same time." This is how Sgt. 1st Class Mario Quintero, an instructor at the U.S. Army NCO Academy Parks, under the 100th Training Division, described how he felt about competing in the 2019 Combined Best Warrior Competition held here April 7-12.

Quintero earned the title of Best Warrior for the 80th Training Command (The Army School System) in the noncommissioned officer category. Spc. Ashley Wesley, 1st Battalion, 108th Regiment, 1st Engineer Brigade, 102nd Training Division, took the title of Best Warrior for the 80th TC in the enlisted category. Quintero and Wesley will move on to represent the 80th TC at the United States Army Reserve Best Warrior Competition in June at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Held annually since 2002, the Best Warrior Competitions provide a series of grueling tasks and events that mentally and physically challenge the Soldiers. The intent for the competition is to highlight individual readiness and recognize Soldiers who demonstrate commitment to the Army values, embody the warrior ethos, and represent the most capable, combat-ready, and lethal Federal Reserve force in the history of the nation.

However, unlike previous year's competitions, this year's event was much bigger. The 84th Training Command, 377th Theater Sustainment Command, 88th Readiness Division, 81st Readiness Division, 99th Readiness Division, Army Reserve Aviation Command, AR Careers Division, and the 80th TC joined their resources in creating this year's combined event.

Command Sgt. Maj. Jay Thomas, the senior enlisted leader for the 80th TC, explained that having the 84th TC hosting the combined competition gave all the participating units an advantage in pooling together their efforts, manpower, and resources in making this a top-notch experience.

"This was a great experience. With all of us working together, it made for a bigger showing," said Thomas. "By combining, there's a huge cost savings for us. Plus, this meant we had more events than in previous years. Where we may not have had the assets to have helicopters come in and conduct rappelling for the competitors before, in this combined event, we did."

Thomas clarified that, although the competition was combined, all 56 competitors contended for the NCO and enlisted titles within their own units. Soldiers within the 80th TC were not competing against Soldiers from the other seven units but against other competitors throughout the 80th.

In the five-day competition, Soldiers tested their physical and mental agility as they tackled a wide range of events. These included a grenade throw, the Army physical fitness test, tomahawk throw, swimming water survival, air assault rappelling, M16-A2 and 9mm weapons ranges, an obstacle course, and day and night land navigation courses. Competitors raced against the clock in each of the day's mentally and physically demanding events, in which they were ranked on their completion times.

"This combined competition helps us enhance our training, and training is our mission throughout our entire command," said Thomas. "If we kept this at just our own command level, it would be a smaller event where we wouldn't have additional training opportunities, like the tomahawk throw and air assault rappelling operations."

According to Command Sgt. Maj. Andrew Lombardo, the 99th RD's command sergeant major, the competition is an excellent opportunity that "brings us all together as a single entity."

"I think this experience is fantastic because it's all about team building and developing camaraderie among all our Soldiers," said Lombardo. "This definitely pushed the competitors into experiences outside their comfort zones."

With 17 years of military service, Quintero said he competed in this year's event for several reasons.

"I decided to compete because it's something I've always wanted to do," said Quintero, from El Paso, Texas. "I believe I'm in a good place in my career where I can compete and be successful. I just didn't expect I'd actually win."

Wesley, an Active Guard Reserve human resources specialist, wanted to step outside of her routine and challenge herself to compete.

"This was a chance for me to demonstrate to my peers and leadership my knowledge, professionalism, and dedication," Wesley said. "To me, this was more than just trying to beat out other Soldiers and win. I came in with the attitude that I would enjoy the experience, learn new skills, and motivate others. Even if you don't place first, this competition means success."

Wesley said she did not expect to win. When she heard her name called, she got nervous and began to think about preparing for the next higher level at Fort Bragg.

"I'll focus on perfecting my land navigation skills, first aid, and board questions," said Wesley. "I have a lot of training to do to have a chance at the USARC level.