FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- Bodies soaked in sweat. Fatigue clearly visible.
This was the weeklong image of Soldiers powering through the strenuous situational training exercises and physical tests of the 2019 XVIII Airborne Corps Noncommissioned Officer and Soldier of the Year Competition at Fort Bragg, N.C. June 24-28, 2019.
To prove they were the 2019 Dragon Warrior of the Year, representatives from the XVIII Airborne Corps' divisions and brigade separates were brought in after competing and winning at the division level.
"In the last five days, I've watched these soldiers push themselves to the limit and put everything on the table," said Command Sgt. Maj. Emilio Rivera, command sergeant major, Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, Task Force Dragon, XVIII Airborne Corps. "They never gave up and pushed through with the maximum effort to succeed."
Day one's events included a graded layout of gear, the Army Combat Fitness Test, the Air Assault Obstacle Course and Combat Water Survival Training.
"My favorite part of the competition was the ruck, because I enjoy rucking, and it's something I have a passion for," said Spc. Nathan Brittain, Baker Battery, 321st Field artillery Regiment, 18th Field Artillery Brigade. "The hardest part for me was swimming with full gear and the weapon. That part drug me down pretty good."
Day two picked up on some more Soldier skills as the competitors went through a day of situational training exercises. The lanes included a reaction to chemical attack, sending a situation report (SITREP) over the radio, evacuating a casualty, requesting a 9-line medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) and reacting to direct and indirect contact. The lanes stretched over two miles long and kept competitors engaged and focused on new situations.
"The lanes sucked in the heat, but at the end, when you were done, it felt great," said Staff Sgt. Bijay Bastakoti, a cargo specialist with 403rd Inland Cargo Transfer Company, 330th Transportation Battalion, 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command. "That type of training takes a lot of preparation and time, but it will be great to be able to take that back to the Soldiers of my unit."
Day three was another blazing hot day with the heat index reaching 101 degrees, as the competitors moved to weapon qualifications on both the M9 pistol and the M4 carbine rifle. Rifle and pistol marksmanship was another graded event that the competitors had to excel at in order to win the competition. "To prepare for the competition, my unit helped a lot by scheduling time at the range and giving me some more practice with land navigation," Bastakoti said. "We could have prepared a bit more for the ACFT and the Combat Water Survival Training-I'm not a swimmer-but I gave it my all and I didn't give up."
Before competitors made it out to the ranges and fired their weapons, another physical assessment was taken at 0630. They tackled the next challenge head on and competed against each other in the Soldier Readiness Test.
The SRT was originally proposed as the new Soldier physical fitness test, however the ACFT was eventually chosen to move forward. It includes flipping a tire six times, dragging a simulated casualty, lateral agility movements, loading a Humvee with equipment and completing an over-under obstacle at the middle point of a mile-and-a-half run.
"The STX and the SRT were things I was not very familiar with at all, but the cadre explained the events well," said Pfc. Jakob Wrolstad, a multichannel transmission systems operator-maintainer with 51st Expeditionary Signal Battalion, 35th Signal Brigade. "We were already dealing with fatigue, but we went out there and did the best we could."
As the third day concluded, competitors were tasked with a ruck march and the land navigation course. These are additional Soldier skills that the competitors were graded on and were used to determine the best Soldier and NCO. They rucked throughout the entire night and were tasked to finish the land navigation course before daylight of the next day.
"My favorite part was that we were all competing against each other, but we all worked together as a team," Bastakoti said. "And it doesn't matter if you didn't win, because this is a great learning experience that we can all use to become better leaders."
As the week came to an end, the competitors had a chance to rest up and prepare for the 0900 board on Friday. Their performance at the board would be the final graded event.
"The most important thing the Soldiers and NCOs take away from this competition is how to compete at the highest level," said Rivera, the HHBn. Task Force Dragon CSM. "They are competing with the best of the best and must perform with the ultimate endurance, strength and perseverance."
After tallying up the scores from the week's events, Command Sgt. Maj. John Cervenka, Task Force Dragon command sergeant major, XVIII Airborne Corps announced the winners during the awards ceremony hosted at XVIII Abn. Corps Headquarters on Fort Bragg, N.C.
Staff Sgt. Mathew Whitney, 3rd Infantry Division is the 2019 XVIII Abn. Corps NCO of the Year.
Spc. Nicholas Callahan, 44th Medical Brigade, is the 2019 XVIII Abn. Corps Soldier of the Year.
Whitney and Callahan will move forward and compete at the 2019 United States Army Forces Command Best Warrior Competition later this year.
"When I was announced as the winner, I felt both relived and stressed out at the same time," Whitney said. "It's a big responsibility to represent the XVIII Airborne Corps [at the next competition], but at the same time I'm looking forward to it."