FORT A.P. HILL, Va. -- It was 5 a.m. on a Tuesday. Ten Old Guard Soldiers lined up at Fort A.P. Hill, Va., to take an Army physical fitness test. It was the start of what would be a grueling three days for the Soldiers - a test to find the best noncommissioned officer and junior enlisted Soldier in the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard).

Two hours after the physical fitness test, the Soldiers gathered for the next event, a 6.2-mile ruck march. For the event, the Soldiers were required to carry a ruck sack packed with a 40-pound sandbag and an MRE. They each wore individual body armor and an Army combat helmet, and carried an M-4 rifle. Altogether, their gear weighed about 70 pounds. As the contestants marched, temperatures rose. The heat was too much for three of the marchers; they were unable to complete the ruck march and were eliminated from the competition. One Soldier was injured during the event, and was also eliminated. By the time the last competitor crossed the finish line, temperatures had risen to 90 degrees, and the Soldiers were drenched in sweat and ready for a break.

They were allowed a short amount of time to catch their breath while medics from the 529th Regimental Support Company examined them for injuries, but as soon as the medics were finished, the Soldiers were on to the next event - an essay in which they described two things they would change about the Army if given the chance.

After the essay, the Soldiers were able to have lunch as they prepared for the Warrior Tasks portion of the competition. In the wood line of Fort A.P. Hill, 10 stations were set up for the competitors to demonstrate their proficiency at common Soldier tasks, such as administering first aid, operating a combat communications system, and operating in an environment contaminated with chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons.

Although they had been awake for 12 hours by the time they were finished with the Warrior Tasks, the Soldiers were not finished for the day - there was still a written exam about Army history, tactics and policies they had to complete before they would be allowed to rest.

By the end of the day, about 10 p.m., five Soldiers remained in the competition - the others were eliminated when the heat and intensity forced them to fall out.

Wednesday morning arrived, and the Soldiers went to a firing range to show their expertise with their M-4 rifles. After running in full gear for about 1000 meters, the Soldiers zeroed their rifles, then qualified with 40 rounds in the standard Army rifle marksmanship qualification.

Sgt. Sean McAlpine of Company D, 1st Battalion proved to be the best marksman of the group, hitting 31 of the 40 targets. From the qualification range, the competitors sprinted to the next range, where they demonstrated their ability to pick out and shoot a specific target at the reflexive firing range.

The marksmanship trials marked the competition's midway. The Soldiers were exhausted, but they maintained their motivation.

"If you put your heart and mind in it, anything is possible," said Spc. Gitana Cobb, a human resources specialist with Headquarters and Headquarters Company.

Keeping the competition intense and fast-paced was necessary to find the best Soldiers, said Sgt. 1st Class William Cramer, the coordinator of the competition.

"It's going to weed out those who don't have the intestinal fortitude to be in it for the long haul," he said. "It's the total Soldier concept. The ideal winner is physically fit, tactically and technically proficient, and knowledgeable about Army regulations and history."

The Soldier and NCO of the Year should also be ready for anything that is thrown at them. To ensure the Soldiers could take on tasks with little warning or preparation, Cramer organized a mystery event to be held after the marksmanship portion of the competition.

The Soldiers vying for the Soldier of the Year title were given a box full of parts from four different weapons. They were told to assemble the weapons and perform a functions check on each of them within 15 minutes. After the Soldiers completed the task, with Pfc. Michael Hartz of Company D winning the round, assembling all four weapons within 6 minutes, 32 seconds, the NCOs were given their mystery event - leading a team of Soldiers through a simulated danger zone and reacting to an improvised explosive device.

Urban orienteering followed the mystery event. Urban orienteering tested the Soldiers' ability to navigate in unfamiliar urban environments. The Soldiers walked for three hours, finding five points.

The next morning, the Soldiers were awake early to look sharp for the board portion of the competition. They presented themselves to a board of first sergeants and a sergeant major and answered questions about topics ranging from the Uniform Code of Military Justice, drill and ceremony, and battle focused training. The board portion of the competition measured the competitors' knowledge, appearance and composure.

"The board was the most difficult part," said McAlpine. "I know that in the physical events I can push myself and receive the outcome I want from it. As for the board, it's all knowledge and studying - either you know it or you don't."

After the board, Cramer announced the winners of the overall competition - Sgt. Sean McAlpine for The Old Guard NCO of the Year, and Pfc. Michael Hartz for The Old Guard Soldier of the Year.

Both winners came from Company D, 1st Battalion. Capt. Justin Michel, company commander of Company D, was not surprised that two men from his company were named the top Soldier and NCO in the regiment.

"That's how we try to set the conditions in Delta Company - by preparing these young Soldiers to by physically fit, and challenge them to be mentally tough through troop leading procedures and the missions that come down in The Old Guard," said Michel.

"We picked these two Soldiers who are best in the company - voted by their peers and leadership, and here in the Year of the NCO, we asked them to do one thing - to represent themselves, Delta Company - the Doghouse - 1st Battalion, and The Old Guard," said Michel. "They went down there and showed they were capable of completing whatever task that was put in front of them."

Hartz was quick to point out that although he won the competition, it was not without the help of his fellow competitors.

"Everyone had different experiences to bring to the table, and we were able to share our knowledge with each other," he said. "Even though we were competing against each other, we helped each other."

Being The Old Guard's NCO of the Year is an honor, said McAlpine. But being an NCO is an even better privilege, he said.

"I love being an NCO. I love to train Soldiers, to carry on the tradition of the NCO," he said. "We're the backbone of the Army, training and taking care of Soldiers."

Having won The Old Guard's Soldier and NCO of the Year competition, Hartz and McAlpine will go on to represent The Old Guard in the Joint Force Headquarters, National Capital Region Military District of Washington Soldier and NCO of the Year Best Warrior Competition, to be held in July at Fort A.P. Hill.

"I think they're going to take it, both of them," said Michel, speaking of the competition ahead for his Soldiers. "They're capable. It's going to be tough, but they're up to the challenge."