WASHINGTON -- When Spc. David Chambers navigated his way through the dark woods of Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia, with little more than a compass to guide him, he took on a challenge that few of the 2019 Best Warrior competitors expected: completing physical and mental tests by themselves.

"I felt a lot more isolated in this competition than any other competitions I've participated in," said the 2019 Soldier of the Year, who had to win at the brigade, division and U.S. Forces Command levels before competing at the service level.

Chambers, a 23-year old Soldier from 3rd Cavalry Regiment's 1st Squadron at Fort Hood, Texas, earned the honor after only a year in service, while Staff Sgt. Dakota Bowen, a drill sergeant from Fort Jackson, South Carolina, took NCO of the Year honors.

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael A. Grinston announced the winners at the Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition Oct. 14. Twenty-two Soldiers competed in the grueling contest, which ran from Oct. 6-11 at A.P. Hill and Fort Lee, Virginia.

Each Soldier earned praise from senior leaders for reaching the pinnacle.

"You represent what we want in our Soldiers: physically fit, resilient, dedicated professionals who are the example of readiness," said Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Joseph Martin.

During the first day of competition, the contestants took the new Army Combat Fitness Test, wrote a timed essay and completed a 50-question written exam.

That would be the last time the competitors were together for most of the contest.

The competition's planner, 1st Sgt. Hunter Conrad of the Asymmetric Warfare Group, drew upon his previous six deployments and those of other operational advisors to develop obstacles that forced the Soldiers to draw upon their survival skills and instincts.

While Army leaders often focus on developing cohesion among teams and units, the Best Warrior contest challenged the competitors on an individual level, in a way they hadn't been before.

"I would say the biggest challenge … was the ambiguity that surrounded the entire competition," Chambers said. "Typically when it comes to Army tests you get tasked with initial standards. There was none of that.

"We walked up to a situation, you observed what was going on, and you reacted to it. So you don't know if you reacted how you were supposed to, you don't know if you did everything you were supposed to."

Day two consisted of a field training exercise where contestants had to coordinate their way to predetermined mission locations to rendezvous with allies. Soldiers currently deployed to Africa and in the Pacific region have gone on missions where U.S. troops train foreign allies, often working independently. Chambers said many of the skills the competitors learned at this year's Best Warrior Competition will help Soldiers prepare for those types of missions.

"With the warfare and the conflicts that we are engaging in right now, especially being able to mesh with the local communities and train and advise, I think it's crucial that all American Soldiers learn this ability," Chambers said.

Competition organizers woke the contestants at 2:30 a.m. and told them that they could only depend on a compass and a few mission-related tools to complete the mission. They could not use the main roads or normal means of communication to navigate, having to depend on themselves

"We were never side by side competing with another competitor," Bowen said.

Contestants had to avoid being detected by members of the Asymmetric Warfare cadre, who acted as enemy forces driving around with bright lights. Chambers said each mission took 90 minutes or more to complete and about 10 hours total.

On day three, the competitors, already weary and tired from continuous trekking through the forests, faced another mental battle: the "unknown" distance ruck march.

The contest instructors disclosed little information about the march, and had competitors begin the march in pairs while breaking up the start times into 15-minute intervals. Cadre instructors gave Soldiers a required list of survival items to pack, but the rest of the supplies they left up to the individuals. Chambers estimated he carried 55-60 pounds of gear.

"We didn't know how far we were going. We were already tired from two days of constantly walking," Chambers said. "That was tough."

The challenge of overcoming the unknowns made the achievement more satisfying, Bowen said. The senior drill instructor at Fort Jackson recommended he compete for the award. Bowen, an internment/resettlement specialist, or 31E, has spent seven years in the Army and the last three as a drill sergeant.

"It hasn't set in yet," he said. "(Winning) means a lot. It's an honor to hold the title of best noncommissioned officer of the Army; I'm just soaking it in right now."