WASHINGTON -- Army leaders recognized 11 career counselors for being amongst the best in their career field in retaining experienced and qualified Soldiers.

Nominees hoped to take home the top prize during Thursday's Secretary of the Army Career Counselor of the Year recognition ceremony at the Pentagon.

In the end, Staff Sgt. Alisa Licata and Sgt. 1st Class Joey Thomas, both with Army Forces Command and representing the active and reserve component respectively, edged past the field of competition.

Lt. Gen. Walter E. Piatt, Army Staff director, and Sgt. Maj. Mark A. Thompson, senior Army career counselor, presented both winners with a Sgt. Maj. Jerome Pionk Excellence in Retention Medal.

"The safety of our nation depends on the people that choose to wear the uniform," Thompson said. "I'm very proud of the competitors -- [they] are a shining example of what our field is."

The award recognizes each recipient for their exceptional achievements and service as proponents of the Army's retention program.

"When you think about the Army's modernization efforts ... none of that matters unless we have the [the right] people," Piatt said.

"[Soldiers] stayed because you made them see that [the Army was] the best way forward," he added. "Our policies and our strategy, as good as they are, didn't do it. You did."

Thomas, a former recruiter, transitioned over to the career counseling field after accepting an Active Guard Reserve position assigned to support the 3rd Infantry Division out of Fort Stewart, Georgia.

"It has been rewarding," he said. "I spent years as a recruiter putting Soldiers into the military. Now I get to speak to those same Soldiers and try to keep them in the Army."

There is an extensive range of opportunities in the reserves that many service members fail to realize, Thomas explained. After a Soldier leaves active duty, they can continue to serve part time and simultaneously achieve their educational or civilian career goals.

"Most Soldiers don't realize that they can continue with many of the same benefits they had during active duty, but with part-time pay," he said. "I make sure they understand all the benefits of continued service."

Licata, a former military police officer, is responsible for the 4th Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment at Fort Hood, Texas. She became a career counselor after being introduced to the profession by now-retired Master Sgt. Gary Norris.

"[Norris] took me under his wing for six months, and I fell in love with the job instantly," she said. "He was the last career counselor of the year winner for FORSCOM, so I had some big shoes to fill."

Overall, Licata is thankful for her team back at Fort Hood. The mentorship and guidance they provided attributed directly to her recent success, she said.

"An effective career counselor is someone that truly cares about the Soldier," Licata said. "Sure, we have our retention mission but if you show that you care for the Solider, they are going to want to reenlist."

Career counselor of the year nominees:
-- Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Kindle, U.S. Army Europe
-- Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Mata, U.S. Army Europe
-- Sgt. 1st Class Robert Moore, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command
-- Sgt. 1st Class Joey Thomas, U.S. Army Forces Command
-- Staff Sgt. Jackie Lord, U.S. Army Medical Command
-- Staff Sgt. Charity Groff, U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command
-- Staff Sgt. Kelvon Shields, U.S. Army Cyber Command
-- Staff Sgt. Robert Lawniczak, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command
-- Staff Sgt. Julio Ortiz, U.S. Army Pacific
-- Staff Sgt. Brendon Jimenez, U.S. Army Special Operations Command
-- Staff Sgt. Alisa Licata, U.S. Army Forces Command