EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Florida -- Nine Soldiers from Public Health Command-Atlantic were tested on both warrior and life-saving skills January 12-16 here to identify the best noncommissioned officer and enlisted Soldier within the command to represent PCH-A in Regional Health Command-Atlantic's Best Warrior Competition later this year.
During the week, the participants endured physical and mental challenges with limited sleep, nor considerable time between events. Although everyday was grueling for the Soldiers, the second day of the BWC was considered by many as the most physically and mentally challenging.
At about 4 a.m. the morning of Jan. 14, the Soldiers started a 12-mile ruck and had to finish it in less than three hours. After a hot meal, the Soldiers zeroed their weapons (M4s) and engaged enemy targets from a two-story building and various positions on the 7th Special Forces Group weapons range.
For Sgt. Wesley Nguyen, who won the NCO competition, the ruck march was the most difficult.
"It was all tough. The 12-mile ruck was the most physically challenging," said Nguyen, a medical laboratory technician with duty at Fort Meade's (Maryland) Lab Service Division. "You're already exhausted and then you have to throw on that ruck for 12 miles."
Spc. Jared Willoughby, the enlisted winner, agreed with Nguyen's assessment.
"The ruck march was definitely the hardest, he said. I was beaten down and tired from the previous day. But I made it through."
Nguyen, Willoughby and the other competitors were exhausted because of the Army Warrior Tasks requirements the previous day. From decontaminating self and equipment to triaging a casualty AWTs are the necessary skills all Soldiers must know without hesitation to ensure the safety of themselves, their team and mission accomplishment.
After the range, they negotiated various heights and challenges on an obstacle course. Following movement to the 6th Ranger Training Battalion, the contenders stripped off their Army Combat Uniforms and change into their Army Service Uniforms, or dress uniform, for an oral board.
This is where senior NCOs pepper the contestants with questions about multiple Army topics and inspect the Soldier's uniform for the slightest imperfections. Oral boards are to not only to test the Soldiers' knowledge in regards to Army regulations but to also see how they maintain their military bearing, particularly when they cannot answer a question.
After walking out of the board, Nguyen knew that he would need to study more and prepare better if he was going to have a chance to win best warrior at the region.
"I really need to brush up on studying board material," he said. "That's why I love competing in these events. You're constantly being challenged. I always encourage my Soldiers to compete in events like the Best Warrior. It's going to make them a better Soldier."
Nguyen is no stranger to these kind of competitions. He's competed in RHC-A's Soldier of the Year, U.S. Army Medical Command and Fort Benning's NCO of the Year titles.
Willoughby doesn't have the experience of Nguyen, nor was he even supposed to be in this competition. He came in second in his unit competition and had to come off the bench when the Soldier was selected for the Basic Leadership Course, which is a requirement for promotion to sergeant that opened the door for Willoughby.
He also found himself at a disadvantage compared to the other Soldiers in regards to training because of his duty assignment as a food inspector at Naval Support Activity Mid-South in Millington, Tennessee.
When he needed to fire a weapon or do land navigation training, he had to travel more than three hours northeast to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home of the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) affectionately known as the Screaming Eagles.
Although some Soldiers would complain about the almost 200-mile trek, he shrugged it off like it was only a small inconvenience -- another obstacle for a good Soldier to overcome.
"We're surrounded by Sailors, so it's hard sometimes to get the proper training, but we make it happen," he said.
During the remaining competition, the Soldiers performed day and night land navigation, water survival, Combatives, wrestle until submission or exhaustion, and jousting with pugil sticks. All testing required combat skills for today's battlefield.
Most would consider the week of Soldiering as exhausting, stressful and deprivation, Nguyen does not. He embraces it.
"They're fun, I love them, said Nguyen, trying to hold back a smile. "They're tough. I can push myself to see where I am at as a Soldier."
Command Sgt. Major Diamond Hough, the region's command sergeant major, knows the rigor of battle and cannot stress to Soldiers enough the importance of competition, at the BWC or other Soldier-centric events, are to readiness and preparing the leaders of tomorrow.
It takes a special type of Soldier to put yourself at risk" he said. That's what you do when you compete. These are the Soldiers that grow up to be the leaders in our Army."
Nguyen appreciates CSM Hough's assessment, but doesn't consider himself special. He's a Soldier wanting to do the best more for his unit and Soldiers, not the glory of winning.
"The training and knowledge you gain here is more important than winning, he said. "Every time I come to one (competition), I go back to my unit and show my Soldiers. If they want to compete I train them up."
Both Nguyen and Willoughby are proud of their accomplishments and more proud to represent the region. They know it won't be easy, but being a Soldier isn't. That's why it's crucial for public health Soldiers to get out of the veterinary clinics and the laboratories, put on a Kevlar, draw a weapon and compete. They are Soldiers first. They'll be ready.