FORT POLK, La. — The Fort Polk Noncommissioned Officer and Soldier of the Year award presentation took place June 3 at the Warrior Center.Command Sgt. Maj. Michael C. Henry, Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk post command sergeant major, was the guest speaker at the event. He welcomed the NCOs and Soldiers who took part in the annual competitions and recognized their individual efforts.“These candidates have demonstrated excellence while facing challenges and overcoming personal obstacles that culminated in presenting themselves to numerous boards conducted by sergeants major and senior NCOs from across the installation,” he said.The purpose of the NCO/SOY competition, said Henry, is to select the best NCO/SOY to represent Fort Polk at the Forces Command 2020 NCO/SOY competition held in August.“This event provides NCOs and Soldiers an opportunity to showcase their efforts, display esprit de corps and demonstrate individual and unit excellence through a rigorous professional competition,” he said.Henry said this year’s competition was different than those of the past due to the COVID-19 environment.“They weren’t able to be as aggressive as they have in the past by adding a wide range of pieces to the competition such as the Army Physical Fitness Test or a road march, which adds a higher level stress to the event. Instead, we did a reduced-level event in a basic combat training environment. We executed the competition at board level, as we will do at Forces Command, and they did it over a video conference,” he said.The importance of this year’s event was to showcase the Soldiers’ efforts as they endeavored to overcome any challenges to succeed under unusual conditions.Henry said one of the toughest things the Soldiers had to deal with was the ambiguity of the questions stemming from a broad source of information.“There is also the challenge of dealing with the technology necessary to teleconference with the board. Competitors may not be as familiar with this type of communication. A young specialist trying to convey that they are confident and capable, even while dealing with the adversity of an electronic system that is new to them, adds a challenge they didn’t expect,” said Henry.Though every one of these competitors has participated and won within their own right, Henry said the competition hasn’t been just individual effort.“It has also encompassed the contributions of Soldiers, NCOs and command teams that have helped prepare their Soldiers by giving them the space and time they needed to be recognized as competitors,” said Henry.The winner of the 2020 NCO of the Year is Staff Sgt. Erica Whaley, Fort Polk Dental Activity.Whaley said being chosen to compete in the NCO of the Year competition was an honor.“It made me realize that my unit believed in me and that they knew I would be competitive,” she said.Whaley said the competition was focused on the oral boards.“Usually you sit in front of the panel as they ask their questions, which can be intimidating,” she said. “I still felt the pressure and was nervous, even while conducting the board through a teleconference. That’s been the main difference this year.”She said the hardest part for her was studying the broad range of topics.“It was a lot to cover within a short period of time,” she said. “I had to dedicate a lot of time to studying and reviewing every day. I involved my Soldiers and Family in the process. My two daughters would help me study at home and, when I got a break at work, my Soldiers would help me study. They would quiz me,” she said.Whaley said she couldn’t believe when all that hard work resulted in success.“It feels really good to know that I’ve won, but I’m going to give my mind a break from studying before I jump back in for the FORSCOM competition,” she said. “My kids were proud of me, but they were happy it was over.”The winner of the 2020 Soldier of the Year competition is Spc. Logan Shepard, 1st Battalion, 5th Aviation Regiment.Shepard said it was highly competitive among the junior enlisted Soldiers for the chance to represent his battalion in the competition.“I studied hard and worked toward it as a personal goal, just to prove to myself that I could do it. I was ecstatic to be chosen, not only for my company but also the battalion,” he said.The primary drive behind the way the competition took place was the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing guidelines, said Shepard.“For the competition to be fully virtual is unique. It was a curveball I wasn’t expecting, but as a ‘millennial’ using technology, it wasn’t too difficult. The process maintained its professional capacity. We still had to go through the board procedures as though we were there in person,” he said. “The difficulties were not being able to look people in the eyes and technical issues such as sound cutting out, but we overcame those.”Shepard said details are important in his job as a critical-care flight paramedic, and he felt that helped him as he studied the vast Army regulations and information necessary to go before the board and be successful.“I would go through each and every line of a regulation. It was a shot in the dark as to what we would be asked. Thankfully, I know how to study and not task saturate myself, so I never felt overwhelmed,” he said.Shepard said now that he has been successful in winning Soldier of the Year, he is going to continue to review and learn as much as he can before heading to the FORSCOM level.“I’m glad to be able to represent myself, my unit and my NCO support chain of command. There is a lot to learn and I will give it 120% because it is the next level. The bar is set high, and I will make the jump,” he said.