JERICHO, Vt. - For the third time in three years, two New York Army National Guard Soldiers are the best Guard Soldiers in the northeast.
The two Soldiers won in both the junior enlisted and noncommissioned officer categories of the Army National Guard’s Northeast Region Best Warrior Competition.
Staff Sgt. Matthew Ortiz and Cpl. Troy Perez each bested seven Soldiers from the New England states and New Jersey during the August 13-16 competition run by the Vermont Army National Guard at Camp Ethan Allen in Jericho.
They will now compete in the nationwide Army National Guard Best Warrior Competition Sept. 13-16 at Camp Shelby, Mississippi.
Ortiz and Perez are members of the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry, based in Manhattan. Ortiz is assigned to the Headquarters Company, while Perez is a member of Alpha Company.
They’re also both emergency medical technicians in the New York City Fire Department who met while training at the city’s Emergency Medical Services Academy.
Their experience as EMTs and the bond they share outside the National Guard helped them do better at the Best Warrior events, Perez and Ortiz both said.
“Being an EMT, especially someplace like New York City, where the call volume and the workload is very high, it forces you to deal with extreme stress,” Perez said. “Other peoples’ lives are in your hands, so you have to be prepared to come to work and be mentally agile and fit for duty.”
In 2019, New York Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Martin Cozens and Cpl. Joseph Ryan, now a sergeant, won the Northeast Region Best Warrior Competition. Cozens is a member of the 2nd Battalion, 108th Infantry, while Ryan is assigned to the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry.
In 2018, Spc. Ilya Titov, who is also now a sergeant, and Sgt. Quentin Davis, both members of the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry, won the regional event.
“It’s a pretty big deal over at the unit right now,” Ortiz said.
“We are following in the footsteps of these guys who came before us. It means a lot to us to make them proud of us,” he added.
Their route to the national Best Warrior Competition began when they took first place at the New York State Best Warrior Competition July 24-26 at Camp Smith Training Site near Peekskill.
The event was postponed from May due to the COVID-19 pandemic and there was a chance it would be canceled, but the Joint Force Headquarters NCOs who run it figured out how to do a pandemic-sensitive contest, said New York Army National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. David Piwowarski.
“The contestants wore masks during events that were not highly physical,” Piwowarski said. “And the staff wore masks, disinfected surface areas, worked to maintain social distancing and thermometers were available.”
Four to five days of competition was crammed into 30 hours of activity to lessen exposure to each other and make up for the last-minute scheduling, Piwowarski said.
“This year‘s competition was limited in some ways by COVID-19 protocols. However, there was no limit to the intensity of the competition or the contestants,” Piwowarski said.
Ortiz, from Bethpage, New York on Long Island, and Perez, who lives in Yorktown Heights in the Hudson Valley, trained together to get ready for the New York Best Warrior Competition and then to hone their technique for the regional event at Camp Ethan Allen.
“We stayed motivated and pushed each other every day,” Perez said.
They would also pick different places to run and train for the ruck march part of the competition.
“We’d take the American flag and run it across the Brooklyn Bridge,” said Ortiz. “It helped keep our morale up.”
Both men credited Ryan, one of the regional winners in 2019, with helping them prepare for the competition.
Ryan suggested ways to train and prepare and worked with Command Sgt. Maj. Shaun Butcher, 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry, who once won New York’s competition, to get the resources they needed to compete.
The regional competition, like the New York Best Warrior, included a fitness test, combat lane, day and night land navigation courses, an appearance board, Army warrior tasks, a written test, an essay and rifle and pistol course and a 12-mile road march with a full pack.
The surprise event – held between the day and night land navigation courses, was ax throwing.
The event, Ortiz explained, was included as a salute to Vermont’s Green Mountain Boys, the state’s first militia, which took Fort Ticonderoga from the British in 1775.
A tomahawk, or small ax, was part of their equipment and they were expected to keep it sharp and clean and be able to use it to start a fire or kill an enemy scout, he said.
The Soldiers were given a chance to practice and then threw axes at silhouette targets. Surprisingly, both Ortiz and Perez excelled in ax throwing.
“That was fun,” Perez said. “I had never thrown an ax in my life.”
“It turned out Ortiz and I both placed first in the ax throwing,” he added.
Now, their emphasis will be on getting ready for the national Army Guard Best Warrior event at Camp Shelby and see if they can replicate their wins there, and go on to the Army-wide Best Warrior.
“Our goal is to find our weak points by looking back at the other competitions and knowing what we did and what we can improve on,” Perez said. “We need to look at the minor details now to really perfect our training.”