WASHINGTON -- For Sgts. 1st Class Jackie Lord and Morgan Smith, being recognized as this year’s best Army career counselors is about more than an award or hitting retention goals -- it is a tribute to the Soldiers they serve each day.“Everything [career counselors] do is for Soldiers and their families, whether they leave the Army or branch out,” said Smith, who earned the reserve component honors and is assigned to the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas.“Career counselors coach, mentor, listen, and are here to guide them into making the best choice for themselves, their families, and their country,” Smith said Thursday following a virtual awards ceremony.Lord, who won the active-duty component and is assigned to the U.S. Army Medical Command at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, added that “taking care of the people who defend our nation is one of the most important things anyone can do.”Both Soldiers received a Meritorious Service Medal and the Sgt. Maj. Jerome Pionk Excellence in Retention Medal, whose namesake served 32 years in the Army and is often referred to as the career counselor of the century.“Career counselors are at ground zero for talent management in the U.S. Army,” said acting Secretary of the Army John E. Whitley during the ceremony. “They are the link in the competition for talent. It’s because of you we keep the best and brightest Soldiers we need, and we match them to the jobs they are most needed.”Whitley said career counselors helped retain over 55,000 Soldiers in fiscal year 2020, transitioned roughly 6,000 active-duty Soldiers into the National Guard or Army Reserve, extended contracts for around 1,700 Soldiers impacted by COVID-19, and helped dole out $427 million in various bonuses to Soldiers in selected career fields.“I congratulate [both Soldiers] on winning, because it was no simple feat,” said Sgt. Maj. Stuart Morgan, the Army’s senior career counselor. “Winning is a testament to their selfless service to the Army and their dedication to the professional creed and ethos of noncommissioned officers.”Heading into the announcement, each Army command sent its best of their best, Morgan said. From there, 10 active-duty Soldiers and four reservists vied for top honors in a virtual setting.“The additional knowledge they have gained through this process not only sharpens their skills as career counselors, but also provides them with the extra tools in their toolbox to go back and better assist our No. 1 priority, the Soldier,” Morgan added.The candidates endured a gauntlet of “stiff competition,” he said, which included an initial award packet review, a 50-question written examination, a physical fitness test, followed by the competition’s first-ever double-blind panel that comprised of five sergeant majors.But judges also had a surprise up their sleeves. The fifth round of competition was an evaluation of candidates’ performance metrics over the last year. “So we wouldn’t just select a winner who performs well under the spotlight, but also shows a high-level of proficiency over a long period,” Morgan said.“The number of things you learn when [going] through this process will end up making you a better career counselor than you were [before] you started,” Morgan said, which was something both winners agreed on.With that in mind, the award process required nominees to polish up on their knowledge of Army regulations, including an array of topics like reenlistment assignments, promotions and separations, and many more items that impact the enlisted force. “Anything to fine-tune their skills as a career counselor, and become more knowledgeable, and more technically competent,” Morgan said.At Fort Riley, Smith credited an entire team of NCOs who helped coach and mentor her throughout the entire process. “The preparation going into the competition included soul searching, but I also needed to know my material, and how to articulate it in front of [a double-blind panel of five sergeant majors],” she said.Smith said the double-blind panel, meaning candidates answered questions where they could not see candidates and the senior leaders could not see them, posed the greatest challenge for her.“I had no feedback [during it]; I could not see facial expressions,” she said. “As a career counselor, I feed off the nonverbal, so it was a challenge.”This quandary was shared by many candidates, including Lord who said the panel was “unique compared to what I’m used to, but based on the current environment it was a good way to highlight people while also social distancing.”A double-blind panel can also help eliminate any bias. “When we looked at what else is going on in the Army, from promotion boards to removing [Department of the Army] photo requirements from selection boards, we incorporated these kinds of initiatives into our board process,” Morgan said.After rising to the challenge, both winners said they were honored to compete alongside so many qualified candidates. They plan to use their recent achievement to motivate others.“Whatever your goal is, I encourage Soldiers to keep pushing toward it,” Lord said. “I competed last year and didn’t win, but I kept going. So I hope this win can motivate others with accomplishing their goals.”Related links:Army News ServiceARNEWS archivesFollow Thomas Brading on Twitter