FORT KNOX, Ky. -- As vapors rose from our skin, exposed to the cold crisp air outside of the Anderson aquatic center at Fort Knox, Kentucky, the next words uttered were, “What’s our next hit time, sergeant?”
The question was posed by Spc. James Spoerl, human resources specialist and half of the duo designated to represent the 1st Theater Sustainment Command in the Fort Knox combined Best Warrior Competition.
Spoerl, accompanied by me, his fellow competitor and competition mentor, Staff Sgt. Nahjier Williams, public affairs production noncommissioned officer, 1st Theater Sustainment Command, were getting to work training for the vigorous, four-day competition.
The Best Warrior Competition is designed to seek out and identify Soldiers who successfully demonstrate Army knowledge and a high state of physical readiness while being tested in various areas of warrior tasks and battle drills.
“The experience training up for the competition was great,” Spoerl said. “I was put outside of my comfort zone on several occasions, but the most important part for me was staying motivated and focused on the goal, which was winning.”
Several key leaders helped us prepare to compete against the best soldiers of each command at Fort Knox.
The events consisted of a physical fitness assessment, the Combat Water Survival Test, M4 and M9 qualifications, a grenade assault course, a stress shoot, a confidence course, a 12-mile ruck march, a field board; and medical aid, patrolling, and weapons lanes with multiple sub-tasks.
I pulled from my experience as a former infantryman for events such as crew served weapons training, which required us to clear, disassemble, re-assemble, and conduct a functions checks on the M17, M4, M249 Saw and M240B. These are all weapons belonging to the U.S. Army’s arsenal.
While teaching, I used a crawl, walk, run approach. We eventually got to a point where we would race to see how quickly we could accomplish the task.
“Staff Sergeant Williams and I continued to go back to the armory to practice disassembly and assembly of these weapons,” Spoerl said. “Every time we went back, I continued to improve.”
Spoerl didn’t have a lot of experience with the crew-served weapon systems, but was determined to complete the task within the allotted three minutes. As we trained, I reminded him of the trusted phrase, “slow and steady is smooth and smooth is fast.”
Since we trained to a tougher standard than required, we were successful in many of the tested events.
During fitness assessment training, we added additional weight to the sled for the sprint drag carry, conducted hand release push-ups with a weighted plate on our backs, and used a 15-pound medicine ball for the standing power throw instead of the required 10-pound ball used in the competition.
“Just one more throw sergeant. My goal is to get to at least 10 feet,” Spoerl said, ever determined to reach his maximum potential.
Before we knew it, reception day arrived and we were hauling all of our gear from our vehicles onto the lawn of a building for in-processing.
After providing some administrative data, we got in line to receive the COVID-19 Rapid Test, a mandatory requirement since competitors would be living and working in close proximity.
As my eyes watered from the sensation of the procedure, I made a determination that if I had paid the cost of admission, I was going to give 100 percent and then some.
After participating in an equipment layout led by the Cadet Command operations sergeant major and NCOIC of the Best Warrior Competition, we received an M4 and Joint Service Lightweight Integrated Suit Technology. Then we were transported by bus to Training Area Professional where we remained for the duration of the competition.
Spoerl and I made it a routine to ensure all equipment required for the following day’s events were prepped and ready to go before bedding down, regardless of whether the lights in our shell tent went out for the evening. “That’s what flashlights and headlamps are for,” I said.
“I was physically and mentally ready for the competition” Spoerl, said. “I felt confident in my physical abilities, and I had trained with my NCO on several different areas that the competition was based around. I was really just ready for the first event to start. “
Day one consisted of the Army Combat Fitness Test, the Combat Water Survival Test, the Dot-40 M4 qualification and M17 qualification. We boarded buses, arrived at the training site, executed the task, and moved to the next event. After arriving at Gammon pool, Spoerl and I were pleased to hear that the testing standards were not as tough as how we trained. This was a common theme throughout the competition. My motto has always been train harder than you fight.
Spoerl says the CWST was the most exciting and challenging event of day one.
“We had prepared for this event, but it was a little different with all those people there,” he said. “There were several competitors before me who had failed, so it was important for me to stay focused. I didn’t let it bother me and I performed well on it.”
When we arrived back to TA Professional, we received our brief for the following day and began prepping equipment, just as we had the night before. The next day, we conducted warrior tasks and battle drills. The weapons lane was my first of the three stations, and I was excited to demonstrate my knowledge. One by one, I received a block of instruction and executed the task at hand.
I got through the remaining lanes by demonstrating what we rehearsed during training. However, some areas were difficult and didn’t go as planned. However, I remained calm and focused my attention on what came next.
“There were a lot of different lanes involved that required a lot of knowledge,” Spoerl said. “The medical portion was very complex, but I can say I was lucky to have done some medical training prior to the competition. The weapons lane went well. The training I had done with crew served weapons was helpful and I was confident in my abilities.”
Throughout the events I got the opportunity to speak to Spoerl. He briefed me on how he felt about his performance.
“It was important for me to talk with Staff Sgt. Williams throughout the days. He is very knowledgeable and motivating,” Spoerl said. “He helped me keep my mind focused on the present and what we were doing that day. It was very important for me to have someone like this during the competition.”
At some point during night into day land navigation, I remember becoming disoriented while looking for one of my points. I saw nothing around me but trees and rolling hills, and needed to remind myself that if there was a path that led me there, there was also a path that could get me back on track.
I continually told myself motivational phrases throughout the competition that reinforced my confidence, which I used most heavily during the 12-mile ruck march.
“Before the ruck march, I had hurt my knee pretty bad on the obstacle course,” Spoerl said. “MSG Johnson actually came out that night and gave me some ice, because I needed to relieve that swelling. But I knew that I needed that ruck in order to win. I wasn’t going to let my knee bother me.
“Get ready, set, go!” said one of the evaluators at the starting line of the foot march. We shuffled our way to the front of the pack. “Let’s take the hill,” we said. “Come on, Sir! You got this,” was something we said several times to each other, using our status as future officers to provide additional inspiration and motivation. Spoerl was accepted into the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School days before the competition started and I received one of the Army's Green to Gold Program scholarships.
We agreed, “After the next hill, we will drink water and eat two energy chews.” We quickly ingested them, and maintained our pace. We were back at it, moving with a sense of purpose, after securing our supplies.
Spoerl and I picked objects in the distance and called them out as checkpoints. Then, we shuffled as fast as we could to get there and transitioned to a range walk while we caught our breath and stretched our legs while moving.
Check point after check point, success grew closer. We out-rucked many of our competitors who we considered to be more physically fit, and we did so by relying on each other.
“During the ruck, I felt great,” Spoerl said. “I was so motivated to do well and me and Staff Sergeant Williams pushed each other throughout the whole thing. I was relieved after we had crushed most of the competition during the ruck and it was great to see how well we did.”
As we turned the corner for the final stretch, we were relieved to see a small crowd and a digital clock with numbers too blurry to read. We gave our remaining energy as we sprinted to the finish. As Spoerl sprinted past me, I was proud. I was grateful for how far he had come and I saw him as the future of the Army force.
Spoerl said he got a big boost of energy on that last stretch of the 12 mile.
“I knew we had to give it our all, because I didn’t want to look back and wish I could have done better.” Spoerl said. “So we really pushed our limits on the last stretch of the 12 mile. “
After conducting a layout of our packing list and putting away our gear, the names of the finalists competitors who would attend the field board were called out. Spoerl and I were both proud to hear our names called. This would be the final assessment of the competition.
After completion of the board, the last thing we did was board the UH-60 Black Hawks and were transported to Brooks Field for the award ceremony. When the four Black Hawks landed, we all ran out and assumed the prone position. Soldiers from every unit represented in the competition were in formation. Fellow Soldiers, family members, civilians, and guests were all there to support us and hear who would be named Best Warrior.
Spoerl admitted he was nervous to hear the results. “I was really anxious getting to the ceremony because I knew I had made top three,” he said. “So, I was just playing the waiting game at the end.”
“And the Fort Knox 2021 Best Warrior and Soldier of the Year is…… Specialist James Spoerl.” As his name was announced to the crowd, I felt extremely proud knowing how much dedication he had put into preparing and what it would mean to other junior soldiers in our command.