After a hiatus in 2020 due to the pandemic, U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command Soldiers vied for top spots in the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence Best Warrior Competition at Fort Rucker, Alabama, May 10-14.
Two specialists and a staff sergeant were among the 11 competitors in the typically annual event: Staff Sgt. Daron Ashcraft from AMCOM’s Aviation Center Logistics Command at Fort Rucker, Spc. Christian Kerkado-Colon from Corpus Christi Army Depot and Spc. Jaycob Vellon-Colon from Letterkenny Army Depot.
There were also two noncommissioned officers competing for the 2021 Drill Sergeant of the Year Competition, for a total of 13 Soldiers going through rigorous paces.
Ashcraft was dubbed the AMCOM NCO of the Year and Kerkado bested Vellon to earn the AMCOM Soldier of the Year title. Both will represent AMCOM at the U.S. Army Materiel Command level later this year.
“This is my favorite event of the year because I get to see and interact with Soldiers as they compete at the highest levels,” said AMCOM Command Sgt. Maj. Mike Dove. He said he was really proud of the heart, intestinal fortitude and grit all the Soldiers showed.
A team of rivals – two MPs and a helicopter repairer
Though the three AMCOM Soldiers are all putting their best boots forward with the goal of getting top honors, they are all representing the same headquarters. In the May 11 land navigation event, the trio finished in second, third and fourth place.
Ashcraft is a UH-60 helicopter repairer who is originally from Lawrenceburg, Indiana.
ACLC Sgt. Maj. Nicholas Burney said this particular NCO was selected based on his attitude, willingness to better himself and his ability to transition from his maintenance background and adapt to the mission of ACLC.
“This command is unique in that we don’t actually turn wrenches but we oversee a contract,” Burney said. “He has adapted to the new position and continues to get better.”
“It’s actually good to be able to get outside of work and actually come out and compete against other Soldiers,” said Ashcraft, who’s been in the Army for 11 years. “It’s been rough in that this isn’t something Soldiers typically do – in a competitive environment every day, three o’clock [a.m.] show, MREs, hitting it hard, doing night land nav, day land nav, rigor events and ranges all in one day – that’s not something most people do. So being able to go out here and do it, it’s pretty fun – it’s exciting.”
Ashcraft said it was great to know his sergeant major had the trust and confidence to select him to represent ACLC and AMCOM.
Kerkado is a military policeman from Puerto Rico who’s been in the Army for four years. He joined the Army for “a greater calling” and to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“It’s challenging,” he said. “[This is] not something we get to do every day. So, while we get to do it, we try to practice our skills and apply them in the field.”
“Good mentorship is something you definitely need for this competition,” Kerkado said, adding that his mentor, Sgt. 1st Class Joshua McKee, was great at filling that role.
McKee, CCAD Security Division MP NCO in charge, described Kerkado as a very positive and motivated Soldier and personable individual who volunteered for this challenge. “Now, keep in mind, he’s also going through Auxiliary (Security) Force training at the same time with the Navy,” McKee said.
ASF personnel provide augmentation to base security during contingencies, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, civil disturbances, exercises and special events that require heightened levels of security.
Despite the busy schedule and physical demands begin placed on him by the competition and ASF prep, Kerkado said he’s honored to have been selected. “As an MP, we don’t really get to participate in this type of environment – we usually just do law enforcement.”
Kerkado called it an honor to represent CCAD at the five-day event; that he is now AMCOM’s top Soldier is just icing on the proverbial cake.
“I’m so proud of that kid,” McKee said with a toothy grin.
Vellon is an MP with the Puerto Rico Army National Guard who came to LEAD as part of the Personnel Force Innovation program. PFI is an initiative by the undersecretary of defense (comptroller) that places National Guard and Reserve service members on one- to three-year tours with active-duty units.
“Spc. Vellon came to LEAD as an MP and he volunteered to do this,” said LEAD Sgt. Maj. Ekondua Amoke, who sponsored Vellon and called him a great Soldier.
“For me, it’s been challenging because it takes you out of your comfort zone,” Vellon said. “I’ve done better than I thought I would do; I’m overachieving what I thought I was going to conquer.”
Vellon said he is proud to be the face of LEAD, to serve as its representative for that depot and has met his goal to be a high achiever for the depot and for himself.
“This is an opportunity for him to have fun while learning and getting experience,” Amoke said. “Win or lose, he is the winner for LEAD. He is a hard worker who never gives up. I’m proud of him.”
A team effort
“Two years ago when we [held the competition], it was just AMCOM – it was just an AMCOM competition,” Dove said. “We used almost every NCO that we had at ACLC to make it happen, which took away from the ACLC daily mission.”
This time, AMCOM partnered with Fort Rucker and USAACE and, while some NCOs were still pulled from ACLC, it’s not nearly as many.
“I was doing some basic math and I think it’s probably close to 20 Soldiers supporting each (competing) Soldier when you look at the grand scheme of things,” Dove said. “How many people did it take from the NCO Academy to run the ACFT? How many people does it take to run the [Engagement Skills Trainer]?”
And so on – from transporting the Soldiers to each location, ranges and all the events included in the five-day effort; it was a team effort.
The AMCOM senior enlisted leader reiterated that the figure is just his rough estimate – it's not an accurate number. “The point is, to make this thing happen, it takes a lot of effort,” Dove said. “And the ability for us to consolidate those resources makes it a lot better.”
Dove expressed his gratitude to Command Sgt. Maj. James Wilson, USAACE Aviation Branch, and Fort Rucker for adjusting their schedules and accommodating AMCOM, resulting in a better competition.
“It's been a challenging feat for the Soldiers and the NCOs,” said Sgt. Maj. Morgan Evans, USAACE G-3 sergeant major. “We've seen them build confidence and push themselves harder than what we thought they were going to be able to do, but it's also been a team-building effort for them.”