Tennessee Guardsman wins Soldier of Year competition
Sgt Cole Lukens, with 208th MCAS, Tennessee Army National Guard, takes aim at his target during the Three Weapons Challenge at the 2021 Army National Guard Best Warrior Competition at Florence Training Site, Arizona, July 20, 2021. The competition spans three physically and mentally demanding days where competitors are tested on a variety of tactical and technical skills as they vie to be named the Army Guard’s Soldier and Noncommissioned Officer of the Year. The winners then represent the Army Guard in the Department of the Army Best Warrior Competition later this year. (Photo Credit: Spc. Carlos Parra) VIEW ORIGINAL

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Sgt. William Lukens, a tactical generator mechanic in the Tennessee Army National Guard’s 208th Area Support Medical Company in Smyrna, won the 2021 Army National Guard Best Warrior Competition at Camp Navajo, Arizona.

Lukens was one of 13 finalists who represented the best National Guard Soldiers and noncommissioned officers in the nation during a grueling four-day event that concluded July 23.

“It feels amazing,” said Lukens, “and I am really excited to carry out what I learned here back to my unit and sharpen the skills of other Soldiers.”

With an elevation of 7,000 feet, Camp Navajo presented its own challenges for the competitors. Two weeks before arriving in Arizona, Lukens prepared himself for the higher elevation by hiking part of the Appalachian Trail. “I did 33 miles with a 55-pound pack. I left about 2 p.m. and hiked until 1 a.m. and I took a nap and then I went the rest of the 10 miles.”

The first day of the competition started with the Army Combat Fitness Test, followed by a helicopter flight to the desert. “Shooting is something I really enjoy,” said Lukens. “We started with shotguns and pistols. We then flew back to the camp. We fired M4s at night with [night vision goggles]. It was a lot of fun. I hadn’t done that before.”

After three hours of sleep, next came land navigation. “I was really proud of myself. I quickly found five out of five points.”

Competitors were then graded on warrior tasks: radio checks, first aid, the grenade range, weapons range, programming a “dagger” (a military GPS), setting up a claymore mine, and sending a 9-line medical evacuation report. To make it even more interesting, these were timed events with a mile run in between.

Next, the Soldiers worked two final events with a combination of stressors. The first event involved troubleshooting an M4 rifle – blindfolded. The final event was assembling two different rifles from a box full of parts in the dark while loud music played.

The final event on the second day of competition was designed to test these professionals in a unique environment. The competitors were driven to an Olympic-size pool to demonstrate how well they swam in full uniform. “We had to swim 25 meters with an M4 over our head,” said Lukens. “If your weapon went in the water, you failed.”

The next four events involved diving to the bottom of the pool to retrieve a piece of tactical gear, swimming 50-meters, 100-meters, and treading water with their hands over their heads without going under – all in uniform. “I came in second in the swimming event, so I’ll train harder for next time,” said Lukens.

On the third day, the competitors were taken to the desert and put into three-person teams. They were graded on a field artillery exercise where they demonstrated “firing for effect” and an urban operation exercise where they demonstrated clearing a building. Next, they drove to Arizona’s Mogollon Rim for a ruck march with a 35-pound pack. Lukens finished first, 20 minutes ahead of the next Soldier.

The final day of competition was a little more cerebral. There was an essay contest and written exam, and the competitors appeared before a formal board. The competitors were also tested on their drills and ceremony.

“They didn’t tell me how well I did, but they said I could have failed an event and still won,” said Lukens.

That evening, everyone attended an awards banquet where it was announced that Lukens was the “best of the best” and the 2021 Army National Guard Soldier of the Year. He was awarded a Meritorious Service Medal and Soldier of the Year trophy.

“This is a great honor,” said Lukens. “I’m proud to represent my state during the competition and I look forward to representing all 54 states and territories in the upcoming Army Best Warrior competition. This has been an amazing experience.”

Lukens enlisted in the Army National Guard in 2017. In addition to being a senior at Middle Tennessee State University and president of his fraternity (Kappa Sigma), he is employed full-time with the Guard in Smyrna. He is leaning toward becoming a drill sergeant. “I’ll never forget what my drill sergeant, Drill Sgt. Grainger, said: ‘A deficiency that goes uncorrected becomes a new standard.’”

Lukens will be moving on to the U.S. Army’s Best Warrior competition to compete against Active-Duty and Reserve Soldiers this fall. He will be representing the more than 330,000 Soldiers from 54 states and territories in the National Guard.

National Best Warrior Competition

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