SLUNJ, Croatia – The morning dawned hot and muggy, setting the tone for more than 70 competitors — including two Minnesota National Guard Soldiers — as they faced eight tests of skill and endurance during the Croatian Best Soldier Competition.
For a decade, Croatia has hosted the prestigious competition and facilitated strong partnerships by bringing together all branches of the Croatian Armed Forces, the Croatian Police, and select international competitors from 13 countries for one epic challenge.
“The main goal of the Best Soldier Competition is for competitors to develop traits such as perseverance, endurance, discipline, dedication and motivation and apply them in the competition,” said Sgt. Maj. Tihomir Slanac, the executive noncommissioned officer for the Croatian Armed Forces’ command sergeant major’s office. “The international character of the competition enables the participation of allied and partner countries to develop interoperability, joint action, friendship and partnership.”
Two Minnesota National Guard Soldiers represented the United States because of their state’s partnership with Croatia, established 26 years ago through the Department of Defense National Guard Bureau State Partnership Program. The Minnesota National Guard and Croatian Armed Forces have exchanged Soldiers for each of their noncommissioned officer competitions since 2021. Each region’s competition has its own challenges.
“The Croatian [competition] was the most physically demanding competition of my life,” said Spc. Nathaniel Miska, a carpentry and masonry specialist with the Minnesota National Guard’s 850th Engineer Company. “The Minnesota Best Warrior Competition was composed of many events over a series of days, whereas the Croatian [competition] was a series of events completed in one day. It was extremely rigorous due to high temperatures, distances of over 20 miles traveled, and being a nonstop event.”
In May in the central Croatian mountains, the competitors tackled land navigation, a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear scenario, weapons qualification on the Croatian VHS-2 assault rifle and HS-XDM pistol, medical evacuation, grenade throwing, repelling, and a water crossing obstacle, with long ruck marches between each event.
Sgt. Richard Carlson, the noncommissioned officer competitor and a health care specialist with the Minnesota National Guard’s Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 1st Battalion, 94th Cavalry Regiment, said this was one of the toughest endurance challenges he’s faced. And as an American Greco-Roman wrestling athlete with the Minnesota Storm, qualifying for the Pan-American Championships in 2022 with sights on the 2024 Olympics, Carlson knows about pushing his limits. Yet he learned valuable lessons from the Croatian partners.
“Before the ruck, some of the staff and veteran competitors were discussing how difficult the competition would be,” said Carlson. “[They said to us] don’t quit and keep thinking about the end goal when you are struggling. It became a real battle and I was worried about finishing, but I just told myself to get to the next checkpoint and go from there. My unit’s motto is ‘Blood Over Surrender.’ I thought it was pretty fitting for what I was going through, and I used that to keep pushing myself.”
The finish line for the Croatian competition is marked by flags from every participating nation and a large bell. Each participant ends the grueling competition by saluting their flag and ringing the bell.
“This seemingly small act holds a symbolism in their country that comes with a high level of respect and pride,” said Miska. “The feeling I had when the bell was ringing in my ear is unlike anything I have experienced before.”
Minnesota’s competitors both rang the bell. Miska finished in 7 hours 47 minutes, placing 4th at the international level and 33rd overall. Carlson finished in just over 9 hours, placing 9th at the international level and 50th overall.
“Spc. Miska and Sgt. Carlson are a perfect representation of the finest Soldiers and noncommissioned officers the Minnesota National Guard has to offer,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Brian Soper, command senior enlisted leader for the Minnesota National Guard.
One of the core missions of the State Partnership Program is to foster mutually beneficial relationships by building trust and understanding of partner nation tactics and capabilities through familiarization events and personnel exchanges. The Minnesota National Guard has collaborated with the Croatian Armed Forces on shared issues such as homeland defense, disaster response, humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping operations, and, most recently, cybersecurity.
“Exchanging Soldiers is always valuable because it is the best way to get to know each other even better and to share our experiences,” said Slanac. “I think that even after 26 years of partnership, we can still learn a lot from each other. This exchange is valuable on multiple levels and should definitely continue.”
Carlson said it was an honor to contribute to that partnership.
“It dawned on me a couple times what a big deal it was to be wearing this [U.S.] uniform at the competition,” he said.