CAMP BONDSTEEL, Kosovo – Four noncommissioned officers and three junior Soldiers gathered at Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo, to compete for the title of Best Warrior during a three-day competition hosted by Kosovo Force Regional Command East senior enlisted leaders, Sept. 29 to Oct. 1, 2022.
Starting with the Army Combat Fitness Test before dawn and culminating with a question-and-answer board in front of the brigade’s command sergeant major, the grueling competition tested competitors' strength, agility, intellect and determination.
“As NCOs, it’s our job to train Soldiers,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Irving N. Reed, Jr., the senior enlisted leader of RC-East and the 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 29th Infantry Division, Virginia National Guard. “We train Soldiers, but at some point, you have to test Soldiers to make sure that the training is sticking. And when you put it in a competition format, it really brings it out.”
Units across the Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard routinely organize Best Warrior competitions annually to identify and recognize Soldiers who perform above and beyond their normal duties, something 116th IBCT enlisted leaders weren’t sure would happen during their nine-month deployment.
“Our operational tempo has been such that we weren't really sure that we were going to make it happen,” Reed said of his plans to host a Best Warrior Competition. “When we first hit the ground, one of my goals was to have a Best Warrior Competition before we left (Kosovo). And I'm thankful that we were able to get it done and (we) had some pretty decent participation.”
The competition kicked off well before sunrise on Sept. 29 with the competitors participating in the ACFT, the Army’s new physical fitness test. Soldiers tested their physical abilities during the six-event test culminating with a two-mile run.
Next, Soldiers traveled to the EOD training area, where they identified simulated unexploded ordnance and drafted a report EOD technicians could use to identify and render the munitions safe. Before the day was over, Soldiers competed in a mystery event, which took them all over Camp Bondsteel, where they stopped at specific points, conducted a physical challenge, and answered questions pertaining to the KFOR mission in Kosovo.
“It was a great experience; all the instructors really helped us master the material and running the lanes was fun,” said Spc. John W. Walter, a medic with the 547th Medical Company (Area Support), 56th Multifunctional Medical Battalion, 62nd Medical Brigade, and a native of Richland, Wash. “I would recommend it to anyone. Even if you don’t win, it’s worth going out there and getting after it.”
The next day, Soldiers were again on the move before dawn, this time conducting a six-mile road march with a 35-pound rucksack. The road march took them around the camp’s perimeter from the airfield to the dreaded “soul crusher” hill, ending at the start of their next challenge.
After completing the road march, competitors put their Army warrior skills to the test during an assessment lane where Soldiers had to react to a chemical attack, respond to enemy contact, conduct tactical combat casualty care, evacuate a simulated casualty to safety, and triage additional casualties.
The day’s final event brought Soldiers to the Camp Bondsteel small-arms weapons range to compete in a unique shooting challenge. Armed with an M4 rifle and M17 pistol, Soldiers sprinted up and down the range’s access road before aiming their rifles at the targets and engaging while moving from one point to another. Once they ran out of ammunition in their rifle, competitors transitioned to their pistols, shooting while walking towards each target. The entire course was to be completed in under two minutes before competitors were assessed a penalty.
“The competition was challenging,” Walter said. “If you didn’t already have a good base to build on, it would be really difficult to show up and compete. During the shooting event, we all looked at each other like, ‘How are we going to do this?’”
On the last day, before the winners were announced, Soldiers participated in a question-and-answer board where they responded to questions from senior enlisted leaders focused on the KFOR mission and the organization’s role in the NATO-led peace support operation.
“Soldiers are able to see what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are,” Reed said of the competition. “And it gives the leadership an opportunity to assess what areas we may need additional work on when it comes to training.”
Ultimately, one NCO and one junior Soldier stood out above the rest and were named the RC-East Best Warriors. Walter won in the junior Soldier category, and taking home the win in the NCO category was Somerset, Ky. native Staff Sgt. Chestin D. Watson, an infantryman with Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 149th Infantry Regiment, 116th IBCT, 29th ID, Kentucky National Guard.
“It feels great (to win),” Walter said. “I don’t really like the attention, but my family and my company are proud, and it’s good to give back to the people who helped me.”
“They all did a great job, and they all walked away with a better assessment of themselves,” Reed added. “No one quit. Everyone was putting it all in. And that’s the most impressive thing. They didn’t have to be here. They all wanted to be here. And they all put forth a lot of effort to the very end. My hat’s off to each and every one of them.”