NIAGARA FALLS AIR RESERVE STATION, New York --Fifteen New York National Guard Soldiers and Airmen are headed to the Republic of South Africa on Friday, Sept. 8 to compete in the South African National Defence Force Military Skills Competition.
The New York National Guard has fielded teams in this competition before, but this year an all-woman team of Army and Air National Guard members will participate as well.
The women will compete against female teams from other nations.
The event which runs from Sept. 9 to 16 and is held at a South African Army base in Potchefstroom in South Africa’s Northwest Province, is sponsored by the South African military’s Reserve Forces Council.
The participants are judged on rifle and pistol marksmanship, an eight kilometer run, a land obstacle course, a water obstacle course, and grenade throwing.
“I Did it last year and it was an amazing time,” said Army Guard Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Guckian, a human resources specialists assigned to Camp Smith Training Site near Peekskill.
When he got the chance to compete again in 2023, he jumped at the opportunity, Guckian said.
He’s been sharing what he learned last year with the other 14 members of the contingent on emails and computer calls, he said.
Along with the all-woman, joint service team, the New York National Guard is sending an Army National Guard and an Air National Guard team to compete. Each team consists of five personnel, a coach and four participants.
In the past, as many as 21 nations have sent teams of reserve Soldiers to compete, but the pandemic shut down the event for two years and only four national teams, including Guckian and the other New Yorkers showed in 2022.
This year, it’s expected that the event will see more international competitors again, said Air Guard Command Chief Master Sgt. Edward Stefik, who is serving as team leader and coach for the Army team.
Stefik, who serves as the senior enlisted leader for the 107th Attack Wing, took a second place finish during the 2014 competition.
His task, since the contingent was identified in June, has been to pull together a group of Army and Air Guard men and women who live and drill across the state, Stefik has said.
Fortunately, everybody identified to be part of the New York National Guard team are disciplined, self-starters who can prepare for the physical challenges on their own, Stefik said.
“What is unique about the Guard, between both the Army and the Air, is when you are training on your own and staying professional and physically fit, you can put us in the game anywhere and we can succeed,” he said.
The group, he emphasized, has a lot of diversity—men, women, Airmen, Soldiers-- and they come from across the state.
“We represent not just the Army and Air Force, we represent the makeup of New York,” Stefik said.
Air Guard Major Tiffany Mock, the coach for the women’s team, said the four women- -two from the Air Guard and two from the Army Guard— are all motivated and ready to compete.
“I think there is a lot of pressure on the females,” said Air Guard Staff Sgt. Morgan Dibernardo, a member of the 107th Attack Wing. “Personally, I am very nervous but super excited,” she added.
Army Sgt. Keyonta Williams, an Army National Guard recruiter from New York City, said she too was very excited about the chance to compete with other women.
“We can compete at the highest level,” she said.
Williams said she expects to do best on the obstacle course because she works hard to stay fit.
The New Yorkers will have three or four days before the competition to practice on all the competitions.
This is very important, Guckian said, because Potchefstroom is 4,396 feet above sea level. People who live in Buffalo, and New York City need some time to acclimatize, he said.
It’s also a good chance to get uses to the South African R-4 rifle and their issue pistol, Guckian said. The R-4 is slimmer than an M-16 A2 or M-4, but the pistol is similar to the M-9 Barretta, he said.
The swimming obstacle course is also very challenging, Guckian said. It’s fun, but it means going under and over water obstacles in a pool as fast as possible.
The woman’s team might have an edge in this task, Stefik said, because Airman 1st Class Vincenza Costanzo, a member of the 107th Attack Wing from North Tonawanda, was a swimming champion in high school and college.
Air Force Master Sgt. Zachary Villano, one of the three coaches and a member of the 109th Airlift Wing, said that the logistics of getting The logistics of getting 14 people from across New York, and one servicemember from California, ready for an international trip and competition, has been demanding but worth it.
“A lot has gone into this, and I can’t wait to get there and see these competitors do their thing,” Villano said.
The New York National Guard has been competing regularly in this event since signing a training partnership agreement with the South African National Defence Force in 2003 as part of the National Guard’s State Partnership Program.
Taking part in the skills competition are:
Army Male Team
Coach: New York Air National Guard Command Chief Master Sgt. Edward Stefik , a Lewiston resident and a member of the 107th Attack Wing.
• Lt. Col. Andy Miller, a Clinton resident and a member of the 53rd Troop Command headquarters.
• Capt. Nick Trentarelli, a Corning resident and a member of the 42nd Infantry Division headquarters.
• Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Guckian, a Poughquag resident assigned to Camp Smith Training.
• SPC Josh Gonzalez, an Amsterdam resident assigned to the 42nd Infantry Division headquarters.
Air Force Male Team
Coach: Master Sgt. Zachary Villano, a Clifton Park resident and member of the 109th Airlift Wing.
• Master Sgt. Jonathan Corcoran, a Slingerlands resident and member of the 109th Airlift Wing.
• Senior Airman Hayden Wagner, a member of the 274th Air Operations Support Squadron who lives in Vacaville, California
• Senior Airman Kyle Spriggs, an Albany resident and a member of the 109th Airlift Wing.
• Airman 1st Class Trek Bjelica, a Mayfield resident and member of the 109th Airlift Wing.
Women's Team/ Army and Air Force
Coach: Air Guard Major Tiffany Mock, a North Tonawanda resident and member of the 107th Airlift Wing.
• Air Guard Staff Sgt. Morgan Dibernardo, a North Tonawanda resident and a member of the 107th Airlift Wing.
• Army Guard Staff Sgt. Keyontae Williams, a Queens resident assigned to the Army National Guard Recruiting and Retention Battalion.
• Army Guard Sgt. Quian Han, a Manhattan resident assigned to Joint Forces Headquarters.
• Airman 1st Class Vincenza Costanzo, a North Tonawanda resident assigned to the 107th Airlift Wing.