FORT LEE, Va. -- Every competitor entering the 2007 Department of the Army Noncommissioned Officer/Soldier of the Year Competition at Fort Lee, Va., brings with them a wealth of experience. For some Soldiers and NCOs, success in previous competitions, a strong unit support chain or a deployment helped them in their pursuit of the Best Warrior title.

Sgt. Patrick Mann isn't relying completely on his experience from competing here just a year ago as Space and Missile Command's Soldier of the Year. Instead, he's sharing it. Upon returning from the 2006 Best Warrior competition, Mann mentored Sgt. Martin Jensen to compete for Soldier of the Year. For Jensen, all it took was eyeing that engraved sword Mann received last year to become interested in the competition. But he had other reasons.

"I wanted to be a sergeant and knew that the only way I could show my command that's what I wanted to do was to win Soldier of the Month boards," said 22-year-old Jensen. "From there, I kept it up until I got promoted. Along the way, I happened to get pretty good at the boards."

Since Mann returned from the 2006 competition, Jensen has been gleaning information from his colleague in preparation for his own run at the Best Warrior title.

"A lot of it was just information I received from Sgt. Mann, having been every step of the way before," said Jensen. "And being such good friends and training together has been great. We always have had a pretty jovial attitude about things, and so within our training, we're always in a good mood and that helps the training environment a lot. That's been a good contributing factor to our success."

Competing for the first time at the DA level, Jensen is pretty confident. Having seen the competition through the eyes of Mann, he said he is ready for anything - even Friday's mystery event.

"I like the idea of having to think on your feet and proving capable of overcoming any challenge to get to Soldier of the Year," said Jensen, a native of Rockford, Minn. "Something like this truly proves your are the best."

Mann recalled the initial shock of entering last year's mystery event as though he was walking in darkness.

"In one part of the event, there was just a door," said 32-year-old Mann. "We were told to wait outside, and that's it. You didn't know if you were going to be clearing a room or what. Then you walked inside, and it's a big computer screen (the EST2000 system for urban war fighting scenarios). So every step of the way was like walking in complete darkness."

It's moments of uncertainty and how competitors deal with them that prove whether they can hold up under the daily grind of competition. Having faltered once during the board appearance, Jensen believes it hasn't affected his performance since.

"Going into the board room, you're supposed to take three steps forward and stand at attention," he said. "Well, I didn't, and I corrected myself right away, but that stuck out for me right away. Then I had to give my bio, and as soon as I finished that, I had already gotten over my initial error. You can't dwell on the past. Regardless of how I finish, I know this is a great experience for me and something I can go back to my Soldiers and tell them, 'Look what you can do if you apply yourself.'"

Another former competitor returning to Fort Lee is Staff Sgt. Russell Burnham, U.S. Army Medical Command. Burnham previously won the 2003 U.S. Army Forces Command Soldier of the Year and went on to achieve the DA Soldier of the Year. Focusing on this year's competition, Burnham leaves those accolades on the trophy case, and has a fresh approach to this new challenge.

"I don't think that winning in 2003 means anything - like getting a free pass this year," said Burnham. "I think it just means that you can compete at this type of level and have the drive and determination to continue competing. What it really all comes down to is showing the competitive spirit that we all have, and it's a great way to showcase the Army."

The U.S. Army Special Operation Command's NCO of the Year, Sgt. Shayne Cherry, competed in the 2007 Best Ranger competition. He said that experience has prepared him well for this next challenge. More so than that, being a squad leader in the Ranger Regiment keeps him well-prepared and competitive.

"I've pretty much have had hands-on experience with every piece of equipment and had working knowledge of everything I needed for competition," said 24-year-old Cherry.

Cherry spent a couple weeks training with the USASOC Soldier of the Year, Spc. Heyz Seeker, who is looking to carry on a battalion tradition. Sgt. Christopher Shanahan competed for the 2005 DA Soldier of the Year and Staff Sgt. Douglas Norman competed for NCO of the Year in 2006.

"This is a tradition I wanted to uphold and keep in the battalion," said Seeker. "Three years running straight, so hopefully this year we'll win the whole thing."

Seeker draws from experience well beyond his service with Co. C, 1/75th Ranger Regiment at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia. From 1991-1995, he was a combat arms forward observer stationed in Alaska, and later joined the Nevada National Guard as an Abrams crewmember for three years. In 2004, he re-enlisted as an infantry Soldier. Completing Ranger training and enduring the stress and fatigue has also factored into his performance this week.

"Certainly, my experiences in combat arms and the stresses involved have helped me in this competition," said Seeker. "Knowing how each combat arms functions and how they support each other has given me a very well-rounded education."

Staff Sgt. Travis Snook said having the experience of deployments helped him earn the U.S. Army-Europe NCO of the Year. Shortly after reaching his first duty station, Snook was deployed to Macedonia where he performed security operations. In 2002-2003, he deployed to Kosovo, where he was tasked to a personal security detachment team for a brigade commander and became familiar with urban operations. During Operation Iraqi Freedom II, Snook was attached to the same security team for a brigade commander, but this time as a platoon sergeant responsible for 25 other Soldiers. Snook takes a leadership role every day in the 7th Army Noncommissioned Officer Academy, where he has spent over a year as a Warrior Leader Course instructor. Instilling a high level of discipline, knowledge and professionalism to sergeants has also been instrumental in his competitive success.

"A lot of what we do in competition is what I teach, so it's almost second nature to me now," said 26-year-old Snook.

He admits that determination for perfection at the NCOA is sometimes a detriment in competition.

"If I feel I haven't met the set standard, I kind of get upset with myself and might be a little bit harder on myself than most people," said Snook. "But I've grown a thicker skin. The biggest thing pushing me through this competition is knowing that my wife and son are at home proud of me and what I'm doing. Being one of the top 13 NCOs in the Department of the Army is an honor in itself."

Snook looks forward to returning to the Warrior Leader Course and sharing what he learned from this experience with others.

"Having this experience and the knowledge I'll have gained from it is something I'm going to promote to other Soldiers as an instructor," he said. "I think this is an excellent competition, where we learn from each other and build camaraderie. This is an opportunity for me to share this with others and maybe open up the doors that they otherwise wouldn't have realized possible for them."