By Sarah Garner, Hq. SDDC Public AffairsJune 7, 2011
SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- Six is the number of competitors.
Five is the number of days of competition.
Four is the number of checkpoints on the road march, during which the competitors had to answer an Army-centric question before moving forward.
Three is the number of chews a competitor had before swallowing chow and tossing their tray.
Two is the number of Soldiers who would move on to the next level of competition as the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command’s Soldier of the Year and Noncommissioned Officer of the Year.
The number one is the word emphasized in SDDC’s command theme: “One Mind, One Heart, One purpose”; and, of course, the number one is also the number each Soldier aspired to be at the end of the competition.
The 2011 SDDC Best Warrior competition, hosted by the 597th Transportation Brigade, was held at Joint Base Langley-Eustis and Fort A.P. Hill, Va., from May 23-27, where the week’s temperatures could only be described as unpleasantly hot. It would seem two competitors, Sgt. Richard Gonzalez and Spc. Anthony Macchio, who traveled from their duty station in Kuwait with the 595th Trans. Bde., brought the heat with them.
The SDDC competitors came from a wide range of demographics. The youngest was 19; the oldest was more than twice that age. Regardless of their age, experience or where they came from, they competed with the characteristic vigor, strength and determination that only resides in a U.S. Army Soldier.
Designed to determine the best physically and mentally skilled Soldier and NCO, the events of the competition included written exams, combatives, board interviews in front of six command sergeants major, a physical fitness test, a six-mile road march, simulated day and night land navigation, weapons qualification, and warrior tasks and battle drills.
After a safety and information brief and media training, combatives took center stage on day one.
When asked to describe Army combatives and their purpose, Staff Sgt. Douglas McBroom of the 597th Trans. Bde., explained, “It’s physical contact. It’s a close contact sport where you can go from standing to [on] the ground immediately. Your ultimate goal is to submit your opponent. It’s close combat with an enemy, but of course [during training] we don’t take it as far as what we would on the enemy.”
Combatives were a good way to start the week. It put the Soldiers and NCOs in competition mode right away.
On day two, the group prepared their uniforms and themselves for the board interviews. Before the competitors faced the board, their sponsors went before the row of CSMs to provide their personal opinion of their Soldier or NCO, highlight their abilities and promote them as the next Soldier or NCO of the Year. The role of each competitor’s sponsor was to help prepare them for the competition, assist them with event preparatory tasks, and provide motivation and continued encouragement.
The two Soldiers, Private 1st Class Francisco Espino from the 597th Trans. Bde. and Macchio, were first in line to report to the board of SDDC’s command sergeants major. They were followed by the four NCOs in order of rank. Each competitor faced a series of questions to test their Army knowledge. By each Soldier’s account, it was the most nerve racking part of the competition.
During the board interview, when asked by SDDC Command Sgt. Maj. James Riddick what “One Mind, One Heart, One Purpose” meant to him, Espino said, “Sergeant major, to me, it means family. It means one mind, one heart, one purpose in the unit. We have to work together as a family and with trust to get the mission accomplished.” Macchio, the other Soldier of the Year candidate, echoed that sentiment.
When Maj. Gen. Kevin Leonard took command of SDDC in August 2010, he brought with him that unifying command theme: “One mind, focused on the mission; One heart, willing to serve; and One purpose, keep our forces sustained and alive.” The youngest and best Soldiers in SDDC interpret the message from a bottom-up perspective, rather than the top-down, or overarching, command perspective one may find at headquarters level. To the Soldiers, it’s a basic, immediate and tangible interpretation. To them, those “forces” are also their subordinates, their peers and their immediate supervisors. It’s their unit’s job to work together to get the mission accomplished.
After the final board interview, when asked how he felt about the board, it wasn’t a surprise when Riddick said, “They’re very professional, they’re very knowledgeable, and they’re very caring. I feel very confident. The Army is in good hands.”
Following the board interview, the competitors went through an equipment check to make sure they had everything required for the next day’s events. McBroom put it best when he described what was in store for day three.
“We’re going to start with a PT test. After that we’re going to take care of personal hygiene, then eat breakfast real fast, swallow it now and taste it later, [then] jump on the bird going to A.P. Hill, [and] start on the [road] march. After the [road] march is the land navigation, dinner chow, and then night land nav.”
Day three started at O’dark 30, also known as 0430, with an Army physical fitness test. Afterward, the group headed to the airfield and boarded a CH-47 transport helicopter, also known as a Chinook, bound for Fort A.P. Hill. While in the air, some of the competitors took the opportunity to catch some shut-eye, until the pilot decided to wake everyone up with a hard bank to the left and then lifted everyone off their cargo seats, as much as the restraints would allow. From the cheers and a single, anonymous “Yeehaw,” it was evident everyone was awake and ready for the next stage of competition.
Once on the ground, the competitors had a few short minutes with their sponsors to discuss strategy, get a few more quick tips, and take in some last minute words of encouragement. They were told to get ready, and had exactly two minutes to don their approximately 20-pound flak vests and 40-pound ruck sacks, with weapon in hand, before lining up to hear the word “go.” The Soldiers and NCOs started off strong and determined, but unfortunately, the day turned out to be more than anyone had bargained for and was cut short because of black flag conditions, with temperatures reaching into the 90s.
The road march was called off after only one competitor had made it to the end. For McBroom, the shorter day was a disappointment, as he explained that the physically demanding elements of the competition were where he felt the most confident. McBroom wasn’t far behind the only finisher, but after encountering a setback when his ruck sack strap broke after checkpoint two, he wasn’t able to regain enough time to finish before the march was called off.
The single champion of the road march was Gonzalez. Gonzalez was soaking wet with sweat from top to bottom after making it through the grueling terrain in the blistering heat, accompanied only by battalions of crawling and flying bugs, as well as snakes and other ground critters. As Gonzalez passed checkpoint after checkpoint, he said he kept the beat by listening to his favorite artist, Nicki Minaj, on his MP3 player, an item frequently found plugged into his ears throughout the competition.
When Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Wister, from the 598th Trans. Bde. and stationed in Livorno, Italy, was asked about the march, she replied, “Outside of the fact that it sucked?” Those who heard her remark laughed and piped in with agreement. Wister elaborated: “Well, it was hot, heavy, for me at least, and those hills; there were a couple of really steep hills.”
While Wister’s feelings toward the march reflected the difficulties, her feelings didn’t accurately depict her actions. Wister was literally unstoppable at one checkpoint, where she surprised the NCO manning the position there when she said, “I’m not stopping. I have to keep walking.” Taken aback, the NCO quickly got in stride with Wister and proceeded with the checkpoint question. Wister answered correctly and continued on without losing a step.
Wister’s huge determination sits on a very small frame. She is petite, weighing all of 102 pounds. She was also the oldest competitor in the competition, having served 19 years in the Army.
“Although at the end of her career, she continues to put everything she’s got into the competition, as a United States Soldier should. The same goes for Sgt. 1st Class [Lonika] Harris. They are an inspiration to the younger Soldiers and NCOs, and a testament to what kind of people we have serving in our Army,” said Riddick.
While Wister -- full of a career of experience and a sense of calm -- was soft spoken, there were definitely those in the competition on the other end of the spectrum. Gonzalez, for example, had many chuckling throughout the competition. Even after the exhausting road march, Gonzalez was able to fill the weary and stressed atmosphere with sarcasm and lighthearted commentary.
After removing his boots and socks, Gonzalez said, “You can get a picture of all of this, but none of that,” as he wiggled his toes. The “that” he was referring to were his blistered feet, which he referred to with wide eyes and a distraught yelp when he leaned over and took a closer look at them.
Gonzalez had a true knack for keeping his fellow competitors laughing, but when it was time to get serious, he didn’t take more than a half a second to get into his professional role as an Army Soldier.
On day four, the competitors woke up ready to attack another Army day. When asked how he felt about the forthcoming weapons qualification and the battle drills, Espino, wearing a smile that never seemed to leave his face, simply yelled, “hooah!”, the word probably heard most frequently during the competition.
In the tent, between weapons qualifications, the group didn’t sit around quietly for long. After they decompressed from the first round of firing, while enduring the blistering heat, a Soldier brought up the subject of tattoos, which prompted a discussion that sounded more fitting for a sociology class. The conversation then morphed into the topic of music, as it frequently did with this group, to the delight of Gonzalez and Macchio, who bobbed their heads to the beat of a Nicki Minaj song.
Throughout the week, there were other, occasional moments of downtime between events, during which one or more of the competitors usually had their smart phones in hand, sometimes in unison or huddled around each other, checking their Facebook pages or SDDC’s Facebook page to see the photos of the competition being posted in almost real time, or watching YouTube videos, or sending a quick text to family or friends.
Following his board interview, McBroom mentioned his brother, Matthew, 17 and about to graduate from high school in Corpus Christi, Texas, was considering joining the Army. Later in the week, McBroom said with a wide toothed smile, “My brother saw the pictures on Facebook. I think that sealed the deal! He’s ready to enlist.”
Thoughtful discussion wasn’t the only thing filling the air in the tent or around the table during their downtime. During competition the focus was “win” and “shine,” but during downtime the competitors laughed together, reviewed skills together, discussed random topics and spoke words of encouragement to one another. At this level, everyone still recognized they’re all on the same SDDC team. Espino took the opportunity during one of the breaks to study the Soldier’s Handbook of Common Tasks, Warrior Skills handbook, and Harris made use of the downtime to get to know Wister better.
While every competitor performed admirably, in the end, only one Soldier and one NCO were named the winners of the SDDC Best Warrior competition.
Sgt. Douglas McBroom, SDDC NCO of the Year, and Pfc. Francisco Espino, SDDC Soldier of the Year, will go on to compete at the upcoming Army Materiel Command Best Warrior competition, and the winners from that event will compete for top honors during the U.S. Army competition later this year.