By Rob McIlvaineJune 17, 2011
ARLINGTON, Va. (Army News Service, June 17, 2011) -- No doubt about it, to become Soldier of the Year and Noncommissioned Officer of the Year, the year-long contest is a grueling struggle to overcome fear, obstacles and the dreaded boards hosted by sergeants major.
Eight months after winning the 2010 Army's Best Warrior Competition, Sgt. Sherri Gallagher, the first female Soldier of the Year, and Staff Sgt. Christopher M. McDougall, the NCO of the Year, reflect on how difficult the competition was, and how rewarding it has been since.
A total of 24 Soldiers, representing 12 commands from across the Army reported to Fort Lee, Va. last October to compete in the ninth anniversary of the competition. But the Fort Lee competition is just the culminating "super bowl" of many grueling challenges.
The warriors for Soldier of the Year included privates through specialists, and warriors for NCO of the Year included corporal through sergeant first class. All Army active, National Guard and Reserve Soldiers were eligible to compete.
At every level of competition, participants are grilled by a board of senior NCOs on a range of subjects including Army history, Soldier skills, current events, land navigation or first aid
"They ask you question after question for about an hour. This goes on for about a year," said Gallagher who remains humbled to be the first female Soldier of the Year. "It's kind of fun to be able to compete against your peers, whether they be male or female and to compete against each other and help each other to progress."
A member of the Army Marksmanship Unit, Gallagher has won 21 national rifle shooting records. But for her, being able to teach women Soldiers was a really amazing experience, she said.
"I just got back from Afghanistan a few months ago. My unit has been a constant presence there for the past two years, with a team who have been training the Afghan National Army in marksmanship," Gallagher said.
"When I got to go, I got to train the female officers of the Afghan National Army. It was really amazing because there's only been two groups of female officers that have been through the program," Gallagher said.
Gallagher said at first they had to work through an interpreter but as they taught each other Dari and English, communication became easier.
"It was really amazing to be able to work with them, to watch them grow, to hear their personal stories and accounts of how they grew up and how they're finally getting the freedoms that they've been striving for and they're taking it very seriously. They're amazing students and they're doing everything they can to help their families, themselves and their country. It's just very motivating," Gallagher said.
Staff Sgt. Christopher M. McDougall, a military policeman at U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart in Germany, saw his role, for the past eight months after being named NCO of the Year, as ambassador for the Army.
"I went out to tell our stories, trying to motivate fellow NCOs to get involved in these sorts of competitions," he said. "I think at times, people shy away from them. Maybe they're afraid of them or don't believe in themselves. We kind of show them the other side of that, that there is benefit in doing this. And if you do set your mind to that, if you set that goal, then you can be successful."
Throughout the competition, though, he tried not to focus on being good at one thing -- saying he knows the Army wants to see more well-rounded Soldiers.
"It's the total Soldier concept -- how you need to be across the board in everything you're asked to do," McDougall said, humbled by being named NCO of the Year.
"It's been an honor but kind of surreal, (and) it's not necessarily a goal that I would have set for myself in the beginning of this competition, or series of competitions," McDougall said. "All I wanted to do was represent my leadership, myself, my unit, my organizations to the best of my ability."
The competition, he said, pushes Soldiers to levels outside their comfort zone, pushes them to do things they wouldn't attempt, or they don't believe they could do. But McDougall said no matter how you do in these types of competitions, just your preparations for them make you a better Soldier.
"And if you can push your Soldiers to go out there and get involved in these sorts of things -- maybe they will, maybe they won't win, I think that's irrelevant -- but what that Soldier becomes from the process is a more well-rounded Soldier, more confident, and more willing to put themselves out there," McDougall said.
Being named NCO of the Year has given him many other rewards.
"It's a unique position to be in. Not everybody gets to represent the NCO Corps in this manner, and you get to learn outside of our normal day-to-day life. You get to see more of the big Army perspective on things. You meet a lot of key leaders, hear them talk and hear what they've been through throughout their careers," he said.
McDougall said his most memorable experience in his Army career so far has been his deployment to Iraq.
"I think my proudest moment as a Soldier and noncommissioned officer is deploying as a squad leader to Iraq -- 15 months as a squad leader with those 15 Soldiers with me, going through the rigors of day-to-day life, experiencing everything they did and completing our mission to the best of our ability, to the best that we could as a squad," McDougall said.
Though he looks forward to spending more time with his wife and two children, he continues to think about the Soldiers who have helped him achieve this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"Thinking about those Soldiers who are in harm's way, day in and day out, and without them doing what they're doing, we wouldn't be able to be back here doing what we're doing thinking about those Soldiers who are deployed right now gives you the motivation to keep going, to not quit," he said.
The past eight months have given McDougall many opportunities, he said, but none have been more memorable than being able to visit wounded Soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
"The most rewarding aspect of the last eight months has been down in San Antonio, Texas, at the All-American Bowl (where) we got a chance to spend some time with the wounded Soldiers coming out of Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston," McDougal said. "And the most important thing we got to do was come over to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington, Va."
Gallagher summed up what she feels has been the most rewarding aspect of the competition.
"I think it's really great to be able to be an inspiration, if that's how I'm perceived. But I think it's really neat for people, whether they're male or female, to set goals for themselves and to be able to recognize those goals and to achieve them," Gallagher said. "And to know that with the Army, through the support of our team, that they can look forward to those goals and actually make them happen."
The winners of the 2010 competition were announced during the Association of the United States Army Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., on October 25, 2010.
For more information on the Army Best Warrior Competition, visit http://www.army.mil/bestwarrior/2010/index.html.