By Sgt. 1st Class Clinton WoodSeptember 27, 2012
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo.,--For the first time during its 16-year history, a military corrections specialist was a member a three-Soldier team which took home the top prize at the Military Police Warfighter Challenge held here from Sept. 15 - 19.
The 525th Military Police Battalion team from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a multi-component team of active duty and Reserve Soldiers won one of the Army's oldest competitions.
Competitors rarely slept and overcame difficult obstacles to include multiple double-digit forced road marches, a physical endurance challenge, mounted-route reconnaissance, Army combatives tournament and other grueling events that pushed competitors to their physical and mental limits.
In all, 32 teams from around the world competed in the annual challenge which brought the best military police to home of the military police corps and the United States Army Military Police School.
On the final day Army Sgt. Brandan L. Walker and Army Reserve's Spc. Danny Aoun and Pfc. Roman Gutierrez of the 341st Military Police Company had the right winning formula.
Walker, who was the team leader, said, "winning the challenge was the most amazing feeling ever and nothing compared to it."
Just how grueling was this 79-hour competition?
The competitors walked more than 30 miles while carrying a 60-pound rucksack and were tested during a rigorous five-event Physical Endurance Test which included flipping a 220-pound heavy vehicle tire for nearly 100 feet.
If the long hours enduring cold rain wasn't enough, the events were kepts a secret from the competitors.
Walker said the combined knowledge of Aoun and Gutierrez as military policemen and his experience and leadership as a correction specialist was one of the reasons for the team's success.
"That is where we separated ourselves," said Aoun, of Irvine, Calif.
Before the physical events kicked off, Command Sgt. Maj. John F. McNeirney, the Regimental Military Police senior NCO reminded competitors the challenge was a team event not individual and his advice to the competitors -- work as a team.
"The best of the best came here to compete," he said. "At the end, there will be only one team that will stand as the best. Raise your hands if you think it will be you."
Every competitor raised his and her hand -- some raised both.
"It made me really want to be a junior Soldier again," he said about how the competition has evolved over the years.
DAY ONE, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012
Hours before basic trainees were awaken by drill sergeants, competitors were standing in a makeshift formation outside a 14th Military Police Brigade complex. Not soon after the official time started on the inprocessing, rain covered the competitors and their subdued green duffle bags.
Within a couple hours, nearly 100 competitors signed papers, inventoried their equipment and were issued M4 Carbines as their primary weapon system for the week. After a quick lunch at a nearby dining facility, they were transported to a range where they had 18 rounds to zero their newly issued weapons.
The heavy rains continued as only a few competitors chose to dig out their wet weather gear -- others chose not too.
"If it's not raining, we aren't training," yelled one competitor, while his fellow team members looked over their individual weapons.
McNeirney said he didn't get it as he watch competitors struggle with the wet stuff.
"In their packing lists, they have wet weather gear," he said. "I just don't understand why some teams chose not to wear it. If it was me, I would have it on and be dry. I can be hoah and dry at the same time."
Once, their weapons were zeroed, it was a short walk to another range for the second event -- transition fire. Here, Soldiers fired shotguns, the M4s and M2 9mm semi-automatic pistols at targets at varying distances.
"As military police, we must be able to make the decisions that could mean the difference between life or death of our warfighters," said Sgt. 1st Class Shon Dodson, the competition organizer and non-commissioned officer-in-charge. "We want our warfighters to experience realistic scenarios and take what they have learned here and go back to their units and mentor their Soldiers.
As rain refused to slow and small water puddles filled the weapon range's staging area, Army Reserve Pfc. Kyle Spencer of Columbus, Ohio and a member of the 342nd Military Police Company, said his patrol cap provided a small umbrella of protection from the cold rain while he fine-tuned the sights on his weapon.
At first glance, the rocks covering the range seemed to provide a slight protection from the growing number of large mud puddles appearing throughout the range, but as each team gathered their magazines full of 5.56 mm bullets and started to position themselves to fire at the distant targets, wet uniforms quickly turned brown with layers of Missouri mud caked over the digital patterns.
The first day of events ended with a minor twist.
As they returned from the weapons qualification range in the late evening, competition staff quickly divided the NCOs from their team members.
Many Soldiers stood as motionless as possible, but shivering quickly took over the formation as the wet uniforms added extra weight to their heavy combat load.
"If you are a driver or gunner, stand over here in a mass formation," Sgt. 1st Class John Cannon shouted. "NCOs, stand by!"
Junior enlisted team members were quickly herded into the darkness to a nearby building to take a surprise 100-question written exam that covered every conceivable topic on military police operations and the corps.
A noticeable smell filled the air as nearby cooks prepared a chicken dinner that would not be eaten anytime soon. NCOs were told they had 30 minutes to prepare for an oral board.
"Sergeants, you must eat my food over there," Dodson said pointing to the Soldiers preparing the late-night meal on a make-shift table. "I know your team members aren't here, but don't let my food go to waste. They will eat when they get done with their test."
The NCOs barely glanced over to the food knowing their team members always eat first.
Within minutes, the only activity seen was the remaining competition staff returning from the range. For the first time, silence filled the air.
One-by-one, NCOs and junior Soldiers reunited outside under the dimly-lit barracks' common area to digest not their now-cold dinner meal but what just happened during the past hour.
As the clock approached midnight, teams prepared their combat gear for the next day. Again, the wake-up time was unknown, but they knew it would be before the sun rise and hoped for a few hours of sleep to recharge their internal batteries.
DAY TWO, Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012
As competitors stretched sore muscles from the previous day's events, they looked out into the massive center physical fitness complex covered with small rubber shavings which gave a small trampoline feeling when walked on.
Surrounded on all four sides by massive three-story buildings used to house basic trainees, the sounds of future military police singing cadence and drill sergeants keeping order echoed off the walls -- visually pumping up the competitors.
Like years' past, Soldiers wore the warfighter physical fitness uniform -- the Army combat uniform and boots. They seemed pumped for the first event of a very long day.
"No tennis shoes allowed on my watch," Dodson said to onlookers. "We train as we fight, and today is no different."
First up on the menu was a Physical Endurance Test. Each of five events had to be completed within two minutes. They included alternating grip pull ups, squats using a 25-pound kettle bell and a 220-pound tire flip event that was the talk of the early morning.
In this final event within the rectangled rubber-filled arena, two of the team members had to flip the tire several yards each direction within two minutes. With the remaining seconds left, a third team member struck the tire using a sledge hammer. The team only received points for each strike they were able to make before the two-minute time ended.
Staff Sgt. Jason Wisenwski, an Army National Guard Soldier from the 211th Military Police Battalion, based in Lexington, Mass., said he was "pretty smoked" after flipping the tire that was nearly five-feet tall and three-feet thick.
"I had to dig deep to flip it over, but it had to be done," said Wisenski, who has been in the Guard for 10 years.
After brushing off small black rubber pieces that seemed to be magnetized to their uniforms, competitors grabbed their reflective belts and water hydration systems and took off on an unknown-distance run.
"Warfighters, keep running, you'll will know when to turn or stop," yelled one cadre.
Also unkown to the exhausted competitors was that their 40-pound plus rucksacks were waiting for them more than three miles away. Once they strapped on their rucksacks, they would march more than seven miles to the route-reconnaissance challenge portion of the competition.
Sgt. Desmond T. Rolle, 89th Military Police Brigade, 720th Military Police Battalion, said his mindset for this day was just getting to the finish line.
"The ruck march was tough because we didn't know where it ended," he said.
As the shadows got longer and nightfall was near, competitors thought they were heading back to prepare for the next day, but in fact, a day and night land-navigation course was the desert on a full-day menu of activities.
"Team leaders, I need you to be upfront to hear the brief," yelled a cadre. "It's getting dark and it's going to be a long night if we don't get this right the first time."
As small red light pointing to a table with a map guided competitors to the rally point, the shuffle to get the NCOs to the front caused slight confusion among the teams.
With daylight gone, the event transition into a difficult night-land navigation course where teams had to find five points in four hours.
The teams left in the dark with their flashlights glowing red strapped to their chests -- some covering more than seven miles in difficult terrain.
Spc. Douglas D. Widman of the 317th Military Police Battalion, 351st Military Police Company, to challenge himself with night-land navigation.
DAY THREE, Monday, Sept. 17, 2012
Visibly near complete exhaustion, competitors wore uniforms that did not resemble anything near the Army Combat Uniform as nearly every piece of exposed fabric was covered in dirt.
As blisters were taped and cuts covered with make-shift bandages, competitors' moral seemed high and as they arrived at installation confidence course and team-development course.
"If we had a fun day, today was it," said Cannon. "It might not be a forced road march, but we tested their abilities to work together as a team which is paramount for military police."
The night ended with the popular combatives tournament that lasted more than four hours. The first rounds pitted the drivers, gunners and teamers in their own brackets. The competitors wore stripped-down ACUs and fought without being able to kick or strike their opponents.
The next two rounds saw the complete opposite during the intermediate combative portion of the tournament. The competitors wore protective gear and were allowed to hit and kick.
"Slap his face," was a popular heckle from the large crowd and open hand slaps were allowed.
"SMACK," the sounds of a slap to the face. The crowd erupted into a chear and fueled an already energized crowd of Soldiers, families and friends.
Aoun has no wrestling or combatives experience, but played safety and running back in high school football.
He said knowing that he outweighed his opponent; he tried to smother him and get a choke hold --before, several kicks and punches were exchanged.
"I pretty much wore him out," said Aoun. "I told myself I was going to win no matter what."
DAY FOUR, Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012
With less sleep than the night before, competitors woke up to directions to meet downstairs with their ruck sack, army combat helmet, weapon and other gear.
For breakfast, competitors snacked on a 16-mile endurance march that forced Soldiers to run or walk through some of the toughest hills and terrain here.
After 3 hours and 46 minutes, the military police from the 503rd Military Police Battalion, Fort Bragg, N.C., was the first team to cross the finish line.
Sgt. Ethan Kirwin, competing in his second straight Warfighter Challenge, said, "You have to disconnect your brain from legs and keep going."
The airborne team found another way to motivate itself by carrying two small American flags on small wooden poles to every event. Written on each flag was the name of their fallen comrades who competed in the challenge two years ago.
Spc. Scott R. Hart said each time the team lost its motivation; they looked at the flags and remembered those who have given the ultimate sacrifice.
The Army's Best Warrior Competition and other annual events are designed to push Soldiers to their limits and give them new tools to take back to their units and grow as leaders and Soldiers.
"These competitions make me a better Soldier," said Army Reserve Sgt. Douglas Widmann, who is deploying this fall to Afghanistan with the 320th Military Police Company.