ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - After an intense two-day competition last week, Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Spohn of the U.S. Army Materiel Command Band was named the 2008 Aberdeen Proving Ground Non-commissioned Officer of the Year.

This year's competition featured five NCO participants, representing the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command and several other tenant organizations of Aberdeen Proving Ground, including the 16th Ordnance Battalion, the Aberdeen Test Center, Kirk U.S. Army Health Clinic and the 389th Army Band of the Army Materiel Command. Spohn, who plays trombone for the band, had a drive to win the competition after an experience early in his career.

"I finished second in an NCO competition at Fort Benning a few years back," he said. "After that, I made it a personal goal to try and win one in the future."
RDECOM Command Sgt. Maj. Hector G. Marin, the sponsoring senior NCO of this year's competition, noted the significance of organizing Soldiers to compete in an annual event.

"It's important for NCOs to compete against their peers and strive for improvement. Appearing before boards and competing is a significant aspect of a Soldier's professional development," he said.

Participants were required to complete the Army Physical Fitness Test and pass a written exam during the first day of competition. They also submitted essays on one of three topics: the meaning of 'Warrior Ethos,' the significance of 'Army Strong' and the effects of the national support of veterans.

Early the following morning, Soldiers competed in the obstacle course in the Edgewood Area of APG. After completing the course, each Soldier was led to a station to complete a mystery task: executing a functions check on a M16A2 rifle.

"At any given time, a Soldier needs to be able to perform a functions check on his weapon," said Sgt. 1st Class James Laverty, a coordinator of the competition. "It's an absolute bottom-line skill so we decided to incorporate it in this year's event."

Culminating the competition, NCO participants reported to a board of six senior non-commissioned officers from RDECOM and other tenant organizations. Members of the board included RDECOM Command Sgt. Maj. Hector G. Marin, Command Sgt. Maj. Pedro Rodriguez, U.S. Army Garrison Aberdeen Proving Ground; Command Sgt. Maj. Carlton Handy, Developmental Test Center; Command Sgt. Major Donald Freeman, 61st Ordnance Battalion; Sgt. Maj. Ricardo Soto-Acevedo, 20th Support Command; and Sgt. Maj. Thomas Coleman, Natick Soldier Center.

"We were looking for Soldiers to demonstrate their knowledge and confidence before the board," said Marin. "It's important to display confidence because these Soldiers will be in situations where they need to speak and resonate with subordinates as well as members of the community."

Marin emphasized the NCO participants' ability to motivate and inspire their subordinates by competing. "Younger Soldiers look up to these NCOs, who they admire and respect for continuing to improve themselves. What better way to mentor Soldiers than to demonstrate that you challenge yourself'"

For Spohn, the most challenging part of the competition was the obstacle course.
However, he used a bit of ingenuity during his training to prepare for two different aspects of the competition simultaneously.

"I downloaded a study guide with NCO material so I would be well-prepared for the written exam and the board. But I then put it on my mp3 player so I could study and work out at the same time," said Spohn.

He recommended that future candidates increase their physical-fitness routine, study basic NCO information and practice their performance in front of boards. Spohn noted that his sponsor, Sgt. Maj. Wendy Thomson, was especially supportive of his efforts in the competition.

"Sgt. Maj. Thomson set up mock boards so I would be more ready for that portion of the competition," he said. "It can be intimidating to appear before a board of all E-9s, but the practice helped a great deal."

Master Sgt. Ralph Brewer, one of the coordinators of the competition, emphasized that candidates need to be well-rounded Soldiers.

"This competition is as much mental as it is physical," said Brewer. "The little things and attention to detail put Soldiers over the top."

Brewer said that sponsors should start grooming their candidates for next year and training should be done throughout the year to ensure preparedness.
Marin added that preparing and studying, in effect, helps to develop more well-rounded Soldiers.

"When the candidates study Army regulation and Field Manuals, they are consuming a broad amount of material that might not be a part of their specific duties. So they pick up new skills and knowledge," he said. Spohn will be honored May 15 during Military Appreciation Day at the Top of the Bay Club.

NCO of the Year Candidates
Staff Sgt. Isaac Rivera Ortiz, 16th Ordnance Battalion, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. Staff Sgt. John Robak, Kirk U.S. Army Health Clinic, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Spohn, U.S. Army Materiel Command Band, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.
Sgt. 1st Class Ryan J. Calinagan, Army Research Lab, SLAD, White Sands Missile Range, N.M.
Staff Sgt. Jonathon Stines, Aberdeen Test Center, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.