Photo by SGT. 1ST CLASS CARMEN PEREZ/ARMY RESERVE MEDICAL COMMAND
Competitors in the 2011 Army Reserve Medical Command Best Warrior Competition – including Sgt. Andrew Vescovich, from Cheltenham, Pa., left, seated beside noncommissioned officer in charge of competition Thomas O. Calarco – take off in a helicopter in preparation for a helocast, a jump from the helicopter into a body of water. Thirteen soldiers tried their strength, stamina, skills and knowledge during the multi-event competition April 22 to 29, at the Army Reserve Medical Command base in Pinellas Park and Camp Blanding Joint Training Center, near Starke.
PINELLAS PARK – Over six strenuous days in April 13 soldiers representing reserve medical units from across the country pushed the limits of their endurance, strength and knowledge to compete for the distinction of “best warrior” of the U.S. Army Reserve Medical Command.
They jumped from a helicopter and swam 1,000 meters back to shore. They marched 6 miles before dawn in full gear and shot at moving targets. They were timed through an obstacle course and fought each other in the Army's style of mixed martial arts.
“It was fast-paced. It was very physically demanding. We didn't do a lot of waiting around,” competitor Sgt. Benjamin Reehl from Helena, Mont. said.
Their leaders surprised them with tests of knowledge, including a box of pieces to reassemble into a 9-mm handgun, an M-4 rifle and two machine guns as well as photos of every past Sergeant Major of the Army to be identified and placed in order of their respective terms. They took a 50-question test on military history and regulations and wrote an essay on the Army's new “Don't Ask Don't Tell” policies. They were drilled by a board of their leaders.
“Everything was a surprise. We didn't know what we were doing, day by day,” Pfc. Joseph B. Cameron from Millersburg, Mo. said.
They woke at 3 a.m. to plot out coordinates in a mock city, figured out the fastest way between them and walked about 14 miles. They practiced treating severe wounds under fire, clearing a building of enemy soldiers, searching a vehicle for a bomb and throwing grenades.
“It felt much longer than a week. The days and nights ran together,” Spc. Terissa Vincent, from Westminster, Colo. said.
The competition, which started Easter Sunday, April 24, was the next step for competitors who had beat out other members at their Reserve company, battalion and brigade levels. Only the winners and runners-up from regional Medical Area Readiness Support Groups traveled to Army Reserve Medical Command headquarters in Pinellas Park for the next level.
Only two competitors, a noncommissioned officer and a competitor with a lower or “solider” ranking, will make it to the next level to compete against the winners of the other Reserve commands' competitions, and potentially against the top “warriors” in all of the Army.
As winners of the Army Reserve Medical Command Best Warrior Competition, Reehl was named the command's 2011 noncommissioned officer of the year and Cameron was named the 2011 soldier of the year.
“I was very surprised. There are a lot of really good soldiers out here. Just to even get to this level was an honor,” Cameron said. “To be around this type of environment was really engaging.”
In order to name a winner, each event was assigned a point value and the points tallied for a final score. Competitors weren't told how they did until the end.
Only a few points separated the eventual winners with runners-up in the competition. Vincent, the runner-up for the solider class and one of the few female competitors, said her shorter stature was a bigger obstacle for her than her gender. The competition in general proved more difficult than she had expected.
“It's the first time that somebody's told me, 'It's going to be challenging' and it actually was,” she said. “Most of the time ... it's challenging for other people but I feel like I still could have gone farther.”
The other runner-up, Sgt. Rodney Merkley from Salt Lake City, said the competition was more involved than he expected, but enjoyable.
“When I do things like this, I get paid to workout. I get paid to go out and fire weapons and do things that I consider fun,” he said. “I enjoy being a part of something bigger than myself.”
Noncommissioned officer in charge of the competition Staff Sgt. Richard Burton Jr., said each year, pretty early into the competition, the soldiers develop an encouraging, rather than a competitive, attitude toward one another.
“What I liked best about it was the ability for everyone to come together across the country and to embrace the hardships together and just bond as a team,” Reehl said. "It didn't seem like a competition against everybody because we were always picking each other up.”
The winners and their fellow competitors recently returned to Pinellas Park for five weeks of further training through June 16. The additional training as well as a recommendation for placement in the exclusive Army Airborne School or Army Air Assault School, is an incentive for the competition aside from the bragging rights, Burton said.
“The skills they learn through the competition and extra training can be passed down to the other soldiers within their unit back home, making the whole of the Army Reserves more prepared for a potential deployment,” he added.
“A lot of our soldiers are actually at a world-class athlete status,” Burton said. “They do things mentally and physically with a lack of food and lack of sleep that professional baseball players, football players and mixed martial arts athletes couldn't push themselves to do in a day-in day-out basis.”
Reserve soldiers have the extra challenge of balancing a civilian life on top of their commitment to their country and training up until the competition.
“They're committing a lot of their spare time,” Burton said.
The next level of competition, between all Best Warrior Competition winners with the U.S. Reserves, will take place at Fort McCoy, Wis., in July.