By Sgt. Nathan Baker
Utah Army National Guard
Major commands from throughout the Utah Army National Guard sent their strongest, fittest and most capable Soldiers from across the state to compete for the title of Best Warrior at Camp Williams, Utah, Nov 7-10, 2021.
The Utah National Guard hosted 17 competitors during the four-day competition. The Best Warrior Competition is designed to test the competence, resilience, and physical stamina of Soldiers. Competitors were selected by their units to represent their prospective commands and showcase their knowledge and determination.
This year's winners of the Best Warrior Competition are:
Soldier of the Year: Spc. Mark Pledger, human intelligence collector, A Company, 141 Military Intelligence Battalion, 300th MI Brigade.
Non-Commissioned Officer of the Year: Special Forces engineer sergeant, 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne).
Senior Non-Commissioned Officer of the Year: Master Sgt. Shaine Richards, Utah National Guard, Joint Forces Headquarters.
Participants competed in a host of activities; one of the first events was a modified Army Combat Fitness Test that contained a series of six events, designed to simulate experiences that they would encounter in combat. The events included a deadlift, hand-release pushups, situps, a modified sprint drag carry, followed by a bar hang and a three-mile run.
The winner of the Soldier of the Year, Spc. Mark Pledger, said preparation is paramount for an event of this magnitude.
“The Best Warrior Competition gave me some goals to work toward,” he said. “It gave me a reason to work on my skills, my knowledge and my physical fitness.”
Competing in the Best Warrior Competition is more than being physically fit.
“It really drives and pushes individuals that participate in this competition,” said Master Sgt. Michael Baker, the senior enlisted Soldier in charge of the competition. “I need to become better than I was today.”
Soldiers strain under the load the competition placed upon them, but suffering is not the point of the competition.
“We’re not trying to break anybody, whether that’s body, mind, or spirit. We’re trying to push them to their limits to give them the confidence and resiliency to understand that they can do hard things—things which they have never done before, and that resiliency is infectious,” said Baker.
In addition to physical fitness, competitors were tested on their medical knowledge and skills. Part of this requirement involved a medical evacuation on an AH-64 Black Hawk helicopter. Following the flight, competitors were rushed to a mock village in a side-by-side utility vehicle to move fellow Soldiers with simulated battle wounds. Artillery simulation and simulated small-arms-fire rounds banged around the competitors to induce stress and give competitors a sense of treating fellow Soldiers in a combat scenario.
Day two began at 2:30 a.m. as competitors prepared for night land navigation. Most of them had never performed this kind of challenge under the conditions. Working with only red headlamps and a compass, competitors set out in the night to find designated points in the rough Camp Williams terrain. Soldiers started off trying to make their way in the darkness, plotting point-to-point on the ground and trying to make it back with the fastest time.
“That was probably the best land navigation course I’ve ever done and also the hardest,” said Staff Sgt. Jackson Fagan, the competitor representing the Utah Army National Guard Recruiting and Retention Battalion.
At sunrise the competitors were bussed to the top of Latimer Point, the highest point on Camp Williams, to observe artillery impacts as they demonstrated their knowledge of radio operations and calling for artillery fire.
“You definitely felt very frustrated at all the different events, due to time constraints, due to lack of experience in the different products that are being thrown at you,” said Master Sgt. Shaine Richards, the winner of the Senior Non-Commissioned Officer category. “The most difficult thing for me, because I’m not a communications guy, was the radio event. We had to assemble the radio, get it started, get it filled with COMSEC and be able to do a complete radio check within five minutes.”
Following the call-for-fire event, the competitors completed a physically demanding ruck march from the field back to Garrison. They carried rifles, pistols and roughly a 40-pound pack from Latimer Point back to the athletic field, a distance of more than six-and-a-half miles.
Competitors push through a fall storm and persevere to achieve something bigger than themselves, bigger than the title of “Best Warrior”.
“Once you go through something grueling like this, you come to an understanding of your own internal fortitude,” said Baker.
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