The morning introduced itself slowly, shrouded in a thick, lingering mist. A thin corridor of grey, overcast sky cracked through a protective canopy of trees overhead.
Meanwhile, warriors emerged from the darkness. One by one, then a couple at a time, bodies forged their way through an environment designed specifically to make life more difficult. Sweat engulfed their faces as they trudged onward and upward. Blisters already forming, their feet sloshed inside unforgiving combat boots.
Yet they were only halfway finished with their 12-mile ruck march.
Perhaps the only thing to their advantage was the fact that this was the final event. That thought would be enough to power them through the last hour or two of this grueling competition.
Michigan’s Best Warrior Competition was held at Fort Custer Training Center September 10-12, 2019. Featuring 11 mentally and physically challenging events, non-commissioned officers battled each other for NCO of the year honors, while junior enlisted Soldiers competed against one another for the title of Soldier of the year. Fifty points could be earned during each event for a total of 550 potential points.
While each event presented its own set of unique challenges, competitors were allowed to consult with a sponsor who supported them throughout the competition. Soldiers relied on sponsors heavily. Along with much-needed guidance and advice, sponsors provided their competitors with water, an additional change of socks when necessary and consistent motivation.
Day one began dark and early, 4 a.m. to be exact, as Soldiers tackled the land navigation course. Competitors plunged through dense, damp thickets, finding five points within a four hour timeframe. A unique combination of mental and physical ability is necessary to successfully complete this event.
For instance, after performing quick math and plotting their points using a protractor on their map, some warriors grabbed their compass and ran between each point in an effort to finish ahead of others.
“I was excited when I learned I was the first one to finish the event,” said Spc. Gross of HHC, 177th Military Police Brigade.
When most of Michigan was just arriving to the office, these Soldiers finished up their first of five events for the day.
After land navigation, Soldiers quickly moved to M9 handgun and M4 rifle ranges where pop-up targets anxiously awaited engagement. Sponsors handed new magazines to competitors and advised them where targets would show their ugly faces.
“Fifty meters on your left,” advised Sgt. Washington of B. Battery, 1-119th Field Artillery, sponsor for Staff Sgt. Nunn, also of B. Battery. A shot rang out as the first of 40 targets was eliminated during M4 qualification. “One down. Good shot.”
As soon as the last rifle round made contact down range, competitors began preparing their minds for the next challenge: the obstacle course. While Soldiers were previously aware of this event, the actual obstacles were chosen at random and presented to competitors only minutes before they negotiated the course.
Eight physically demanding obstacles tested the competitors’ strength, balance and endurance. A few of the obstacle names are worth mentioning: “The Weaver,” the “Inclining Wall” and the “Hip-Hop.”
The Weaver featured a pyramid of logs spaced about two feet from one another horizontally, culminating in a peak roughly twenty feet off the ground before descending downward again. Imagine two very wide ladders leaned against one another at the top. To complete this event, Soldiers crawled over and under each rung of the ladder, or each log in this case, repeating the method all the way up and down the other side.
Despite the diabolical nature of The Weaver, it took some competitors less time to negotiate this obstacle than it took to describe the event. However, it also managed to claim its fair share of victims. The combination of upper body strength, core power and leg muscles necessary to successfully navigate it, make this obstacle a formidable opponent.
Sgt. Young of the Recruiting and Retention Battalion cruised through The Weaver and the rest of the obstacle course, with Sgt. Miller of 1437th Engineer Battalion right behind him.
“I think I could’ve gone faster,” said Miller. “But I wanted to make sure I didn’t fall off any of the obstacles.”
To further prove that Michigan’s warriors have just as much brains as brawn, the competition’s cadre issued a final challenge for day one: a two-page essay on an assigned topic.
Both body and mind rested soundly after a demanding first day of competition.
A crisp day two began before first light as the Army Physical Fitness Test beckoned competitors to perform as many sit-ups and push-ups as possible within a two-minute period. This is one event where failure is desired: muscle failure.
The APFT’s culminating event featured a magnificent yellowish red sunrise as Soldiers finished the two-mile run at Ft. Custer’s quarter-mile track. Sponsors greeted competitors with cheers of encouragement, high fives and much-needed hydration.
At this point, the competition’s designers huddled together and decided to inject additional stress into the Best Warrior Competition. Apparently they believed events had been too easy thus far and they came up with a devious plan to rectify the situation.
Enter: burpees, a sked pull and weighted water-jug carry. For the uninformed, the original burpee was designed by the devil and includes elements of a push-up, plank, mountain climber and jumping jack.
“What shall we call this event?” an anonymous cadre considered. “Stress Fire. Yes, Stress Fire.”
Actually, this event had been planned from the beginning. But the Stress Fire seemed to occur at just the right moment, with the hottest temperature of the day and featuring brutal humidity.
Gallons of sweat oozed from each pore as Soldiers lugged water-jugs and skeds, then performed burpees and fired at targets with their M4. Meanwhile, a relentless sun smiled in gleeful delight along with the designers of this sinister event.
Confirming the sun’s collaboration within the cadre’s evil plan, Command Sgt. Maj. Joseph Gregory of the 272nd Regimental Support Group and planner of Michigan’s Best Warrior Competition, stated, “The weather has been great. Everything has run very smooth.”
Army Warrior Tasks awaited Soldiers at the next event. These were randomly selected in order to test skill level and readiness in tasks such as radio communications, identifying terrain features on a map and applying first aid.
Swapping their combat uniforms for the dressier army service uniforms, Soldiers were meticulously inspected, then faced an intimidating review board in the next segment. The board asked difficult questions and challenged competitors to recite The Soldier’s Creed while standing at attention.
Day two ended with a written examination developed to test general Army and Michigan National Guard knowledge.
Soldiers went to sleep knowing that only one event remained. Already physically and mentally fatigued, competitors tried to grasp day three’s offering: the 12-mile ruck march.
“It’s mental endurance. It’s physical endurance,” said Gregory. “If Soldiers want to compete, they need to start prepping early.”
“This is not something you can just jump right into. You need to prepare for it.”
As competitors made the turn halfway through, with six miles left and lower backs complaining about their 35 pound rucksack, most of their faces demonstrated a stoic determination. Their bodies and minds made it this far. No further events awaited them. Better leave it all on the course.
That’s exactly the attitude displayed halfway through the ruck march by Spc. Mike Bell of D. Company, 125th Infantry. “You can take my picture, but you better hurry up,” said Bell to the public affairs officer covering the event. “I’m about to run again.”
Bell went on to win the event, sprinting across the finish line after two hours and forty-five minutes.
As the competition ended, Staff Sgt. Nicholas Nunn of B. Battery, 1-119th Field Artillery, was named NCO of the year. Private 1st Class Tyler Royston of HHB, 1-119th Field Artillery, claimed Soldier of the year honors. Each will represent Michigan at upcoming regional competitions.
However, all of this year’s competitors can count themselves as some of Michigan’s best warriors.