FORT PICKETT, Va. — Virginia National Guard Soldiers representing the Staunton-based 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team and Maneuver Training Center Fort Pickett have claimed top honors at the 2021 VNG Best Warrior Competition, which concluded with an awards ceremony March 21, 2021, at Fort Pickett, Virginia.
During the ceremony, Spc. Michael Choi, an infantry Soldier assigned to the Lynchburg-based 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 116th IBCT, was named Soldier of the Year, and Sgt. Samuel Johnson, an infantry Soldier assigned to MTC, was named Noncommissioned Officer of the Year.
Brig. Gen. K. Weedon Gallagher, the Virginia National Guard Land Component Commander, and Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald Smith, the VNG Command Sergeant Major, both gave remarks at the ceremony praising the winners and the other contestants.
“It’s critically important that we continue to identify our top Soldiers,” said Gallagher during the ceremony. “At least for the next year, in the Virginia Army National Guard, are two Soldiers who have answered that question. You are the Soldiers to which all of us should be aspiring to over the next year. Thanks for standing up, thanks for competing and thanks for showing us the way.”
“You put everything on the line these last four days, and you’ve done nothing short of amazing,” said Smith. “I can’t tell you or express to you how proud I am of what you all have done and achieved these last four days.”
The 2021 competition kicked off with a written exam and packing list inspection on the first night and an early wake-up call the next morning as Soldiers and NCOs began their land navigation test in extremely wet and cold conditions. Once completed, the Best Warrior hopefuls embarked on a grueling 6-mile ruck march with full packs in the same wet, cold conditions. At the start line, march organizers surprised the contestants by shouting “Gas! Gas! Gas!” and having them don protective masks, which were worn for a portion of the ruck march.
Choi said those kinds of surprises highlighted the need for intense preparation for the competition.
“You can’t really prepare for everything,” said Choi. “Every day, you just keep working out physically and mentally, and keep yourself motivated.”
At the conclusion of the march, Soldiers caught their breath, ate lunch and drew weapons for one of the highlights of the competition, the 3-gun event. Each Soldier and NCO were challenged in their proficiency with the M4 rifle, M17 pistol and M500 shotgun, using multiple firing positions and targets at unknown distances. The M4 stage included firing positions from a Humvee and the roof of a building, followed by a rappel down the side of the structure. After completing the final firing stage, each Soldier and NCO had to complete a weighted manakin carry across a finish line.
“The 3-gun challenge was really cool,” said Johnson. “It is what I signed up for as infantry and what I signed up to do, shoot guns and physically exhaust my body. It was just a well put-together event all around.”
After the completion of the 3-gun challenge, the Soldiers were air lifted to the next stage of the competition in UH-60 Black Hawks flown by VNG aviators assigned to the Sandston-based 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment, 29th Infantry Division. Once back on the ground, Soldiers were judged as they performed a variety of Army Warrior Tasks, including filling out spot reports and unexploded ordinance reports, plotting points for land navigation and donning Mission Oriented Protective Posture gear and performing a self decontamination.
After a night’s rest and another early wakeup, the competitors conducted a physical fitness challenge consisting of various strength and endurance exercises and a 1-mile run. Following chow, the Soldiers and NCOs made their way to the Air Assault Obstacle Course. Each competitor was scored on how many obstacles they completed successfully, but each was required to complete the first two to carry on with the rest of the course.
“My favorite part was the Air Assault Obstacle Course,” said Choi.
Following a mock on-camera interview with members of the public affairs office, Soldiers completed a hand grenade challenge, throwing training grenades at two different targets.
On the last day of the competition, all of the Soldiers and NCOs conducted an appearance board, marking the end of their competition and the beginning of their wait for the results.
Johnson credited his win to preparation.
“I have been doing far more physical fitness training than I have been doing in the past, but the big one has been studying Army regulations,” explained Johnson. “Those skills are far more perishable than the physical aspect of being a Soldier, so it’s important to make sure you focus on the things you’re not as strong on.
He also hopes to pass some of what he’s learned on to the next class of Best Warrior hopefuls.
“As someone who has competed now, I could provide them a list of things that I feel are important for them to know,” he said. “I would reach out to them and try to mentor them as best as possible.”
Choi said he’ll also encourage other Soldiers in his unit to consider competing.
“Definitely go out for it,” said Choi. “Show them you’re there, and that you’re a warrior. Definitely study Army manuals. It’s pretty tough!”
Sgt. Stanley Sorensen, also assigned to 1-116th, was named runner-up NCO. Spc. Jesse Gilliam, assigned to the Virginia Beach-based 329th Regional Support Group, was named runner-up Soldier of the Year. Sorensen was recognized for winning the physical fitness challenge, and Johnson was recognized for finishing first in the ruck march. Sorensen and Gilliam took first in the written exams for NCOs and Soldiers respectively, and Choi took first in the 3-gun event.
During the ceremony, Gallagher and Smith both thanked several organizations for their efforts making the competition happen and making it successful, including MTC, the Fort Pickett-based 183rd Regiment, Regional Training Institute, and the Virginia Army National Guard G3 operations staff.
Johnson and Choi will go on to compete in the Regional Best Warrior Competition, scheduled for May 2021 in Pennsylvania.