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NEWS | March 22, 2024

116th IBCT’s Cooper, 329th’s Bradner are VaARNG best warriors​

By Mike Vrabel | Virginia National Guard Public Affairs

Virginia National Guard Soldiers representing the Staunton-based 116th infantry Brigade Combat Team and the Virginia Beach-based 329th Regional Support Group claimed top honors at the 2024 Virginia Army National Guard Best Warrior Competition March 14 - 17, 2024, at Fort Barfoot, Virginia. 

The 116th’s Spc. Carter Cooper was named Soldier of the Year and the 329th’s Sgt. Patrick Bradner was named Noncommissioned Officer of the Year. The 329th’s Spc. Royal Evans and Fort Barfoot’s Sgt. Nicholas Clark were named runners-up in their respective categories at the closing ceremony, attended by Brig. Gen. Charles B. Martin Jr. and Command Sgt. Maj. Irving Reed Jr., the VaARNG command team. 

The four-day event challenged the Soldiers physically and mentally, with events testing their core skills as Soldiers. 

“I’m very impressed with these warriors, who volunteered yet again to challenge themselves against other top performers to further build their skills and resiliency through the crucible of competition,” said Martin. “They represent the best of their units and the Virginia Army National Guard. I couldn’t be more proud of their efforts.”

“This is an excellent opportunity for Soldiers to showcase their individual skills. At heart, we’re warfighters. All Soldiers need to know how to shoot, move, communicate and survive on the battlefield,” said Reed. “This event allows Soldiers to test their skills in a competitive environment. It really shows them what they are good at and what their opportunities are.”

Soldier of the Year Cooper vouched for the difficulty of the competition. 

“It was a tough one,” said Cooper, assigned to the Lynchburg-based 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 116th IBCT. “I was very happy to have the opportunity to come out and try my best and see what I could do amongst the other competitors. It’s been a good time and good training.”

Bradner said he felt good about the academic events, but felt less confident about the physical challenges. 

“It’s hard being a part-timer,” said Bradner, assigned to the Petersburg-based 276th Engineer Battalion, 329th RSG. “Life happens, and I haven’t been able to really drill down on my physical fitness. I had to really grind to get the scores I did get. It’s humbling, but it reminds me it’s something I need to take care of everyday, something we all need to take care of every day.”

The competition kicked off with a combat water survival test, held at Daniel Gymnasium on the campus of Virginia State University in Ettrick, Virginia, followed by a written exam. The next day challenged the Soldiers with a 12-mile ruck march, a three-gun marksmanship event and land navigation. On Saturday, the group boarded a UH-60 Black Hawk and flew into the Fort Barfoot maneuver area to complete Army Warrior Tasks and a confidence course. Aviators assigned to the Sandston-based 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment, 29th Infantry Division provided aviation support for the event. 

After a Saturday evening dinner with their mentors, the Soldiers still had to complete appearance boards before winners could be calculated. 

Despite the fierce competitiveness of the event, Bradner said the participants were able to form a bond. 

“These are some of the smartest, most hard-working people I’ve ever worked with,” Bradner said. “I’ve been in the Army now two years, previous to that, eight years in the Marine Corps Reserve. I’m super impressed by the guys who showed up here, but all humble at the same time. We were in competition, but we were jovial, playing and joking with each other. We were honestly helping the person we were competing against.” 

After besting their competition, Cooper and Bradner now have the chance to represent Virginia at the Region II Best Warrior Competition, scheduled for May. 

“I believe I’ll do pretty good at regionals, I hope,” said Cooper. “I think I’m pretty squared away and pretty good at ‘embracing the suck’ so I think I can go do it again and win it for the state. I’m excited to see where this can take me, and I’m glad to represent the state of Virginia.”

“At every stage of the competition it gets a little more dialed up,” said Bradner. “I know that going ahead, and I know what I’m going to bring to the table, but I don’t know what the other guys will bring. I’m excited to see who I’ll meet at the next level.”

Both winners said the experience was a terrific one, and something they would highly recommend to other Soldiers. 

“I came here not necessarily wanting to win, but wanting to see what I could do, and I did,” said Bradner. “I would recommend it to anyone. Say yes to the opportunities that present themselves. Everything was really fun, even the parts that were very, very difficult. It was a challenge, and rewarding. Show up, see what you can do, put it all on the table, and go from there.”

“It’s an excellent experience, and if you have a chance to come, absolutely make that decision and come here,” agreed Cooper. “You’ll get more advanced training than you’ve probably experienced at your unit. Overall it’s a great experience.”

Reed had advice for anyone thinking about participating next year. 

“Reach out to prior competitors and get an idea of what to expect,” said Reed. “Talk to your chain of command and NCOs and start training up on those basic skills.”

Photos from the entire competition can be found at

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