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NEWS | May 14, 2024

116th’s Cooper takes top Soldier honors at Region Il BWC

By Mike Vrabel | Virginia National Guard Public Affairs

Sgt. Carter Cooper, a Virginia Army National Guard infantry Soldier assigned to the Lynchburg-based 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, took top honors in the Soldier category of the National Guard Bureau Region II Best Warrior Competition held May 6-10, 2024, at multiple locations in Maryland. Carter was a specialist when he competed and was just recently promoted to sergeant. 

Staff Sgt. Alexander Wilkinson-Johnson, an intelligence analyst in the Maryland Army National Gaurd, took top honors in the noncommissioned officer category. Staff Sgt. Bradner, a combat engineer assigned to the VaARNG’s Petersburg-based 276th Engineer Battalion, 329th Regional Support Group, placed fourth overall in the NCO category with just nine points separating him from the top spot.

Cooper and Wilkinson-Johnson move forward and will compete in the Army National Guard National Best Warrior Competition in Vermont later this summer. Cooper will still compete in the Soldier category even though he is now an NCO.

"Being a warrior to me means doing what is right when no one is looking and being willing to do and try your best within everything you do,” said Cooper. “I joined this competition because I wanted to display the Soldier that I knew I was and this was a perfect opportunity for me to display that.”

Competitor were graded across multiple disciplines including physical fitness, a combat water survival test, an obstacle course, marksmanship on many weapons systems, night to day land navigation, a 18.6-mile ruck march and military knowledge. Many of the activities simulated stressors Soldiers could face under combat conditions, while evaluating their adaptability and resourcefulness.

Bradner said one of the most rewarding parts of the competition was getting to know other Soldiers and NCOs from across Region II, and he also enjoyed meeting the members of the Estonian military who came to help out at the competition as the Maryland National Guard’s State Partnership Program partner. 

“Many of the Estonian soldiers there were engineers like myself,” Bradner said. “We bonded over our shared military roles and we ended up exchanging flags and unit patches.”

The most challenging part for Bradner was performing under pressure when he was already physically exhausted. 

“We wore our state flags on our uniform during the competition, and that filled me with two strong emotions: an enormous sense of pride to represent Virginia but also an added a heavy feeling of responsibility to do my very best,” he said 

Bradner took first place in the mystery task, law enforcement qualification and CPQC events, and Cooper won the obstacle course,  ruck march and M4 weapons qualification events. Cooper was the only competitor to qualify expert with a score of 36 out of 40.

Both competitors earned high praise for their NCO leadership.

“Sgt. Cooper, like any of us, was nervous at the beginning of the event, but once the competition began, he settled in, focused, was calm under pressure and absolutely crushed the event,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Doug Wolfe, 116th IBCT command sergeant major.  “Now that he is a sergeant, he can share his knowledge from the competitions, as well as his training and deployment experience with Soldiers. The future is unlimited and I am excited to see what the future holds for Sgt. Cooper.”

Wolfe said he was impressed by Cooper’s strength of character, both as a person and as a Soldier. He was also impressed how Cooper balanced his preparations for the Regional BWC with attending the Basic Military Mountaineer Course in April while also enrolled in college and pursuing a degree. After the ceremony where he was announced as the winner of the regional competition, he completed a paper that was due for one of his degree program courses.  

Bradner’s leadership had similar praise for his competition performance.

“I could not be prouder of Staff Sgt. Bradner and his performance,” said 1st Sgt. Gavin McClung, the Headquarters Company, 276th Engineer Battalion first sergeant. “He distinguished himself amongst his peers as a great Citizen Soldier, and an individual who simply will not quit.”

McClung said that at age 33, Bradner was by far the oldest Soldier amongst his peers, but it was evident quite early that he embraced that role and become the NCO "dad.” He would check in on his fellow competitors, chatting them up and imparting experience and wisdom to both his fellow competitors, as well as his fellow Virginian.

“He will probably tell you that he did not perform as well on the physical tasks as he would have liked, but I can say, without reservation, that I am exceptionally happy with his overall performance,” McClung said. “He excelled at the Soldier tasks and showed a knack for problem solving that could only have been brought to the table by an engineer. He is the epitome of an emerging leader here in the Virginia National Guard."

Bradner said he was very impressed with all the competitors he met both at the state and regional level and how everyone gave it their all throughout all the events.

“Even though we all came there to win, we all helped each other out,” he said. “These competitors were genuinely good people, and I am grateful to have been given the chance to train along side them.” 

This year's competition was hosted by the Maryland Army National Guard and conducted with ten competitors representing their home states of Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania as well as Washington, D.C.

“The best thing about the Best Warrior Competition is that we will all play for the same team,” said Maj. Gen. Janeen L. Birckhead, the adjutant general for Maryland. “Each Soldier wants to win and represent their state at the national level, but they all know that they will serve together if called for natural disasters or overseas deployments. The camaraderie and confidence built during this difficult and grueling competition makes us all stronger and more resilient for the next challenge the National Guard will face.”

The U.S. Army's Best Warrior Competition, established in the early 2000s, is an annual event designed to identify the Army's top soldiers and NCOs through rigorous physical and mental challenges. Reflecting the Army's commitment to excellence, the competition has evolved from localized contests to a comprehensive Army-wide event, emphasizing leadership, tactical proficiency, and resilience.

Additional reporting by Maj. Erica Mitchell, 29th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

Read more from the Maryland National Guard on DVIDS at

Read more about Bradner, Cooper and Virginia’s Best Warrior Competition at

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