Nebraska prepares for improved Best Warrior contest

Story by: Spc. Lisa Crawford
Posted: 12/22/2017
A Nebraska Army National Guard Soldier low-crawls through the sand beneath barbed wire during the obstacle course portion of the state's Best Warrior Competition, March 3, 2017, at the Greenlief Training Site near Hastings, Neb. This year, the state-level contest will move to mid-April, hopefully allowing for warmer conditions and situating it closer to when the regional competition will be held. (Nebraska National Guard photo by Spc. Lisa Crawford)

The Nebraska Army National Guard’s Best Warrior Competition is an annual opportunity for Nebraska Soldiers to showcase their individual skills and talents while competing to qualify for regional and national contests, which, in turn, can possibly elevate a Soldier’s career.

Ever evolving, Nebraska’s Best Warrior Competition is never quite the same from year to year. A state planning committee annually adjusts the competition to ultimately find the state’s one Soldier and noncommissioned officer who can best shoot, move and communicate.

So, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that next year’s Best Warrior Competition will be different than the 2017 version, which was overhauled from 2016. Probably the biggest change for the upcoming competition is the date, which moved from early March to April 12-15, to position the state-level competition closer to the regional competition in May.

According to the state’s senior Army National Guard noncommissioned officer, the changes are all designed to improve the overall competition and the ability of selected Soldiers to compete with their peers.

“I think we have a pretty good product built, especially the support package piece,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Marty Baker, state command sergeant major.

For example, the competition used to include more than 80 different support personnel manning each event, but the restructure has cut that number in half and increased continuity within the planning committee.

“We’re having a small task force support the entire time, to take a little stress off the battalions especially right before the start of (annual training) planning season,” said Master Sgt. Chris Roemig, this year’s noncomissioned officer-in-charge.

Planning for the 2018 event kicked off in October. Early on, the decision was made to retain most of the structure from the previous year, while adjusting for minor things based on previous after-action response comments. Roemig said he believes the planning is going well, and he’s looking forward to this year’s competition.

“Like any military operation, what you don’t see is the important part,” Roemig said. “There’s a lot of planning and effort that goes into it ahead of time, so when it goes off well, that shows good credit to the support staff. The competitors shouldn’t have a poor competition because we forgot to plan.”

Some of the events from last year which are being retained include hosting a full awards banquet utilizing Nebraska’s Army culinary specialists and adjusting the schedule for Soldiers to decompress with a social event Saturday evening before returning home Sunday morning.

Baker said he also hopes to keep scores secret throughout the competition to keep participants motivated instead of discouraged based upon scoring results following each category.

The competition, said one past winner, is definitely a chance for Nebraska Soldiers to begin making names for themselves.

“The competition allows you to show your unit and your state what you are capable of,” said Hunter Smith, a senior gunner with Troop B, 1-134th Cavalry Squadron, and last year’s Soldier of the Year winner. “And most importantly it shows you what you can do for yourself.”

Smith competed in the state competition last March with less than a week’s notice to prepare. He said he wasn’t sure what to expect, but he gave each event his very best, which ultimately allowed him to win the Soldier category.

Smith went on to represent Nebraska in the Region V competition in May at Camp Beauregard in Pineville, Louisiana. Battling both a knee injury and severe cold, Smith powered through each obstacle and challenge, ultimately finishing runner-up.

“My favorite opportunity from the regional competition was the ability to actually talk to the state (command sergeant major) in a comfortable environment, as a person and not as your boss,” Smith said. “The amount of knowledge you can get from a senior NCO like that…you don’t usually get when you’re lower enlisted.”

Smith said that’s the first thing the Best Warrior Competition offers competitors: the opportunity to learn from and work with peers, sponsors and senior leaders, including Baker.

Since winning the state’s competition, Smith has had a lot of new experiences, most recently graduating from Fort Benning’s Air Assault School on Dec. 7. While Smith said he had hoped to attend Air Assault at some point in his career, he credits his Best Warrior title for helping to expedite the process.

“The competition is a good way for any Soldier who thinks they might be overlooked to show what they are made of,” he said. “It brings good attention to the Soldier, and to the unit for raising and training the Soldier efficiently. You can’t just claim to be a competitor or to hold a winning title, you have to earn it.”

Baker said he’s watched many Soldiers benefit from the Best Warrior Competition, including alums like Sgt. Calvin Koziol who won the state, regional and national competition in 2016, and Staff Sgt. Luke Katz who won the state competition in 2013 who then went on to graduate from the U.S. Army’s Ranger School and then compete twice in the annual David E. Grange Jr. Best Ranger Competition.

“It just opens a lot of doors,” Baker said. “When you have your order of merit lists, you take and you reward your Soldiers. Smith went to Air Assault school. By winning the national competition, Koziol was priority for Air Assault and invited to D.C. for a recognition event. And Katz’s name is now known nationally among the Best Ranger community.”

Baker said the competition also helps with retention by making competitors “Soldiers for Life.”

 “Every competitor that has won the Soldier or NCO of the Year that I know of are still in,” Baker said. “I’ve said it before that, competition breeds excellence. When you compete because you want to, you are not just going to go through the motions. You’re going to strive to be the absolute best.”

Roemig said unit-level competitions are in progress now, selecting competitors for the upcoming state contest at the Greenlief Training Site near Hastings, Nebraska. Soldiers wanting to compete should share their interest with their chain of command.

“This year’s competition will be both physically demanding and intellectually challenging,” Roemig said. “The goal of the competition is to find a well-rounded Soldier who can do it all.”

Roemig, who has been involved with the competition for nearly a decade, said he’s watched first-hand the impact it has on Soldiers and their careers.

 “All the competitors I’ve seen at the end of it have been motivated, grateful and pleased with the opportunity to compete,” Roemig said. “Even the ones who didn’t win come out of it with a positive experience. There is always plenty of camaraderie that’s built between the competitors, even across the NCOs and the enlisted.”

Roemig said some of those interactions last for years, and the time and interaction winners have with the state senior enlisted leaders is invaluable for networking and potential future opportunities.

“I think it is potentially a large boost to your career,” he said. “Maybe not always directly, but it does give you confidence in what you’re doing, plus now you’ve interacted with senior NCOs and got some of their mentorship and guidance as well.”

Smith said he believes all Soldiers should consider trying to compete in the Best Warrior Competition for the experience, knowledge and camaraderie that stems from the event.

 “This is the best opportunity the state has for Soldiers to put their name out there,” Smith said. “It’s a gut check for individual Soldiers to see who they really are, and it’s a really cool experience most never get to do in their career.”

Baker said the state’s contest also allows Soldiers to showcase their skills and network on an international level, by competing alongside Czech Republic service members invited to Nebraska as part of the Nebraska National Guard’s State Partnership Program with the country.

“It’s a great opportunity for our Czech partners to interact with their American counterparts in a friendly, yet competitive environment,” Baker said.