WASHINGTON – When Spc. David Chambers navigated his way through the dark woods of Fort A.P. Hill with little more than a compass to guide him, he took on a challenge that few of the 2019 Army Best Warrior competitors expected – completing physical and mental tests by themselves.
“I felt a lot more isolated in this competition than any others I’ve participated in,” said the now reigning Soldier of the Year, who had to win at the brigade, division and U.S. Forces Command levels before competing at the all-Army event Oct. 6-11 at Forts Lee and A.P. Hill.
Chambers, a 23-year old Soldier from 3rd Cavalry Regiment’s 1st Squadron at Fort Hood, Texas, earned the honor after only a year in service, while more-experienced Staff Sgt. Dakota Bowen, a drill sergeant from Fort Jackson, S.C., took NCO of the Year honors.
Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael A. Grinston announced the winners at the Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition Oct. 14 in D.C.’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center. On stage with the SMA was Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Joseph Martin.
Twenty-two Soldiers competed in the grueling competition, representing major Army commands around the world, including Europe and the Pacific region. Each participant earned praise from senior leaders for reaching the pinnacle of warrior achievement. “You represent what we want in our Soldiers; physically fit, resilient and dedicated professionals who are the example of readiness,” Martin said.
During the first day of BWC, the contestants took the new Army Combat Fitness Test, wrote a timed essay and completed a 50-question written exam. Those would be the last times the competitors were together for most of the contest.
The competition’s planner, 1st Sgt. Hunter Conrad of the Asymmetric Warfare Group, drew upon his previous six deployments and those of other operational advisors to develop obstacles that forced the Soldiers to use their survival skills and instincts. While Army leaders often focus on developing cohesion among teams and units, BWC challenged the competitors on an individual level, in a way they hadn’t been attempted before.
“I would say the biggest challenge … was the ambiguity that surrounded the entire competition,” Chambers said. “Typically when it comes to Army tests, you get tasked with initial standards. There was none of that. We walked up to a situation, observed what was going on and reacted to it. You don’t know if you reacted how you were supposed to. You don’t know if you did everything you were supposed to.”
Day two consisted of a field training exercise where candidates had to coordinate their way to predetermined mission locations to rendezvous with allies. Soldiers currently deployed to Africa and in the Pacific region have gone on missions where U.S. troops train foreign allies, often working independently. Chambers said many of the skills the competitors learned at this year’s Best Warrior Competition will help Soldiers prepare for those types of missions.
“With the warfare and the conflicts that we are engaging in right now, especially being able to mesh with the local communities and train and advise, I think it’s crucial that all American Soldiers learn this ability,” Chambers said.
Competition organizers woke the contestants at 2:30 a.m. and told them they could only depend on a compass and a few mission-related tools to complete the mission. They could not use the main roads or normal means of communication to navigate, thus having to depend on themselves
“We were never side-by-side, competing with another competitor,” Bowen said.
Contestants had to avoid being detected by members of the Asymmetric Warfare cadre, who acted as enemy forces driving around with bright lights. Chambers said each mission took 90 minutes or more, and the length of the overall exercise was about 10 hours total.
On day three, the competitors – already weary and tired from continuous trekking through the forests – faced another mental battle: the “unknown-distance” ruck march.
Few details about the hike were disclosed. Competitors began in pairs with 15-minute intervals between start times. Cadre instructors had given them a required list of survival items to pack, but the rest of the supplies were left up to the individuals. Chambers estimated he carried 55-60 pounds of gear.
“We didn’t know how far we were going. We were already tired from two days of constant walking,” Chambers said. “That was tough.”
The challenge of overcoming the unknowns made the achievement more satisfying, said Bowen, who is 31E internment/resettlement specialist with seven years in the Army, the last three as a drill sergeant.
“All of my feelings about winning haven’t set in yet,” he further observed. “It does mean a lot. It’s an honor to hold the title of best noncommissioned officer in the Army. I’m just soaking the significance of that achievement in right now."