JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas – After five grueling days and over 70 tested events, the Army named its top drill sergeant here Aug. 22 in a ceremony hosted by the Center for Initial Military Training, a TRADOC entity.

Staff Sgt. Earnest J. Knight II, representing Fort Jackson, S.C., and the U.S. Army Drill Sergeant Academy, is the 2019 Drill Sergeant of the Year.

Staff Sgt. Benhur Rodriguez, representing Fort Sill, Okla., and the Fires Center of Excellence, was named runner up and received an award for the highest physical fitness score during the competition. In the event the primary selectee is unable to perform his duties, Rodriguez will assume the role. 

By design, the competition is one of the most physically demanding and mentally tough challenges a Soldier competing for an Army title will likely face in his or her career. The DSOY meet, according to the CIMT, “represents the professionalism and readiness of the U.S. Army” as well as the skill and fortitude of drill sergeants who are responsible for training the total force.

The annual event was conducted at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston and Camp Bullis for the first time since Army DSOY was established 50 years ago. Not only did the Health Readiness Center of Excellence here have a candidate in the competition, but the support of its staff and Soldiers, along with CIMT planners, were considered “crucial to the success” of the event. 

Sgt. 1st Class Kyle Specht, HRCoE’s senior drill sergeant, and fellow staff member Sgt. 1st Class Gabriel Hulse were the lead planners for the event. They were both honored with an Army Commendation Medal during the ceremony. Six other HRCoE Soldiers also were recognized for their significant contributions to the competition.

Specht, an Army DSOY competitor himself in 2018, discussed how HRCoE considers it an honor to conduct the 50th anniversary competition on behalf of CIMT and TRADOC.

“Every drill sergeant competitor gave 100 percent, and it was inspiring to see their individual resolve and how each rose to the challenge and represented their respective CoEs and the noncommissioned officer corps as a whole,” Specht said. “Command Sgt. Maj. (Edward) Mitchell (CIMT CSM) and his staff outlined the expected standards of excellence and vison and allowed us, the mission command, to take ownership and host this historic event.”

The 2017 DSOY, Sgt. 1st Class Chad Hickey, and the 2017 Platoon Sergeant of the Year, Staff Sgt. Bryan Ivery, as the CIMT representatives, conducted two site visits, multiple initial planning reviews, and were on site over a week prior to the event validating test components. “The success of the event is really a demonstration of what cohesive teams can accomplish with 61 dedicated support noncommissioned officers, CIMT and our staff,” Specht observed.

The 2019 competition was rigorous, highly structured and covered a broad base of subject areas at a relentless pace, according to Specht. The noncommissioned officers were evaluated in marksmanship, unknown distance road marches, individual warrior tasks, collective battle drill tasks, modern Army combatives, written exams, drill and ceremony, leadership, oral boards, and much more.

The competitors, who truly had to be prepared for anything, also took the Army Physical Fitness Test that is the current test of record and the new Army Combat Fitness Test that will replace the APFT in October 2020.

Mitchell said each event is designed to stress the candidates and push their limits physically and mentally to determine if their performance, abilities or professionalism become degraded. He said he believes the competition is an extreme example of what all drill sergeants face in their daily task of training the Army’s newest recruits. He said that though many things in the Army have changed since he was a drill sergeant from 1995-1998, “the Soldierization process has not in the last 50 years. Drill sergeants are still tasked with turning ordinary citizens into Soldiers.”

On the first day of competition, Mitchell described the logic of putting these “Soldier-makers” to such an extreme test to determine the best of the best. “The drill sergeant we select will be the No. 1 such representative in the Army as well as the TRADOC enterprise,” he emphasized. “Sometimes, you are going to be tired from what you do (as a drill sergeant), but we need that individual to still be able to be in front of Soldiers and be a professional, no matter the conditions.”

He explained how drill sergeants across the Army epitomize high levels of endurance and professionalism each day. Knight’s road-to-victory story is a good example.

“I started my quest to become the DSOY in 2017 when I was assigned to Fort Leonard Wood. I made it to the 2nd quarter Maneuver Support Center of Excellence Competition that year and lost.”

When he was transferred to Fort Jackson in 2018, Knight was, once again, encouraged to pursue the top drill sergeant prize through a competition at the academy. He did so, and then he won the Fort Jackson competition earlier this year to allow him to compete for Army DSOY.

“I really appreciate moments like that,” Knight recalled, speaking of his original loss at the MSCoE. “As drill sergeants, we are expected to be subject matter experts and there can be a tendency to think we know everything. Having a humbling experience like competing against other highly qualified people who just outperformed you leaves you two options: better yourself or (give up because) someone got the better of you.”

Coming into the competition, Knight said he fully understood what he was up against. Taking the field for this year’s DSOY was 12 of the most proficient, determined and rugged drill sergeants in the Army representing basic combat training, one-station unit training and AIT. There was one reservist; the rest were active duty NCOs. They had all won division level competitions at their home stations to earn the right to compete at the Army level.

From day one, competitors knew they were under the microscope. DSOY opened with height and weight measurements, written tests and an evaluation board appearance where they faced a panel of seven command sergeants major – include MEDCOM CSM Michael Gragg – who grilled them on military- and U.S. government-related questions.

Other aforementioned events on days two-five took place at Camp Bullis. A 12-mile road march was the last challenge completed a matter of hours before the closing ceremony.

At the conclusion of the formalities, Knight reflected on how he thought he was able to win over so many other highly qualified candidates. He said it came down to who was able to be more resilient, the most well-rounded, and maybe even who wanted it the most. He said he spent any small windows of free time during the competition studying and refreshing his memory on a wide range of subjects.

“Some would take the opportunity to eat; some would take naps or got on their phones. I just spent a lot of time studying during the downtime to make sure I stayed in the zone. I didn't want to open the door to distractions or self-doubt,” he said.

Though the competitors weren’t aware of what would be required of them at any given time, he said many of the notes he studied ended up being on test events, so that made him even more energized to put his time to good use.

“I kept the junior Soldiers, the trainees, in mind at all times,” Knight said with a side note that recruits are often in situations where they don’t know what is going to happen next. “They don’t have the privilege or luxury of just taking a nap or picking up their phone when they want to. In fact during downtime, a drill sergeant will typically tell a trainee, ‘pull out your smart book.’ So, I just felt like this was a great opportunity to bring myself back to the basics.”

Knight pointed out that this strategy for success is not a technique he invented for the competition. It is in the Drill Sergeant Creed: “I will lead by example, never requiring a Soldier to attempt any task I would not do myself.”

As the 2019 DSOY, Knight will be reassigned to CIMT and TRADOC. He will report to Fort Eustis in 60 days. He said his MOS – 25V, combat documentation production specialist – has given him the opportunity to tell the Army story through photos, and it has clearly enhanced his perspective of what it means to be a Soldier. That’s a good thing because, for the next 12 months, he will serve as a sort of ambassador, called upon to be the example of the resilient, professional and highly proficient drill sergeant he just proved himself to be.

The other 2019 DSOY competitors listed in alphabetical order are:

Staff Sgt. Mychael Begaye, Army Training Center, Fort Jackson

Staff Sgt. John Cauthon, Maneuver Center of Excellence, Fort Benning, Ga.

Sgt. 1st Class Frank Dunbar III, Combined Arms Support Command, Fort Lee

Staff Sgt. Ariel Hughes, Army Aviation Center of Excellence, Fort Rucker, Ala.

Staff Sgt. Lillian Jones, Cyber Center of Excellence, Fort Gordon, Ga.

Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Lullen, Health Readiness Center of Excellence, Fort Sam Houston

Staff Sgt. Matthew Martinez, Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

Staff Sgt. Matthew Mubarak, Defense Language Institute, Monterey, Calif.

Sgt. 1st Class Marianne Russell, MSCoE, Fort Leonard Wood

Sgt. Michael Yarrington, 108th Training Command, Charlotte, N.C.