Spc. Aydin Chester, assigned to the Kentucky National Guard, crosses a rope bridge

Spc. Aydin Chester, assigned to the Kentucky National Guard, crosses a rope bridge during the obstacle course event of the Army National Guard 2020 Best Warrior Competition Sept. 14. Twenty-two Soldiers representing 11 Army commands are now battling it out online for the titles of Soldier and NCO of the Year for the Department of the Army-level competition. 

WASHINGTON – Twenty-two Soldiers representing 11 Army commands are battling it out online for the titles of Soldier and NCO of the Year during a first-ever virtual competition that aims to “adapt and overcome in a COVID-19 environment,” said the Army’s top enlisted Soldier.

“It’s a competition unlike any other in Best Warrior’s 19-year history,” said Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael A. Grinston, who oversees the event. “We’ve undergone unprecedented steps to ensure the safety of our Soldiers while still creating a positive environment to encourage competition and recognize the best.”

Heading into the finals of BWC, each Soldier completed an Army Combat Fitness Test, a 12-mile foot march, and rifle qualification with their units. The finalists – 11 junior enlisted and 11 noncommissioned officers – were then tested on their knowledge, skills and abilities ahead of a virtual board this week with sergeants major from across the Army.

Top honors will be claimed Oct. 13 during the Association of the U.S. Army’s Annual Meeting and Exposition online. The event will be livestreamed on the AUSA website, and the Army’s Facebook page.

On nearly any other timeline, the annual competition would have assembled the Army’s finalists to compete for bragging rights in person. However, earlier this year, BWC organizers faced a challenge: how to continue the competition in a COVID-19 environment. For Sgt. Maj. Jose G. Melendez, the Army’s Strategic Operations Directorate SGM, one thing was clear – canceling the competition was never an option.

“We were going to overcome, execute and highlight our great Soldiers” no matter what, he said. In February, as the virus started catching worldwide attention, “we started to realize how quickly our environment was changing, too.”

That’s when event organizers hatched a few contingency plans – both on the ground and virtually. Their goal was to adhere to guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the Army secretary to mitigate the virus.

“In previous years, we’ve been able to bring all competitors to a central location,” Melendez said. Originally, the 2020 finals would have been no exception. “We were going to execute the competition at Fort Knox, Ky., with the 4th Cavalry Brigade.”

As planning continued, teams worked concurrently in the field at Fort Knox and remotely. Around August, “we developed courses for our senior leaders to select from,” said Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Wood, the competition’s NCO in charge.

In the end, the call was made: Army finalists would go head-to-head remotely, but beforehand, the 11 Army commands would hold their respective competitions both virtually and in person, Wood said. For these commands, it was a case-by-case basis that relied on health protection conditions at the installations.

At Fort McCoy, Wisc., for instance, the Army Reserve BWC was carried out in person in early September. On the other hand, the Army Recruiting Command BWC was held virtually in late June.

“We have folks from across the continental U.S. who we're leveraging and providing support to this competition,” Melendez said. “The 11 competing commands, and the Army as an entire enterprise, did a phenomenal job with a short amount of time. We turned (BWC) into a virtual and safe event to still recognize the Army’s Soldier and NCO of the Year.”

Modifying the annual competition was about more than the competition itself, Melendez said. It is an example of the Army’s ability to adapt in an ever-changing world, similar to how the force plans to adjust on a multi-domain battlefield.

“This was in-line with the vision and future of the Army that (the chief of staff) has outlined through 2028,” Wood said. “It centers on the resilience, the lethality and the strategy we have to deploy, fight and win decisively against any adversary, anytime, anywhere.”