The soldiers had been pushed to the brink.
For the past week, they had been tested mentally and physically. They had begun work in the early hours of each day and had little time to rest as they moved between challenges amid Fort Bragg’s vast training grounds.
The only constant was the unknown. Each day brought new and unexpected tests as officials sought to find the best among their ranks.
“We’re looking to separate the participants from the competitors,” one official said. “We are looking for the best of the best.”
On Friday, the soldiers celebrated. The U.S. Army Reserve Best Warrior Competition was over, and two soldiers had risen to the top.
Spc. John Mundey of the 412th Theater Engineer Command was named the Army Reserve’s Soldier of the Year during an awards ceremony in Fayetteville that capped off the week-long competition. Sgt. Chase Craig of the 84th Training Command was named the Army Reserve’s Noncommissioned Officer of the Year.
The runners up were Spc. Morgan Figgs of the 3rd Medical Command and Sgt. James Southard of the 79th Theater Sustainment Command.
Mundey, of Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, and Craig, of Okarche, Oklahoma, will next represent the Army Reserve at the Army-wide competition in October at Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia.
Leaders will have high expectations for them. Army Reserve soldiers have historically done well in the Army competition, claiming the NCO of the Year title in 2016, 2015 and 2013 and the Soldier of the Year title in 2008.
Command Sgt. Maj. Ted L. Copeland, the senior enlisted leader of the Army Reserve, said the soldiers had already proven themselves to be great warriors.
“This is what it’s all about,” Copeland said as he honored the two winners during a ceremony at the Crown Coliseum. “If these soldiers don’t inspire you, nothing will.”
Three dozen soldiers competed as part of the Army Reserve Best Warrior Competition, which was held at Fort Bragg for the third year. They represented Army Reserve units from across the globe and included military police, engineers, medical soldiers, human resources specialists and musicians.
The five-day competition included physical fitness tests, weapons qualification and land navigation, but the toughest tests often came in so-called “mystery events” that dominated the final two days.
On Wednesday, following just a few hours of sleep and a long and draining day prior, soldiers were dropped off at a remote training area by helicopter and, for the first and only time in the competition, asked to work together in teams.
As part of a complex scenario involving numerous threats, civilians on the battlefield and adaptive role-players, the soldiers were tasked with clearing a village while looking for an American soldier being held as a prisoner of war.
While scanning for improvised explosive devices and reacting to enemy fighters, the soldiers were unaware that opposition forces armed with shock knives — training tools that give a jolt of electricity on contact with the skin — were hiding around corners and waiting to pounce.
Master Sgt. Ryan Cameron, of the 108th Training Command, oversaw the urban assault course.
He said the event was meant to bring the soldiers “back to their roots” by asking them to perform tasks outside of their typical military jobs.
“The first duty of soldiers is combat,” Cameron said. “But this incorporates a lot of the basics they don’t always get the opportunity to do in the Reserves.”
As teams of soldiers cleared buildings, avoided trip wires, reacted to simulated blasts and responded to enemy attacks, soldiers from the 108th Training Command kept close watch and graded each individually.
The 108th Training Command is preparing to take over the competition, which they currently run in conjunction with U.S. Army Reserve Command. The goal, officials said, is to rotate the Best Warrior Competition among other major Army Reserve commands.
Officials said they tried to introduce as many new wrinkles to the competition as possible while maintaining a focus on warrior skills that all soldiers should know. They also added additional incentives to soldiers aside from winning the overall competition.
For the first time, competitors had the opportunity to earn the German Armed Forces Proficiency Badge and could accrue points for the Distinguished Marksmanship Badge.
For this year’s event, officials said there was a focus on tactical skills and a hope that competitors would leave, win or lose, with valuable training under their belts.
“We’re looking to create a different level of challenge,” said Sgt. 1st Class Justin McCarthy, also with the 108th Training Command.
To do that, McCarthy said the competition includes more mystery. And more dynamic challenges based around mock missions.
The unknown — at one point competitors stepped into a room only to be greeted by five sergeants majors conducting a field board — added to the stress of the competition.
Organizers also provided little time for rest between events.
The end result, McCarthy said, was a level playing field with a singular goal:
“We’re not looking for the most fit or the best shooter,” he said. “We’re looking for the best overall.”
Cameron said officials chose to use real-world scenarios to hammer home the importance of the skills being tested.
“Everything has value,” he said. “They have to react quickly, even when exhausted.”
McCarthy and Cameron said their favorite part of the competition was seeing soldiers come together amid the adversity.
McCarthy said you can see that the soldiers have potential as leaders.
And while it’s an individual competition, Cameron said the competitors leaned on each other for motivation.
“In the end, they’re all here together,” he said. “There’s esprit de corps. There’s teamwork. I love seeing the camaraderie.”
Military editor Drew Brooks can be reached at [email protected] or 486-3567.
© 2018 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.