JUNE 28, 2016, JOINT BASE CAPE COD, Mass. – Among the windswept pine trees of Joint Base Cape Cod, 14 Soldiers battled it out in the 2016 Army National Guard Best Warrior Competition to earn the title of Army Guard Soldier and Noncommissioned Officer of the Year.
At the end of the competition, Army Sgt. Calvin Koziol, an infantryman with the Nebraska Army National Guard’s C Company (Long Range Surveillance), 1st Squadron, 134th Cavalry Regiment, was named Soldier of the Year while Army Staff Sgt. Dirk Omerzo, an instructor with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard’s 3rd Battalion, 166th Regiment (Regional Training Institute), was named the NCO of the Year.
Both will move on to compete in the 2016 all-Army Best Warrior Competition, scheduled for October, where they will compete against Soldiers from throughout the Army to be named the Army’s Soldier and NCO of the Year.
“It’s really surreal,” said Koziol after the winners were announced. “It’s hard to believe. It’s a great feeling.”
“I’m not really one for all the attention, but it’s amazing,” he said.
The competition stood as a grueling three-day test that stressed competitors both physically and mentally. For Omerzo, winning the competition was a surprise.
“I did very poorly on the ruck march today,” he said. “When I came in and saw the [leader] board was updated and I was at the top, I was blown away.”
The 14-mile ruck march was only one part of the competition that put competitors through their paces on a variety of tactical and technical skills ranging from weapons to first aid to land navigation.
“This week just really put it to us,” said Omerzo. “I expended a lot of energy on the land nav lanes and I just didn’t have any energy in my legs for the ruck march.”
That was, in part, the intent of the competition.
“One of my initial instructions to the NCOs running all the events was I do not want this to be easy,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Carlos Ramos Rivera, the state command sergeant major for the Massachusetts National Guard, which was the host for this year’s competition. “This has to be an absolute challenge for all the competitors. I want them to struggle. I want them to push as hard as they absolutely, possibly can.”
Ramos Rivera’s team was successful in that regard.
“It’s been pretty exhausting,” said Army Staff Sgt. Logan Gehlhausen, an infantry instructor with the Indiana Army National Guard’s 138th Regiment (Regional Training Institute), who took third place in the NCO category. “They’ve definitely stacked the events up back-to-back. It’s very physically demanding. They definitely made it challenging, which it should be at this level.”
The goal was to give competitors a sense for the next level, the all-Army competition.
“We want to prepare them to the best extent possible for that competition,” said Ramos Rivera. “We try to anticipate what the sergeant major of the Army is going to do at his level and replicate that.”
Competitors worked their way up to the Army Guard-level competition through several competitions beginning at the unit level. While the skills they were tested on at each competition were similar, this year’s Army Guard competition had a unique element to it: the location.
“The Massachusetts National Guard is not only the birthplace of the National Guard, it’s the birthplace of the United States Army,” said Ramos Rivera. “What more fitting location to recognize and identify the absolute best among our Soldiers and NCOs?”
Keeping with that historical tie, the ruck march event took place along the “Battle Road” between Lexington and Concord, starting and ending at the Old North Bridge where in April 1775 the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired.
“The ruck march had to be here at this location,” said Ramos Rivera.
“It’s especially significant to our Soldiers, and Army National Guard Soldiers, that we’re doing the road march here,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher Kepner, the sergeant major of the Army National Guard, who completed the 14-mile ruck march alongside the competitors.
As the competition unfolded, Kepner said it was motivating watching the competitors excel.
“My favorite part about this is seeing Soldiers doing their best and elevating the Soldiers around them to do their best,” he said. “When we have these competitions, it brings everybody up a notch.”
And that spreads beyond the competition itself, said Kepner.
“When these Soldiers go back to their organizations, even if they don’t win this competition, the fact that they are here, the Soldiers and the organization they belong to stand up a little bit taller, they try a little bit harder,” he said.
Omerzo said being around the other competitors made him push a little harder at each event.
“All those guys were awesome and I really enjoyed competing against those guys,” he said. “They were very difficult to compete against. Every event there was a different person who was strong.”
For Omerzo, winning this year’s competition is a comeback of sorts.
“I competed last year, lost at my region level,” he said. “I wanted to come back and I wanted to win my region. Once I won my region, obviously I wanted to keep winning.”
Staying competition ready has meant constant training, said Omerzo.
“I’ve been training for over a year,” he said. “There have been ups and downs with my training regimen, but I’ve been doing everything I can think of for the past year.”
Omerzo added that without support from others he wouldn’t have been as successful.
“My mentor has been amazing throughout the last year leading up to this point,” he said.
Koziol said similar support from his unit allowed him to just keep pushing himself.
“You [have] to dig deep and find it within yourself to just keep pushing and make sure you finish,” he said. “It’s just one step at a time, really.”
For both Omerzo and Koziol, the next step is ensuring they’re ready to compete in October, they said.
“My plan now is to keep up my physical fitness, study a lot and just go over all the tasks I can possibly think of,” Koziol said.
Though, no matter how they do at the next level, both said it’s rewarding simply being able to compete.
“They put on a great competition,” said Omerzo. “I just want to say thank you to everybody that helped. The competition was awesome.”
“You don’t get to do this every day,” he said. “It’s something I’ll remember forever.”