CAMP EDWARDS — Fourteen of the best soldiers and noncommissioned officers this country has to offer are competing this week to be named the National Guard's Best Warrior, through a series of events, the majority of them on Joint Base Cape Cod, testing their physical and mental toughness.
They came from as near as Southbury, Connecticut, and as far away as Soldotna, Alaska, to test their mettle in war tactics, marksmanship and physical agility. It is the first time the Upper Cape base and Massachusetts have held the event and it will likely be years before it returns because so many bases across the country covet the opportunity to host it.
"It's a great honor to have it here in Massachusetts, being the oldest National Guard organization, 1636," said Sgt. Maj. Brendan Bowen, who was responsible for coordinating the event's logistics.
After being at the base since Monday, with the first day set aside for orientation, the 14 competitors — seven soldiers and seven noncommissioned officers each representing a different region of the United States — will travel today to Concord, where their grueling 14-mile rucksack march will include the grounds of the historic Lexington-Concord battle that launched the Revolutionary War.
"We'll finish on Old North Bridge, shot heard round the world, kind of sum up our experience here in Massachusetts, nation's first, nation's oldest," Bowen said.
Two winners — one soldier and one noncommissioned officer — will be selected at the end of today's final event to represent the National Guard in a September competition against winners from the U.S. Army and Army Reserves.
"You can't be strong like bull and dumb like rock," said Spc. Corbin Korsgard, noting the importance of being fit both physically and mentally for the competition. Korsgard represented Colorado and Region VII in the competition.
During a mystery event, which turned out to be combat pistol shooting with M9 handguns, Korsgard struggled at times with his aim. The event came midmorning after a nine-feature obstacle course that featured nerve-wracking climbs and a body-twisting contraption called "The Weaver." As if that wasn't enough of a physical toll, the soldiers were dropped off short of the shooting range and had to march their way in with fully loaded rucksacks.
"I'm definitely a little smoked after the obstacle course and the ruck," Korsgard confided to his sponsor during a break in the shooting competition.
A few of his shots went off line, hitting the paper targets, which featured a hulking enemy soldier, in the midsection. "In my opinion, groin shots should be worth more points," joked a safety officer nearby.
Before the shooting event, many of the Guardsmen chugged from gallon water jugs, sipped Gatorade and gobbled bananas. One soldier munched on Bigs ranch-flavored sunflower seeds.
The competition is toughest on soldiers physically, Bowen said. "Once the physical breaks down, then the mental breaks down," he said.
Wednesday's competition also featured soldiers navigating a Humvee through battle scenarios that included everything from transporting casualties, providing first aid, dealing with unexploded ordnances and calling in a medical helicopter.
The tasks were not always in the light of day, either. On Tuesday night, the Guard soldiers did what is called a stress shoot, which essentially is being dropped into "enemy" territory and left to fend and make correct field-of-battle decisions in darkness.
The soldiers and noncommissioned officers already have proved themselves at local, state and regional levels. Korsgard's competitions began in April and he has been competing or training for competitions since.
The National Guard has beefed up the rigor of its event in the hopes of getting the winners ready to take home top honors against competitors in the Army and Army Reserves. For example, what is typically a 2-mile run on a straight, level course was turned into a 5-miler over hilly terrain. "(The) shifted focus has been on basic soldier skills — shoot, move and communicate — more physical tasks," Bowen said, "so in order for us to compete as a National Guard against all Army we needed to refocus our energy on developing a competition that closely mirrored (the Army's)."