FORT BENNING, Ga. - Competing amongst themselves and against unfavorable environmental elements here, seven Soldiers and seven noncommissioned officers recently came head-to-head during the Army National Guard's Best Warrior Competition, July 30, to contest who was the best of the best.
When the dust finally settled on August 2, Army Sgt. Mark Fuggiti, a supply specialist with Company C, Recruiting and Retention Battalion, Pennsylvania Army National Guard; and Army Sgt. Matthew Howard, an artillery crewmember with Battery C, 2nd Battalion, 142nd Fires Brigade, Arkansas Army National Guard, rose above the field as the top Soldier and noncommissioned officer of the year.
The road to the top was not easy and competitors had to face a multitude of obstacles that tested them both physically and mentally. Events and tasks included: a physical fitness test, a sergeant major board, a road march with heavy packs, obstacle and challenge courses, and weapons qualifications under stress.
During the second day of the competition, Fuggiti said he was able to draw upon the strength of family and friends back home to help stay motivated.
"Representing our states and just doing the best we can for our families and ourselves has helped to keep me motivated," he said. "Everyone here is the best from their region that the Guard has to offer, so it [has been] a very good competition."
"My wife and daughter helped me study, but they also are understanding of the time [I need] away from them to compete, time that I'll never get back, but they [were] there to help me while ... training," he said. "[My wife] lifts me up... and she's just been supportive and encouraging – it's just been great."
Competitors also received support from a sponsor - who is usually a higher-ranking NCO with competition experience - assigned to assist competitors with any issues that could come up during each level of competition. Those same sponsors help train individuals by setting up mock scenarios where their specific competitor can hone their Soldier skills, both physically and mentally.
But no amount of training or experience could help them to fully prepare for the multitude of events they had to continuously face here, and Fuggiti admitted that this made the level of competition tough.
"One of the things that we really don't think of coming into this is that all of the tasks that you have to do, you're put into a stressful situation in order to do it," he said. "Sitting down at home reading the book and learning what to do does not exactly apply when your heart is beating and you're in the field and you really need to use [that knowledge]."
Despite it being a competition, several of the competing Guard members said camaraderie among them was surprisingly high.
"I've honestly seen a lot of camaraderie," said NCO first runner-up Army Staff Sgt. Eugene Patton, an intelligence analyst and readiness NCO from the 117th Space Battalion, Colorado Army National Guard.
"In some arenas there is just too much competiveness, but here we all get along and talk and build relationships," and this kind of an event is important because it helps to build that esprit décor and camaraderie, he said.
"The camaraderie among the Soldiers has been great," Howard said.
Winning over other competitors isn't how each of the 14 Guard members got to the Army Guard level though. They each had to win at local, state and regional competitions in order to make it to the Army Guard competition, but only Fuggiti and Howard will move on to represent the Army National Guard at the Army's Best Warrior competition scheduled for later this year.
All of these Soldiers and NCOs are already winners, just by the mere fact that they are here, said Army Command Sgt. Maj. Brian S. Sann, the Maryland state senior enlisted leader, illustrating that each of them have won several competitions already.
This year winners were announced at an award ceremony at the end of the final day.
"Our purpose over the past week has been to identify the best warriors to go forward to the Army competition and I think we were successful," said Command Sgt. Maj. Richard Burch, the Army National Guard command sergeant major, "but we can't fail to recognize all of the competitors because they've come a long way."
"It's no mistake that you're here – you're here for a specific reason," he said.
Burch went on to encourage each Soldier to not squander what they have gained from their experiences throughout the competition.
"Take your experiences here from the past week and use them to challenge your own Soldiers," he said. "You are professional Soldiers, you are masters in your art and you answered your calling ... to be part of something bigger than yourself, as evidenced here this week."
After the ceremony, Howard said he would use his experience to train for the next round.
"This level of the competition has helped me prepare for the next," he said. "You never know what the next competition will be, but each level helps to prepare you for what may come."
Fuggiti said to prepare for the Army competition he would begin simultaneously training mentally and physically.
"We did all of our studying on our warrior tasks sitting down at a desk, and when you're running an obstacle course ... and your heart is pounding ... and having to perform these tasks, it's a lot different," he said. I'll be putting more of a mix of physical training in with performing my warrior tasks as I train for the next level.
Coincidentally, both Guard members said the road march was the moment of the competition where they each felt like giving up.
That last two miles on that little dirt road, alone with no lights, I was really getting down, Howard said. "I had a heart-to-heart with God, and I just went on and got the strength to finish it up," he said.
Fuggiti said after he finished the road march and went back to the barracks that a message from a friend back home lifted his spirits.
"It picked me back up and got me back into the fight the next day," he said.
Humbled and honored by the recognition bestowed upon them, they are both looking forward to the next competition.
"This competition was so tough," Howard admitted. "Without a doubt, I am honored to be representing the Army Guard. It's humbling ... and it feels great."
"This has given me a great starting point for the training going into the [Army level] competition," Fuggiti said, smiling. "Even though [Sergeant Howard] is from Arkansas, I won't hold that against him and we'll definitely get a game plan together going into the next level."