FORT EUSTIS — After three days of testing, physical conditioning including a 12-mile march with full tactical gear — or "battle rattle" — and little sleeping, an obstacle course was the last thing Army Spc. Marissa Santos wanted to do.
At about 5 feet tall, many of the obstacles towered over her.
After crossing the finish line, she smiled. "That was fun," said Santos, who is based at Fort Jackson, S.C.
"She's a dynamo," said Sgt. Maj. Robert Moss, who oversees operations at U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Eustis, as Santos made her way through the course. "She's gassed. They all are. This is where you see their heart."
Since Monday, Santos and 16 other noncommissioned officers and soldiers from installations all over the country have competed for the title of the command's NCO and Soldier of the Year. The competition ends Friday, and the winners will go on to compete Armywide in October at Fort Lee.
In all, Moss said, they will cover about 40 miles, as well as dozens of skills expected of every soldier in the Army regardless of their position or rank.
"We're looking for the best soldier," Sgt. Maj. Jeremy McKean said. "From day one, they go over and go over these skills until they are proficient. One hundred percent of what is expected of a soldier in a theater anywhere. They could be a truck driver. They could work behind a desk. They could be a dentist or combat medic."
Skills like marksmanship, orienteering, identification of improvised explosive devices and first aid are tested, both in battlefield-like scenarios and in the classroom.
The test is designed to test both their physical and mental endurance. The soldiers were wakened early for a timed workout outside, followed by a test in cool air conditioning and then another outdoor session on the range.
"We take them to the limit of what we can replicate in wartime," TRADOC Command Sgt. Maj. Daniel Dailey said.
On Wednesday, the soldiers were tested at a site designed to look like a town in Iraq or Afghanistan. They went in teams of two, each covering one side of the street.
Staff Sgt. Christian Stentiford, from Fort Jackson, and Spc. Marquis Wright, from Fort Lee, turned the corner of a cement building, assault rifles at the ready, and the Islamic call to prayer blaring from a speaker system.
They crouched as they came to a window. Moving swiftly, they cleared open doorways.
All of this was graded by a set of scorers looking at their technique and teamwork.
The week has been challenging, Wright said. But he's never thought about giving up.
"I believe in myself," he said. "My mentality is never quit. You want to be the Soldier of the Year, you got to push through. No complaining."
Wright said the honor isn't about bragging rights — it's about being the best soldier he can be.
Dailey said the title is esteemed.
"These are the best and the brightest," he said. "It's about the whole soldier. They might not be the best physically, but overall the best soldiers. It builds this want. Young men and women aspire to do that."
The Training and Doctrine Command develops all training manuals for the Army and other branches of the military. As warfare evolves, so does the training.
"This is about keeping the Army strong," Dailey said.