FORT LEE, Va. — Sgt. 1st Class Alissa Guzman put her application in for the Best Warrior competition only because she wanted to be considered for another board and had to apply for both. Then she won the competition at the company level, then at the regimental level.
Soon, she was the only woman in the command-level competition for Army Training and Doctrine Command.
She came in second.
About a week before the Army-wide final competition, the winner broke his hand. Guzman was asked to represent her command in the grueling four-day mental and physical competition against the best soldiers and NCOs from the Army’s other major commands. The goal: to select the best to serve as examples for others in the Army. Winners receive cash, prizes, bragging rights and the coveted title of Soldier of the Year or Noncommissioned Officer of the Year.
Guzman didn’t have as much time to prepare as she would have liked, she said, so she just focused on doing her best.
“I just want, at the end of the day, to make my family proud, make my command proud, and of course, represent females in the military as best I can,” she said.
Guzman was the only woman in the competition this year, though she’s not the first to compete. In 2010, Sgt. Sherri Gallagher won the Soldier of the Year portion of the contest. The competition is open to enlisted soldiers, no matter the job or gender.
While a competition called Best Warrior may conjure images of hand-to-hand combat, in reality the competitors are tested physically and mentally to select the best all-around soldier. They even have to write an essay.
This year, Staff Sgt. Matthew Senna won the NCO portion of the event and was named the Army’s 2012 Noncommissioned Officer of the Year. Spc. Saral Shrestha was named the Soldier of the Year. Senna is an infantryman assigned to Company B, 7th Army NCO Academy in Germany. Shrestha is a power generation equipment repairer with Group Service Support Company, Group Support Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, U.S. Army Special Forces Command at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Sgt. Darius Krzywonos, a field artillery surveyor/meteorological crewman based at Fort Lewis, Wash., knew what to expect for most parts of the competition, which started Oct. 15. But in one “mystery exercise,” the men were presented with a female uniform and enlisted record and had to put the uniform together properly. Guzman was given a male uniform to assemble.
Krzywonos wasn’t completely unprepared for the task; he had been asked about female uniforms during his training. Since he reached his brigade-level competition, he said, he hasn’t stopped studying.
Spc. Paul Welte, a food service specialist stationed at Fort Myer, Va., also did a lot of preparation, but was surprised at how specific some of the tests were. Still, he said he believes the preparation and competition process is helping him become a better soldier by training and adapting to different environments.
Spc. Richard Shepard, an intelligence analyst stationed in Kaiserslautern, Germany, said he did the lowest-level competition as a learning experience, then just kept winning. He appreciates the opportunity to train and compete because it can help develop and define leadership skills, he said.
For some of the scenarios, the competitors are assigned a fire team and are graded not just on how fast they put on the gear, how straight they shoot and how fast they capture the bad guy, but also how they lead and interact with the team.
“A noncombat MOS is at equal disadvantage as a combat MOS when it comes to the intellectual aspect of it,” Krzywonos said. “It’s a very well-rounded competition. … The physicality was only one aspect of it, and there were many.”
The annual Best Warrior competition began in 2002. Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler said the competition’s aim is to identify well-rounded examples for the rest of the Army. The winners will represent the Army at several events — from baseball games to meetings with members of Congress — throughout the year.
“It’s important for us to be able to show the Army what ‘right’ looks like,” Chandler said.
Guzman’s participation in the competition coincides with a larger discussion about opening more combat roles to women. Guzman said it is motivating to be the only woman in the competition, though she said there are “absolutely” better female soldiers out there.
Guzman, a microwave systems operator/maintainer, serves as a senior drill sergeant at Fort Jackson, S.C. There, she is in charge of two drill sergeants and about 60 soldiers.
If the opportunity presents itself for women to take on more combat roles, “if there are women who feel like they can do it, and are afforded the opportunity to do it, that kind of opens the door for them,” she said, without specifying whether she would volunteer for a combat role.
“Me personally, I’m going to do what I’m told. I signed up, I raised my hand, I made a commitment,” Guzman said. “I love what I do. ... I love what I stand for. And as long as my kids can walk around and say, ‘That’s my mom,’ then I must be doing something right.”