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Army's best drill sergeants compete for top award at Fort Jackson

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Sgt. 1st Class David Stover, Fort Jackson’s drill sergeant of the year, knows the pressure is on.

Fort Jackson is the military’s largest training base and home of the Army’s drill sergeant school. And Stover this week has been competing against five of the Army’s best drill sergeants from around the country for the title of 2013 Army Drill Sergeant of the Year.

But the 32-year-old Iraq War veteran said there is more at stake than bragging rights over the Army’s other training bases at Fort Benning, Ga., Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and Fort Sill, Okla. The winner, to be named Wednesday will become an adviser to the Army’s top training brass.

“It’s not about the trophy for me,” said Stover, who lives in Forest Acres with his 9-year-old daughter, Taryn. “It’s about making a difference in how we train soldiers. It’s a chance to be the voice of drill sergeants to the Army.”

The Drill Sergeant of the Year competition is one of the most physically demanding and mentally tough challenges a soldier can face in an Army competition. The six competitors — four active-duty soldiers and two reservists — are the top finishers from their installations or divisions among the Army’s more than 2,000 drill sergeants.

This year, because of budget cuts, the competition was trimmed from five days to three. To compensate, the competitors have had to endure longer days and tighter schedules. For instance on Tuesday, their day started at 5 a.m. and ended at 9 p.m.

“We had to make the curriculum more robust in a shorter time,” said Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Heilman, a Philadelphia native and 2012’s Drill Sergeant of the Year.

During the three days, the competitors are graded on about 60 different tasks, drills and tests.

For example:

  • Teaching a soldier a proper hand salute
  • Executing proper pushups
  • Treating a leg amputation wound
  • Instructing a squad to clear a building in an urban environment
  • Disassembling and assembling M-16 rifles and machine guns

For Staff Sgt. Steven Newman, a Hobart, Ind., native and Fort Benning’s drill sergeant of the year, the hardest test was a planned 10-mile hike with a 70-pound pack Tuesday evening after a full day of other challenges. Observers shut the hike down at the halfway point because of the heat and humidity.

“It was pretty brutal,” said Newman, who has been deployed to Iraq three times.

Physical tests aside, the real challenge is not knowing what will pop up next along the course.

“The unknown is the hardest part,” Heilman said. “They have no idea what is coming next or what the grading criteria is.”

Add to that physical and mental exhaustion.

“They have to think clearly and translate that to the young soldiers,” said Staff Sgt. Jessica Tuggle, an instructor at the drill sergeant school and a judge in the competition. “After an 18-hour day, are you still able to teach?”

The active duty winner receives the Stephen Ailes Award, initiated in 1969 and named for the Secretary of the Army from 1964 to 1965 who was instrumental in originating the first Drill Sergeant School at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. The Army Reserve winner receives the Ralph Haines Jr. Award, named for the commander of the Continental Army Command from 1970 to 1972.

But whoever wins, the experience is a reward in itself.

“Only the best are here,” said William Schmidt, a Clara City, Minn., native who is drill sergeant of the year from Fort Sill, Okla. “And competing among the best is a huge honor.”
 

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