Bodies soaked in sweat — fatigue was visible.
This was the week-long image of Soldiers powering through the strenuous situational training exercises (STXs) and physical tests of the 2019 XVIII Airborne Corps NCO and Soldier of the Year Competition from June 24 through 28.
To prove they were the 2019 Dragon Warrior of the Year, representatives from the XVIII Abn. Corps’ divisions and brigade separates were brought in after competing and winning at the division level.
“In the last five days, I’ve watched these Soldiers push themselves to the limit and put everything on the table,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Emilio Rivera, command sergeant major, Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, Task Force Dragon, XVIII Abn. Corps. “They never gave up and pushed through with the maximum effort to succeed.”
Day one’s events included a graded layout of gear, the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT), the Air Assault Obstacle Course and Combat Water Survival Training (CWST).
“My favorite part of the competition was the ruck because I enjoy rucking, and it’s something I have a passion for,” said Spc. Nathan Brittain, Baker Battery, 321st Field Artillery Regiment, 18th Field Artillery Brigade. “The hardest part for me was swimming with full gear and the weapon. That part (dragged) me down pretty good.”
Day two picked up with more Soldier skills as the competitors went through STXs. The lanes included a reaction to a chemical attack, sending a situation report (SITREP) over the radio, evacuating a casualty, requesting a nine-line medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) and reacting to direct and indirect contact. These lanes stretched over 2 miles and kept competitors engaged and focused on new situations.
“The lanes sucked in the heat, but at the end, when you were done, it felt great,” said Staff Sgt. Bijay Bastakoti, a cargo specialist with 403rd Inland Cargo Transfer Company, 330th Transportation Battalion, 3rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command. “That type of training takes a lot of preparation and time, but it will be great to be able to take that back to the Soldiers of my unit.”
Day three was another scorcher with the heat index reaching 101 degrees. The competitors moved to weapon qualifications on both the M9 pistol and the M4 carbine rifle. Rifle and pistol marksmanship was a graded event the competitors had to excel at in order to win the competition.
“To prepare for the competition, my unit helped a lot by scheduling time at the range and giving me some more practice with land navigation,” Bastakoti said. “We could have prepared a bit more for the ACFT and the Combat Water Survival Training — I’m not a swimmer — but I gave it my all and I didn’t give up.”
Before competitors went to the ranges to fire their weapons, another physical assessment took place at 6:30 a.m. They tackled the next challenge and competed against each other in the Soldier Readiness Test (SRT).
The SRT was originally proposed as the new Soldier physical fitness test. However, the ACFT was chosen. It includes flipping a tire six times, dragging a simulated casualty, lateral agility movements, loading a Humvee with equipment and completing an over-under obstacle at the middle point of a 1.5-mile run.

“The STX and the SRT were things I was not very familiar with at all, but the cadre explained the events well,” said Pfc. Jakob Wrolstad, a multichannel transmission systems operator-maintainer with the 51st Expeditionary Signal Battalion, 35th Signal Brigade. “We were already dealing with fatigue, but we went out there and did the best we could.”
As the third day ended, competitors were tasked with a graded ruck march and the land navigation course. They rucked throughout the night and had to finish the land navigation course before daylight.
“My favorite part was that we were all competing against each other, but we all worked together as a team,” Bastakoti said. “And it doesn’t matter if you didn’t win, because this is a great learning experience that we can all use to become better leaders.”
Toward the end of the week, the competitors had a chance to rest and prepare for the 9 a.m. June 28 board. Their performance at the board would be the final graded event.
“The most important thing the Soldiers and NCOs take away from this competition is how to compete at the highest level,” Rivera said.”They are competing with the best of the best and must perform with the ultimate endurance, strength and perseverance.”
After tallying up the scores from the week’s events, Command Sgt. Maj. John Cervenka, Task Force Dragon command sergeant major, XVIII Abn. Corps, announced the winners during the awards ceremony hosted at the XVIII Abn. Corps Headquarters.
Staff Sgt. Mathew Whitney, 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Georgia, was named the 2019 XVIII Abn. Corps NCO of the Year.
Spc. Nicholas Callahan, 44th Medical Brigade, was selected as the 2019 XVIII Abn. Corps Soldier of the Year.
Whitney and Callahan will move forward and compete at the 2019 U. S. Army Forces Command Best Warrior Competition later this year.
“When I was announced as the winner, I felt both relieved and stressed out at the same time,” Whitney said. “It’s a big responsibility to represent the XVIII Abn. Corps (at the next competition), but at the same time I’m looking forward to it.”