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A Best Warrior’s Path

Article by Sgt. Allen Griffith, 29th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

Army National Guard’s Best Warrior Competition held at Camp Navajo, just west of Flagstaff, Arizona, July 19-23, 2021

The top Soldiers of the Army National Guard compete annually for the title of Army National Guard Best Warrior. This year, Maryland National Guard’s Sgt. James McGill, a radiology specialist with the 224th Medical Company Area Support, competed in the ARNG’s Best Warrior Competition held at Camp Navajo, just west of Flagstaff, Arizona, July 19-23, 2021. The 20-event competition included marksmanship drills, obstacle courses, physical fitness challenges, medical evacuation tasks, a ruck march, interviews, and written exams, all designed to find this year’s ARNG best Noncommissioned Officer and Soldier.

The BWC is an opportunity for Soldiers who demonstrate commitment to the Army values, embody the warrior ethos, and represent the force of the future. The challenges featured a mix of physical and mental tasks that assess basic soldiering skills not unique to any military occupational specialty.

Fourteen Soldiers from 11 states put their tactical and technical expertise to the test. The victors continue their Best Warrior journey to compete in the Department of the Army BWC later this year. The Army’s BWC is a rigorous competition where hundreds of Soldiers compete to earn the title of best Soldier or best NCO in the Army.

“My best warrior journey began when I joined the military in 2013,” said McGill. “It is part of any soldier’s obligation to be prepared to conduct training such as this at any time. It is my belief everyday you should be training to be the best individual you can be. I have had outstanding leadership throughout my career who have constantly prepared me for challenges like this.”  

McGill’s first best warrior test was competing at the battalion level. The previous year’s battalion winner who went on to compete at the state level was the favorite to win again in 2021. 

“You never see him coming,” said Command Sgt. Maj. David Harry, 1297th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion command sergeant major. “Sgt. McGill represented himself well and far exceeded expectations.” 

McGill won the battalion level competition and went on to represent the 29th Combat Aviation Brigade in the MDNG BWC which ran from March 11-14, 2021, at the H. Steven Blum Military Reservation in Glen Arm, Maryland. Maryland’s competition is unique, as it’s open to Service members from the Maryland Army and Air National Guard, as well as state partner nations of Estonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

While competing at the state level, McGill was viewed as an incredible NCO with a humble disposition, said Harry.   

“I love competing with the best of the best,” said McGill, who won the state competition, becoming the 2021 MDNG Best Warrior NCO. “Right now in the Maryland National Guard, we have some of the top competitors in the country.” 

After winning at the state level, the next step in McGill’s journey took place at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, competing in the 2021 Region II BWC, on May 11-14, 2021. McGill competed against Soldiers from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Delaware. The Soldiers competed in nine events designed to test their physical and mental endurance like night land navigation, a medical event, a written exam, obstacle courses, the Hartranft 1000 fitness challenge, a 12-mile ruck march, and weapons qualification with the M4 carbine, M17 pistol, and M500 rifle.

McGill conquered another critical challenge in his best warrior journey when he was named NCO of the Year at the conclusion of the Region II BWC.

“I loved working with the people I got to work with, I’m definitely going to keep in touch with these guys,” said McGill, before thanking his state and unit leadership for their support, saying his win reflects a team effort.

McGill had to overcome many challenges during his best warrior journey. 

“He was a guy that wanted to work through everything,” said Harry. “During the entire time period, he still functioned as a team leader for COVID support while also training up for the competition — it was incredible.” 

McGill attributes his mental toughness to his years of military experience.

“My time in the Army has definitely given me a much stronger mental mindset that I definitely tapped into when need be,” said McGill. “I especially remember my time with the 173rd [Airborne Brigade] where I was constantly being tested. Rucks of 25 kilometers [15 miles] or longer were a part of life there and always required mental fortitude. More recently here in Maryland, my command team has made it especially easy to get any training I require to sharpen my skills as a Soldier.”

In preparing for the national competition, McGill was running and rucking 30 hours a week during the hottest time of the day. 

For physical training, it was a lot of distance,” said McGill. “I wanted to make sure my body could handle the miles. I started at 26 miles a week and worked up to 35 miles of running and rucking. I also incorporated a lot of pull-ups and push-ups. Three times a week I would finish a workout with 100 pull-ups and 200 push-ups. For weight training I did legs twice a week and upper body three times a week. Nutrition was a bit difficult for me and in hindsight one thing I would change was sticking to a meal plan.”

The additional challenge for McGill was having to compete in a high altitude environment. High altitude is typically defined as being above 5,000 feet in elevation, he would be competing at 7,000 feet. In general, the longer you have to acclimate to a major increase in elevation before a competition, the better. Current clinical research suggests that 10 days is the shortest “ideal” period for acclimating. McGill arrived a week and half before the start of competition in order to acclimate while most of the competitors were on site three weeks prior.

“The BWC definitely had an impact on me,” said McGill. “For starters it definitely made me thankful for the people I work with. It also has made me more confident. The challenges were not just physical, but mental as well, and knowing I could push through the pain to finish was really confidence boosting.”

McGill ended the competition in the same manner he started, exceeding expectations as a humble selfless warrior providing an example to follow, a sentiment expressed by those who worked with him. During the ruck march, Spc. Alexander Gravely, from the West Virginia ARNG and Region II Soldier of the Year, was suffering from altitude sickness. 

“[McGill] stayed with Spc. Gravely, who was sick, vomiting and unable to move forward,” said Harry. “He rucked with him the entire way. I think this said more about him than having finished first. He pulled him through and encouraged him for 15 1/2 miles after three days of the most grueling competition I have witnessed.”  

McGill recommends for all to consider the best warrior competition. 

“As far as something to leave on, I would tell everyone in Maryland Guard to not let this opportunity pass by,” said McGill. “This was truly an unforgettable experience! It challenges you in every aspect, physical, mental, and emotional.”