Army Medicine's Central Region names Best Warriors

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Story by Gloria Montgomery on 04/24/2017
After four days of grueling physical and mental challenges testing the grit and soul of the warrior ethos, the Army Regional Medical Command-Central (RMC-C) has named its top Soldiers in the annual Best Warrior competition, held April 10-14 at Fort Hood, Texas.

Earning Non-Commissioned Officer of the Year honors was Sgt. Jeffrey Lullen from Evans Army Community Hospital, Fort Carson, Colo., with the Soldier of the Year title going to Spec. Ashley Conlon from Reynolds Army Community Hospital, Fort Sill, Okla.

During the April 14 award presentation, guest speaker Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Johnson, deputy commanding general, RMC-C, praised the competitors for their "tenacity, resistance and resilience."

"It's absolutely what we need on the battlefield, in our hospitals and in the clinics across the Army," he said, adding that character and skills save lives.

He also encouraged the Soldiers to pass on what they have learned throughout the week to empower all the Soldiers who follow in their footsteps.

"The wave of the future of the Army rests on you," he said.

Competition tests endurance, stamina
From a nerve-wracking oral board and literacy evaluation to a back-breaking, 12-mile march lugging a 40-pound ruck sack, the week-long series of events were lessons in composure, stamina, endurance and survival for the 22 competitors representing military treatment facilities in Texas, California, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri.

"It was tough," said Conlon, surprised by her win. "Honestly, I thought a lot of my male counterparts outperformed me."

Conlon, a combat medic who hails from Agoura Hills, Calif., credits the physical demands required of combat medics with helping her outperform her peers in the elite competition.

"We're already set up for success," she said, "so it's really in our second nature to do all those things."

Hosted by Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center (CRDAMC), the annual competition also included benchmark testing in medical and combat battle drills, day and night navigation, chemical warfare defense, a nine-station obstacle course and a timed swimming event in full body gear. Although weapons proficiency is a standard component at all competition levels, a weather-related incident canceled the Fort Hood event.

According to the competitors, the best warrior competition nourishes the strong and weeds out the weak, which is what the competition is all about said Sgt. Brian Thompson, also from Reynolds Army Community Hospital.

"You aren't born tough," said the health-care specialist from Fort Worth, Texas. "Everyone wants to quit at some point, but it's a matter of what you do when you have that moment."

Lullen, a surgical technician from Orlando, Fla., agreed, adding that the hardest part is getting in the mindset of competing every day.

"You can't be down," he said. "You just have to put a smile on your face, suck it up and push through the tasks."

The physical and mental demands associated with the competition were no surprise to two-time competitor Sgt. Francis Danso, a health-care technician representing Irwin Army Community Hospital, Fort Riley, Kan.

"Knowing what to expect helped me cope and have the resiliency to be able to move forward," he said, adding that the overall competition isn't designed for competitors to become experts, but instead, to understand the basic skills and what the Army is all about.

Spec. Nicholas Castrejon-Oropeza, however, was concerned about weapons proficiency.

"I think that it's the most challenging for many of us in the medical field," said the veterinarian technician from Public Health Command, Fort Sam Houston, Texas. "It's not a part of our job in our military occupational specialty (MOS), so we don't often have weapons qualification opportunities."

Although others expressed concerns about strengths and weaknesses, Sgt. Maj. Michael Stockdell, Joint Base San Antonio, reassured them that an MOS is irrelevant at this competition level.

"This is the Best Warrior' so things are not focused on a particular MOS, so that grunt out there competing on the Army level will know that medical stuff," he said, cautioning the Army Medicine candidates to be careful about treading too deep in patient care during the medically related tasks.

Sgt. Tanner Kress, CRDAMC's Non-Commissioned Officer of the Year, agreed.

"The warrior tasks and battle drills are things we all have to know just to be a non-commissioned officer," said the behavior-health technician from Windsor Locks, Conn.

Medical Soldiers are Soldiers, too
Proving just that was one of the motivators for Sgt. Eva Sapp, who finished third in the competition.

A native of Friedberg, Germany, the physical therapy specialist from Leonardwood Army Community Hospital, Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., said her goal was to prove that Soldiers in the medical field are just as tough as Soldiers in other military occupations.

"I wanted to show everyone in the Army that we're not just Soldiers doing patient care," she said.

Castrejon-Oropeza said he's proud of being in the medical field and praised the Army component for its overall pride.

"We all have a lot of pride in what we do and know how to be a Soldier just as much as an infantryman," said the Rome, Ga., native. "Sure, I get to play with dogs all day, but without those dogs in working order, Soldiers would potentially be at risk."

Overall, he said, it's all about being a Soldier.

"We're all part of the Army regardless of the military occupation," he said.
All it takes, said Spec. Benjamin Watts, Munson Army Community Hospital, Fort Leavenworth, Kan., is the "will, dedication and discipline to compete."

"When you work in the hospital, you don't get the credit of being a Soldier," said the radiology specialist from Augusta, Ga., "but we are all Soldiers first."

Although the battle is about earning the coveted "Best Warrior" title, the competition to Danso also was about helping and mentoring others.

Competition also about being a role model
"Ultimately, whether you get to the next level or not, it's about setting an example to others and being able to have an impact on junior Soldiers and groom and mentor them so they can get to that next level," said Danso, who came to America from Africa in 2009 and is now a resident of Brooklyn Center, Minn.

And that's exactly what challenges Staff Sgt. Ron Jimenez, a squad leader at Brooke Army Medical Center's Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio who hopes his competitive spirit rubs off on the wounded, ill and injured Soldiers under his care and tutelage. Unlike his medical field competitors, the 14-year veteran is a military policeman.

"There are a lot of life-altering things my Soldiers are working through, so I hope I can be an example to them," said the Nixon, Mo., native. "I just want to prove to them that even though their time in the Army might be up, they should never give up on their dreams."

Next up for RHC-C's Best Warriors is Army Medicine's competition where Sergeant Lullen and Specialist Conlon will be competing against other regional medical components.

With the competition just months away, Conlon said she is thankful for the support her command has given to her to help her concentrate on her training regime.

"I'm just thankful they give me the time to train because it's really difficult in the medical world to pull us away from patient care," she said, adding that she plans on training harder and harder before the July competition. "It would really mean a lot for me to win and be able to represent Army Medicine in the overall Army competition."

Regardless of how Conlon or Lullen finish in their next battle, both agree that anything can happen if you have a goal.

"The only thing in the way is you," Conlon said. "Never give up because if you push yourself and work hard, you can get there."

Additional honors were as follows:
Best Warrior 1st Runners Up Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Calhoun, Raymond W. Bliss Army Health
Center, and Spec. Vinicius Vitaliano, Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center
Best Warrior 2nd Runners Up Sgt. Eva Sapp, General Leonard Wood Army Community
Hospital, and Spec. Garret Hayes, Bayne-Jones Army Community Hospital
Fastest 12-mile road march (2:49) Sgt. Jeffrey Lullen, Evans Army Community Hospital
Highest APFT Score (295) Sgt. Francis Danso, Irwin Army Community Hospital
Best Combined Written Test and Essay Sgt. Francis Danso Irwin Army Community Hospital

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