CAMP RIPLEY, Minn. - Despite a determined effort, neither of the Wisconsin Army National Guard's two Soldiers will advance beyond the Region IV Best Warrior Competition to the National Guard Bureau's competition this year.
"I gave it 100 percent," said Sgt. 1st Class Dustin Zabinski from Holmen, Wisconsin, a member of the Recruiting and Retention Battalion's Detachment 3, Company A. "It's kind of a tough ride home."
"I know I could have done better in a few events, and that's probably what knocked me out of winning, but that's the whole point of the competition," added Spc. Zachary Warnke of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, a member of the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team's Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry Regiment. "The competition was so close that if you slip anywhere, that deficiency is going to be exploited. I still feel good about my results. I feel I did the best I could. Hopefully I did Wisconsin and my NCOs proud."
Warnke was named the alternate Soldier of the Year - a second-place finish overall.
Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Shields, the Wisconsin Army National Guard's senior enlisted advisor, said this year's regional Best Warrior Competition - hosted by the Minnesota Army National Guard - featured the strongest field of competitors he's seen to date.
"Everyone was well prepared," Shields said. "They were tremendous competitors."
In recent years the Wisconsin Army National Guard has sent one, if not two, Soldiers to compete at the National Guard Bureau event. This year that honor belongs solely to Minnesota, which sends Sgt. Corbin Routier and Staff Sgt. Michael Walker to contend for the titles of Best Soldier and Best Noncommissioned Officer, respectively, in the National Guard.
The regional competition featured the top Soldier and Noncommissioned Officer from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.
"Overall, I couldn't be prouder of the effort - and the continued effort even though they were likely behind in the points standings going into the last day," Shields said of Warnke and Zabinski. "They just continued to roll on."
All three praised how the Regional Best Warrior event was set up and operated. More than 150 Soldiers took part in planning the competition for more than a year, and at least 60 Soldiers were on site to ensure the competition ran smoothly from one event to the next.
Soldiers reported to Camp Ripley, Minnesota Monday night, but the competition began in earnest Tuesday morning. The course sometimes demanded 16-hour days to accomplish such tasks as physical fitness, weapons proficiency, day and night land navigation, a confidence course, appearance board, a "shoot house" - acquiring and shooting targets in a house-like structure with blind corners - and a ruck march.
"I'm pretty drained," Warnke admitted during the ride back to Wisconsin. "It was a long week. I've got some blisters, muscles are pretty sore. I'm a little wiped out, but I'll take the weekend off and get back to it on Monday."
Zabinski said he was trying to regain some of the weight he shed during the grueling competition.
"The ruck march - I was cruising, going really well. I just ran out of food," Zabinski said. "I was so hungry, I had to eat so much food. I was getting the 'grey vision' as I was running, but I was still able to finish it up. It was still a good road march. I've never experienced that where I basically drove my body into the ground."
Shields said unmanned aerial vehicles and tracking devices carried by each Soldier allowed the senior leaders to see where their competitors were on the course at all times.
"What that allowed us to do as leaders is to really assess critical tasks where our Soldiers need to concentrate on," Shields said. He already is planning to focus on this year's weak areas - M-4 qualification, night land navigation and crew-served weapons - in preparing for the upcoming Best Warrior competitions, and wants that focus to begin at the company-level competitions.
"We made a correction on the stress shoot this year, which paid dividends - we did very well on that," Shields said. "We moved our ruck march up to 12 miles to mirror what happens at the regional and national level. That paid dividends - we were second in the NCO ruck march."
Zabinski said he learned a great deal from the competition.
"Attention to detail is huge," he said. "Even as an E-7 you're still learning stuff. So many of our skills are perishable.
"There was a lot of studying, a lot of physical training for this," Zabinski continued. "It's kind of good to be done, too, and get back to life, get back to the recruiter mission, spend more time with my wife. I've been studying with my wife every night - it will be good to do non-Army types of activities."
Warnke said he looks forward to returning to his unit and returning to combat medic duties.
But the Best Warrior trail continues for Shields.
"It's not over - we're preparing for next year," Shields said, "and we expect to be right back in there and heading to nationals."