Nine soldiers and noncommissioned officers from across the state converged April 5 to 8 on Marseilles Training Center to compete for the title of the Illinois Army National Guard's Best Warrior.
The competition began with the Army physical fitness test, a three-event test consisting of two minutes of pushups followed by two minutes of sit-ups, and finished with a timed two-mile run. Over the next three days, the soldiers competed at weapons qualification, warrior skill tasks, land navigation, a confidence course obstacle race, and a question-and-answer board. The competition capped off with a timed, 10-mile road march with a 40-pound rucksack.
The nine competitors were selected from a pool of nearly 10,000 soldiers in the Illinois Army National Guard through platoon, company, and battalion-level boards to compete as Illinois' Best Warriors.
Command Sgt. Major Sean P. Carney, of Oak Park, the State Command Sergeant Major, Illinois Army National Guard, said competition is encouraged among the brigades and the Best Warrior Competition fuels a drive to be the best.
"The state competition helps us find the best of the best in the Illinois Army National Guard," Carney said. "Whether the competitors here win or lose, coming here is an honor to their efforts so far. All of these Soldiers are the best their brigades have to offer. Win or lose, they're contributing to the success of the Illinois Army National Guard."
Spc. William Ailey, of Normal, a soldier with Troop A, 2nd Squadron, 106th Cavalry Regiment, 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team based in Pontiac, took top honors as the Soldier of the Year.
Sgt. Tycjan Sieradzki, of Algonquin, a soldier with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 178th Infantry Regiment, 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team based in Chicago, took top honors as the Illinois Army National Guard's Non-Commissioned Officer of the Year.
Ailey said he worked hard with the members of his unit to get to the competition and wanted to make them proud.
"It feels incredible to be the Soldier of the Year," Ailey said. "Winning lets me honor the hard work that my guys and I put in to getting here. It lets me show them that the hard work they put in to making me better has paid off."
Sieradzki, who competed and won Soldier of the Year in 2016, said he wanted to come back and win as a noncommissioned officer as well.
"I wanted to prove I could do it again," Sieradzki said. "I'm proud to bring this back to the unit. There's a lot of soldiers that look up to the NCOs and it's great to show them what we can do."
For the second year in a row, two female soldiers competed in the Best Warrior Competiton.
Spc. Paige Buechele, of Lebanon, a member of the 445th Chemical Company based in Shiloh, and Spc. Melissa Griffiths, of Moline, a soldier with the 1644th Transportation Company based in Rock Falls, both tested their mettle against the best soldiers the state has to offer.
"The competition has been very challenging," Griffiths said. "I've learned a lot being here, both from the other soldiers and NCOs competeing and from the senior leadership here speaking to us."
Both women said they were competitve by nature and wanted to prove they had what it takes to compete.
"I like being the best that I can be," Buechele said. "Being one of two females here drives me a little harder to represent my unit and its soldiers properly."
Buechele said while the competition is physically and mentally demanding, more women should come out and show their ability to compete at the same level as their male counterparts.
"It's demanding, but it's good for camaraderie," Buechele said. "I would love to see more females out here showing that we're just as awesome and competitive."
Carney said this year's competition was a hybrid of competitions from years past.
"We've taken things from years past and tweaked and improved them," Carney said. "I want to keep improving for years to come. I want soldiers to feel rewarded to come and compete against their peers."
Ailey and Sieradzki were presented with the Tomahawk Plaque, a laser engraved tomahawk mounted on reclaimed wood, coins from the Commander of the Illinois Army National Guard and State Command Sergeant Major, and a bevy of additional prizes donated by the National Guard Association of Illinois.
The winners will go on to compete in the regional competition with hopes of reaching the national level to compete for the Army's Soldier and NCO of the Year titles.