JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas —
After five days, more than 70 tested events and hundreds of evaluated standards, the U.S. Army named its top drill sergeant in an Aug. 23 ceremony hosted at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston by the Center for Initial Military Training, or CIMT, the lead in the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, or TRADOC, for all initial entry training.
Staff Sgt. Earnest J. Knight II, representing Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and the U.S. Army Drill Sergeant Academy, is the 2019 U.S. Army Drill Sergeant of the Year.
Staff Sgt Benhur Rodriguez, representing Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and the Fires Center of Excellence, was named runner up to the 2019 Drill Sergeant of the Year and also received an award for the highest physical fitness score during the competition. In the event the primary selectee is unable to perform his duties, Rodriguez will assume the role.
By design, the competition is one of the most physically demanding and mentally tough challenges any soldier may face in a competition. The Army level event tests and highlights the professionalism and readiness of the U.S. Army by testing the drill sergeants that are responsible for training the total force.
The annual event was conducted at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston and JBSA-Camp Bullis for the first time since the Drill Sergeant of the Year was established 50 years ago.
Not only did the Health Readiness Center of Excellence, based at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, have a candidate in the competition, but the support of their staff and soldiers, along with CIMT planners, were crucial to the success of the event. Staff Sgt. Jeffrey C. Lullen was the representative from the Health Readiness Center of Excellence at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston.
Sgt. 1st Class Kyle Specht, HRCoE's senior drill sergeant and Sgt. 1st Class Gabriel Hulse were the HRCoE's lead planners for the event. They were both honored with an Army Commendation Medal presentation during the ceremony. Six other HRCoE soldiers were also recognized for their significant contributions to the planning and execution of the competition.
Specht, who was recently selected for promotion to master sergeant and was himself a Drill Sergeant of the Year competitor in 2018, discussed how HRCoE was honored to conduct the 50th anniversary of the Drill Sergeant of the Year Competition on behalf of CIMT and TRADOC as the newest CoE within the Combined Arms Center and TRADOC.
"Every drill sergeant competitor gave 100 percent and it was inspiring to see their individual resolve and how each rose to the challenge and represented their respective CoEs and the noncommissioned officer corps as a whole," Specht said. "Command Sgt. Maj. Edward Mitchell and his staff outlined the expected standards of excellence and vison and allowed us, the mission command, to take ownership and host this historic event."
The 2017 Drill Sergeant of the Year, Sgt. 1st Class Chad Hickey and the 2017 Platoon Sergeant of the Year, Staff Sgt. Bryan Ivery, as CIMT representatives, conducted two site visits, multiple initial planning reviews, and were on site over a week prior to the event validating test components. Specht continued, "The success of the event is really a demonstration of what cohesive teams can accomplish with 61 dedicated support noncommissioned officers, CIMT and our staff."
The 2019 Drill Sergeant of the Year competition was rigorous, highly structured and covered a broad base of subject areas at a relentless pace.
The noncommissioned officers were evaluated in marksmanship, unknown distance road marches, individual warrior tasks, collective battle drill tasks, modern Army combatives, written exams, drill and ceremony, leadership, oral boards, and much more for the honor of being recognized as the top drill sergeant in the Army.
The competitors, who truly had to be prepared for anything also took the Army Physical Fitness Test that is the current test of record and the new Army Combat Fitness Test that becomes the Army's physical test of record in October 2020.
Command Sgt. Maj. Edward Mitchell, CIMT Command Sergeant Major, said each event is designed to stress the candidates and push their limits physically and mentally to determine if the drill sergeant's performance, abilities or professionalism become degraded.
Mitchell believes the competition is an extreme example of what all drill sergeants face in their daily tasks of training the Army's newest recruits. He said that though many things in the Army have changed since he was a Drill sergeant from 1995 to 1998, "the Soldierization process has not changed in the last 50 years. Drill sergeants are still tasked with turning ordinary citizens into soldiers."
On the first day of competition, Mitchell described the logic of putting these "soldier makers" to such an extreme test to determine the best of the best.
"The drill sergeant that we select will be the number one drill sergeant in the Army as well as the TRADOC enterprise," Mitchell said. "Sometimes you are going to be tired from what you do as a drill sergeant, but we need that individual to still be able to be in front of soldiers and be able to be professional, no matter the conditions."
He explained how drill sergeants across the Army epitomize that type of endurance and professionalism each day.
Knight's road to victory story makes for a good example.
"I started my quest to become the Drill Sergeant of the Year in 2017 when I was assigned to Fort Leonard Wood,” Knight said. “I made it to the second quarter Maneuver Support Center of Excellence Competition that year and lost."
Hickey, who helped plan this year's competition eventually became the Maneuver Support Center of Excellence, or MSCoE's, winner that year and subsequently the 2017 U.S. Army Drill Sergeant of the Year.
When he was transferred to Fort Jackson last year, Knight was, once again, encouraged to pursue the top drill sergeant prize through a competition at the U.S. Army Drill Sergeant Academy; he won the Fort Jackson competition earlier this year to allow him to compete and win this week.
"I really appreciate moments like that," Knight recalled, speaking of his original loss at the MSCoE. "As drill sergeants we are expected to be subject matter experts so we can tend to think we know everything. Having a humbling experience like competing against other highly qualified people who just out performed you, leaves you two options: better yourself or just accept that someone got the better of you."
The 2019 Drill Sergeant of the Year Competition began with 12 of the most proficient, determined and rugged drill sergeants in the Army representing Basic Combat Training, One-Station Unit Training, and Advanced Individual Training. There was one reservist, the rest were active duty noncommissioned officers. They had all won division level competitions at their home stations to earn the right to compete at the Army level.
Officially, the competition lasts four days with most evaluated events conducted in a field environment at JBSA-Camp Bullis beginning Aug. 19. The last field event was completed by 6 a.m. on day four.
In actuality, tested events began on Aug. 18 with "Day Zero" elements that included height and weight measurements, written tests and an oral board held at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston. Board questions, from seven command sergeants major, led by this year's board president, Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Gragg, U.S. Army Medical Command, were exhaustive on a variety of military and U.S. government related questions.
All of the remaining 10 competitors that outlasted the rigors of the week were honored during the recognition ceremony at Fort Sam Houston mere hours after they completed their last event at JBSA-Camp Bullis: a 12 mile road march.
When Knight was asked how he thought he was able to win over so many other highly qualified candidates, he said it came down to who was able to be more resilient, the most well-rounded, and maybe even who wanted it the most. Knight said he spent any small windows of free time during the competition studying and refreshing his memory on a wide range of subjects.
"Some would take the opportunity to eat, some would take naps or got on their phones,” Knight said. “I just spent a lot of time studying during the downtime to make sure I stayed in the zone; I didn't want to open the door to distractions or self-doubt."
Though the competitors weren't aware of what would be required of them at any given time, he said that many of the notes he studied ended up being on test events so that made him even more energized to put his time to good use.
"I kept the junior soldiers, the trainees, in mind at all times," Knight said.
Soldiers in training are often in situations where they don't exactly know what is going to happen next.
"They don't have the privilege or luxury of just taking a nap or picking up their phone when they want to,” Knight added. “Soldiers are always told to study during any break in training. During downtime a drill sergeant will always tell a trainee, 'pull out your smart book' so I just felt like this was a great opportunity to bring myself back to the basics."
Knight pointed out that this strategy for success is not a technique he invented for this competition, it is in the Drill Sergeant Creed: "I will lead by example, never requiring a soldier to attempt any task I would not do myself."
As the 2019 Drill Sergeant of the Year, Knight will be reassigned to CIMT and TRADOC; he will report to Fort Eustis, Virginia, in 60 days. Knight, a 25 Victor, Combat Documentation Production Specialist, "Combat Camera" by trade is used to telling the Army story through photos.
For 12 months, his tenure as the U.S. Army Drill Sergeant of the Year, he will serve as a sort of ambassador, called upon to be the example of the resilient, professional, and highly proficient drill sergeant that he just proved himself to be.
The 2019 U.S. Army Drill Sergeant of the Year nominees are:
Staff Sgt. Mychael R. Begaye, Army Training Center, Fort Jackson, South Carolina
Staff Sgt. John K. Cauthon, Maneuver Center of Excellence, Fort Benning, Georgia.
Sgt. 1st Class Frank D. Dunbar III, Combined Arms Support Command, Fort Lee, Virginia.
Staff Sgt. Ariel D. Hughes, Army Aviation Center of Excellence (USAACE), Fort Rucker, Alabama.
Staff Sgt. Lillian C. Jones, Cyber Center of Excellence, Fort Gordon, Georgia.
Staff Sgt. Earnest J. Knight II, Drill Sergeant Academy, Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
Staff Sgt. Jeffrey C. Lullen, Health Readiness Center of Excellence, JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, Texas
Staff Sgt. Matthew T. Martinez, Intelligence Center of Excellence, Fort Huachuca, Arizona.
Staff Sgt. Matthew A. Mubarak, Defense Language Institute, Monterey, California.
Staff Sgt. Benhur Rodriguez, Fires Center of Excellence, Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
Sgt. 1st Class Marianne E. Russell, Maneuver Support Center of Excellence, Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
Sgt. Michael B. Yarrington, 108th Training Command, Charlotte, North Carolina.