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North Dakota's 'Best Warriors' claim regional titles

Regional "Best Warrior" in the noncommissioned officer category Sgt. Joel Erickson, from the 188th Engineer Company (Vertical), right, shoulders a ruck sack with the help of his competition sponsor Staff Sgt. Jason Lothspeich, of the 817th Engineer Company (Sapper), during the Region VI Best Warrior competition at Camp Gilbert C. Grafton, south, near Devils Lake, N.D., June 7. Photo by Senior Master Sgt. David H. Lipp, 119th Wing

Two of the state's top soldiers forged through an exhausting four-day competition to be named the "Best Warriors" in the region at Camp Grafton Training Center, Devils Lake, N.D., June 5-8.

Sgt. Joel Erickson, of West Fargo, and a member of Detachment 1, 188th Engineer Company (Vertical), based out of Oakes, is the winner of the Region VI Best Warrior Competition in the noncommissioned officer category. In the enlisted-level competition, Spc. Ryan Lindberg, of Fargo, and a member of the 817th Engineer Company (Sapper), based out of Jamestown, took top honors.

The North Dakota National Guard hosted the regional competition this year, which brought together 16 of the top soldiers from eight states including Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington, Wyoming and North Dakota.

Soldiers in the regional competition earned the distinction of representing their states after winning the state-level competitions. The competitions present an array of events designed to test the competitors' competence and performances in Army tasks and evaluations.

"Sgt. Erickson and Spc. Lindberg represent the best of the best in our organization. I am extremely proud of their tenacity and aggressiveness in winning the Region VI Best Warrior competition," said Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, North Dakota adjutant general. "I have the utmost confidence that they will represent our state well and deliver remarkable performances at the All-Guard competition later this summer."

Regional winners go on to compete in the National Guard Bureau's All-Guard Competition. If they are successful there, they move on to the All-Army Competition. This year's All-Guard Competition will be held at the Warrior Training Center, Fort Benning, Ga., in August.

While the regional competition was scheduled to be held in Bismarck, N.D., historic water levels and widespread flooding on the Missouri River forced a change of venue just days before the event kicked off June 5.

"It was a long, stressful competition, not only for the competitors, but for the planners and support staff, as well." said State Command Sgt. Maj. Gerald Miller. "We had a complete change of location. A majority of the program was to happen in Bismarck, but in the face of the flood, we moved to Camp Grafton to use the training grounds and facilities there."

First Sgt. Russell Garrett, of the North Dakota National Guard's Pre-Mobilization Training Assistance Element (PTAE), said he had worked on coordinating the Region VI Best Warrior Competition since October 2010. He said he was impressed with the ingenuity of his staff when asked to make the adjustments for the location change.

"Camp Grafton helped us immensely as well as the PTAE. Everyone provided more than just adequate help," Garrett said. "The competition, once we figured out logistics of transporting the out-of-state Soldiers to the area, went off without a hitch."

Despite the location change, the competitors were thoroughly challenged by the myriad of events presented during the event. Soldiers were tested starting with an early morning Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT). From there, the competitors were quizzed on the Army dress uniform, given a written test on military-related topics and presented themselves to a board of sergeants major to answer an assortment of military knowledge questions.

The competition is physically grueling, as well. Competitors hiked over Camp Grafton's rolling hills during a land navigation course, tested their marksmanships skills, carried a 35-pound rucksack while marching to various military quizzing stations and grappled against other competitors in a Modern Army Combatives tournament.

"The most challenging (event) physically was definitely the combatives. I was in pretty good shape for the ruck march and APFT but the combatives brings it all together and you have to know a lot of stuff for that," Lindberg said.

Modern Army Combatives is derived from Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and affords practitioners in the program the opportunity to progress through four different levels of instruction. To be eligible for the Best Warrior competitions, Soldiers must complete the level-one course, which consists of 40 hours of training in basic ground fighting and culminates in the perfection of 18 different maneuvers.

While the grueling, fast-paced competition occupied the majority of the soldiers' time at Camp Grafton, the Guardsmen did have a chance to establish relationships and build camaraderie during the week.

"I got to know a lot of the other guys, met a lot of good guys here," Lindberg said. "It's really nice that we took the NCO and Soldier categories.

I know Sgt. Erickson pretty well and we can train together for nationals (All-Guard Competition).

"It's a great honor," Erickson said. "Any of these guys could have won it.

Everyone has performed really well in this competition."

Erickson and Lindberg both said that they will spend the remaining time before the All-Guard Competition studying and preparing.

"That's definitely another step up," Erickson said. "We'll be facing the best of the best, so I'm definitely going to put a lot of time into studying, working out and will be ready mentally and physically."

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks on America, the North Dakota National Guard has mobilized more than 3,500 Soldiers and more than 1,800 Airmen in support of the Global War on Terrorism. Currently, about a dozen North Dakota Guardsmen are serving overseas while more than 4,000 remain in the state for emergency response and national defense. For every 10,000 citizens in North Dakota, 65 serve in the North Dakota National Guard, a rate that's more than four times the national average.