By Jill Lauterborn
FORT DETRICK, Md. - Five finalists of the 2010 Fort Detrick Non-commissioned Officer and Soldier of the Year challenge sat shoulder to shoulder, watching video highlights of themselves in the thick of competition.
Sure, they could relax and even share a laugh now-at ease. But for two intense days last summer, a group of Fort Detrick senior leaders, known as "the Board," had expected these contenders to shine-demonstrating physical endurance, combat and medic skills, military and technical proficiency, bearing, discipline, and a grasp of domestic and world events, with a few "mystery" challenges thrown in to rock competitors back on their bootheels.
Three days before Christmas, command leaders and troops joined Command Sgt. Major Kevin Stuart and Maj. Gen. James Gilman, commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command at Fort Detrick, to recognize the finalists, all members of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.
Sergeant Esther Collins, a 68K from Sayre, Penn., was named 2010 Non-commissioned Officer of the Year, while Spc. Angela Murphy, a 68S from Hunt, Texas, won 2010 Soldier of the Year.
Joining Collins and Murphy at the recognition ceremony were non-com runners-up Sgt. Martavius Ilion, a 68K from Crenshaw, Miss., and Sgt. Scott Peters, a 68K from Kansas City, Mo., and soldier runner-up Specialist Stephen Mason, a 68K from Oviedo, Fla.
"I give you all the credit in the world for taking that challenge," said Stuart. "We have more confident and competent troops just by virtue of going in front of the boards. You've heard it from me once if not a thousand times: It doesn't matter who has the most points. You all are winners."
All competitors received certificates of achievement, as well as gifts from GEICO, Army & Air Force Exchange Service and the USAMRMC Retention Office. Winners Murphy and Collins received Army Commendation Medals and plaques; three-year memberships to the Association of the U.S. Army; gifts from GEICO, AAFES, the USAMRMC Retention Office and the Thrift Shop; gift cards from Col. David Williams and to AAFES from Morale, Welfare and Recreation programs; and a coin and gift card from the Audie Murphy Club.
Collins stresses the greater takeaways.
"I tell all my soldiers two things: First, 'Be informed, be knowledgeable. You can use that knowledge to propel and protect yourself and your fellow soldiers.'”
“Second, 'Do not be intimated. Respect the board members for the rank they hold and accomplishments they have achieved, but at the end of the day, they too are just human.'"
Among those "humans" on the Board was Command Sgt. Major James Shaheen, U.S. Army Garrison Command Sgt. Major, who admired the competitors' spirit.
"We're proud of all of them for setting themselves apart from their peers by stepping forward. You can't be in that leadership position forever, and it's a great feeling to know that you're preparing them to take your place someday."
The lessons are not lost on Murphy. "I decided around October 2009 that I wanted to win soldier of the year and began preparing myself." But she is quick to credit others for their support.
"Several NCOs mentored me, helped me with military knowledge and sometimes just helped me keep my head on straight. Winning these competitions is never an individual accomplishment."
Participation in the competition is voluntary, and the senior leaders and finalists alike encouraged others to step forward.
"Maj. Gen. Gilman said during the ceremony that he wished more people would go to boards," recalls Murphy.
"He felt the reason many soldiers don't go is because of the fear of losing. I know exactly what that fear feels like, and I hope that when I become an NCO, I can encourage [soldiers] to know that losing isn't failure but a stepping stone."
Do the winners have any advice for those considering next year's competition, suggestions for how to tackle the hours of required drilling and studying?
"The biggest personal sacrifice I had to make during these competitions was time with my little girl," says Collins.
"I try to teach her my purpose as a soldier, a leader and a mother and let her know that I love her, and she is a priority, but that I also have to care for our country, my mission, and I have to take care of my troops."
"You just have to go," says Murphy, "even if it's just for the experience. Study hard, knock really loud and walk into the room like you own it."