They came to the Mississippi National Guard’s 2017 Best Warrior Competition to challenge themselves, and in the process changed the perception some Soldiers have of Airmen on the battlefield.
Master Sgt. Mitch Kaiser, a munitions accountable officer who also works in finance, and Senior Airman Andrew Sclafani, who works in cyber transport and cybersecurity, left their desks at the Battlefield Airman Center to become the first Mississippi Air National Guardsmen to compete in a competition that determines the state’s top combat warfighters.
From the start, they were greeted enthusiastically, but with reservations. Despite his penchant for endurance events like marathons and triathlons, biking and swimming, Kaiser said the doubts were not limited to the Soldiers.
“To be honest, when I first got here I thought I would be last,” Kaiser said. “I haven’t done anything like this since basic training, but I’ve done pretty well in some of the events. I’ll be happy if I can impress these guys that the Air Force guys can hang with them in some of these events - earn their respect.”
Pfc. Debra Pope, a competitor representing the Camp Shelby Joint Forces Training Center, said that was a mission accomplished.
“They broke the stereotype,” she said. “They did very well.”
The Airmen said there was a strong sense of camaraderie prevalent throughout the competition. Soldiers often helped them prepare for events and talked them through some of the more Army-specific types of training.
The competition is a grueling series of events set over three days designed to test every physical and mental facet of a Soldier.
The first day began with an early morning physical fitness test immediately followed by a 5K run. Other events of the day tested their knowledge of land navigation, call for artillery fire or close air support, timed weapons disassembly and reassembly from across the entire infantry platform, and other advanced warrior tasks.
The second day began with a 12-mile ruck march to the weapons range for M4 rifle qualifications and a stress shoot. The stress shoot is a timed event composed of several warrior tasks strung together, such as machinegun fire, first aid, movement under fire, M4 and M9 pistol obstacle firing and others. A night land navigation course took them late into the dark hours.
The last day established their physical and mental toughness and readiness. After completing a lengthy confidence course, the competitors had to complete an exam and essay before standing in front of a sergeants major board testing their general Army knowledge.
“The ruck was the hardest,” Sclafani said. “It’s something I’ve never done before. It was about five miles more than I’ve ever walked at one time before. Now I expect more from myself. I’m more confident. I’ve learned ‘I can’t’ usually means ‘I can’.”
Command Chief Master Sgt. Robbie Knight, state command chief of the Mississippi Air National Guard, said to expect to win the competition the first year is “perhaps shooting for the moon,” but was excited about the showing of his Airmen.
“I think sometimes you look at an Airman and you think they’re maybe a little bit on the weaker side of our Soldiers,” Knight said. “We do train (physically) hard too, but probably not to the extent that (Soldiers) do on a daily basis. It’s good to have our Airmen and our Soldiers working together because we have the same ultimate goal and that’s taking care of our nation’s defense.”
Neither Airman was selected to represent the state at the Southeast Regionals for the chance to attend Nationals this year, but Kaiser and Sclafani said they would be more prepared next year.
“Now I know what to expect and I’ve got the fire,” Kaiser said.