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The Maneuver Center of Excellence recognized four of Fort Benning's best June 16, as the MCoE Platoon Sergeant of the Year, Drill Sergeant of the Year, Soldier of the Year and NCO of the Year were all honored during an awards ceremony.
Sgt. 1st Class Travis Jackson, an advanced individual training platoon sergeant with E Company, 1st Battalion, 81st Armor Regiment, 194th Armored Brigade, was named Platoon Sergeant of the Year, while Staff Sgt. Derek Leonhardt of A Company, 5th Squadron, 15th Cavalry Regiment, 194th Armored Brigade, won Drill Sergeant of the Year.
Spc. Seth Biehl of D Company, 3rd Squadron, 16th Cavalry Regiment, 316th Cavalry Brigade, won Soldier of the Year, while Sgt. 1st Class Michael McQuality of the Henry A. Caro Noncommissioned Officer Academy was named the NCO of the Year.
The ceremony was the culmination of a four-day event held June 9-12 that saw 11 competitors tested in areas that included physical fitness, rifle marksmanship, first aid and modern Army combatives. Competitors were also tested on their written communication skills and made an appearance before a board where they were judged on physical appearance, uniform standards and general military knowledge.
MCoE Command Sgt. Maj. Timothy Guden said the event was beneficial for both the Soldiers who participated and the Army as a whole.
"Competition is good," Guden said. "It's good for everybody to be able to continually test themselves against their peers and to be able to assess where they need improvement and what they're really good at. At the installation and brigade level, it's good to measure that success and find out who your best warriors are in all of these categories.
McQuality said the NCO of the Year award was a great cap to a tough year for him.
"It's been a challenging year, and to set aside time to prepare for the NCO of the Year competition was part of that," McQuality said. "When I got here and actually started competing in it, a lot of the events were very stressful. ... But, it felt really good to come out on top in the end. I put my utmost out there, and to get rewarded at the end is kind of nice."
Biehl echoed those sentiments and said his victory was a good ending to a tough training process.
"It's a good culmination of all the training I put in between the squadron- and brigade-level events I competed in prior to getting here," he said.
Leonhardt said he was excited to be named Drill Sergeant of the Year, but said the victory did not come easily.
"The physical demand of this competition was something I've never experienced before," he said. "My body has taken the biggest toll it's ever taken, and I've competed in several competitions. This is the most physically challenging I've ever been through. ... It was one of the most challenging things I've done, but with everything that's challenging, it feels great to win."
Jackson agreed the competition was challenging, but said it was the challenge that helped to spur him on.
"This was a good motivational tool to keep me pushing each and every day," Jackson said. "No matter what the challenge you're facing, just keep tackling it because you can't quit."
Now, the four winners will advance to TRADOC-level competitions in their specific categories later this year.
Some of the winners said their training regiments would remain the same heading into the TRADOC events, while others said the MCoE competition had revealed weaknesses they planned to address.
"I'm definitely going to pick up my ruck and do a lot more rucking and also pick up my manuals and get ready for the board," Biehl said. "I'll keep shooting and working out and just increase my regiment a little bit more since it's the next tier of competition."
"The number one thing I have to do is do some mock boards," McQuality said. "It's been a while since I've been to a board and I definitely need to prepare for that."
Platoon Sergeant of the Year
Winner: Sgt. 1st Class Travis Jackson - E Company, 1st Battalion, 81st Armor Regiment, 194th Armored Brigade
Drill Sergeant of the Year
Winner: Staff Sgt. Derek Leonhardt - A Company, 5th Squadron, 15th Cavalry Regiment, 194th Armored Brigade
Runner-Up: Staff Sgt. Justin Smith - E Company, 1st Battalion, 50th Infantry Regiment, 198th Infantry Brigade
Soldier of the Year
Winner: Spc. Seth Biehl - D Company, 3rd Squadron, 16th Cavalry Regiment, 316th Cavalry Brigade
Runner-Up: Pfc. Everette Ross - F Company, 5th Squadron, 15th Cavalry Regiment, 194th Armored Brigade
NCO of the Year
Winner: Sgt. 1st Class Michael McQuality - NCO Academy
Runner-Up: Sgt. Dennis White - Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade