Rising through an Alaska mountainside, Cpl. Luke Harrison of the Wyoming National Guard hauled his weapon and full warfare kit up the steep trail, a towering climb with more than 1,000 feet of vertical gain in air so thick with humidity it could almost be cut with a knife.
His heart throbbing and chest and face soaked with sweat, Harrison had no choice but to keep pushing if he wanted to be the Army National Guard’s Soldier of the Year.
“I think that’s the hardest I’ve ever pushed in my life — to the absolute limit of my physical ability,” he told Cowboy State Daily.
It was just one of the many challenges Harrison, 23, had to overcome to win the 2023 All-Guard Best Warrior Competition this summer.
What Is It?
The concept behind the competition is to find the most well-rounded National Guard soldier by engaging in a variety of events that test physical, cognitive and mental stamina.
“It’s an opportunity for the National Guard to showcase this is what we want our war fighters to look like,” Harrison said. “These are the standards we have for our war fighters, and this is what we’re trying to achieve.”
Harrison, a radar operator with the 115th Field Artillery Brigade in Cheyenne, had to advance through state and regional competitions just to compete on the national stage in Alaska. Once there, he had to beat out six other competitors in a rigorous six-day gauntlet.
No Letting Up
The competition kicked off with a 2-mile ruck march as soon as the soldiers arrived. “Rucking” is walking a set distance with a weighted backpack.
After, the soldiers were instructed to use a series of knots, which they were then ordered to use by descending down and then back up a cliff. Unbeknownst to the soldiers, they were being graded on their learning capacity and performance.
As soon as that was done, the soldiers lined up and started an uphill run. Without a chance to catch their breath, they were next handed a magazine of ammo and instructed to immediately start shooting.
“All of that was graded on time and accuracy,” Harrison said.
As the long Alaska summer day slowly turned to dusk in the late evening hours, the soldiers were still far finished with the competition.
Next came a navigational challenge requiring another ascent of several thousand feet, a challenge that didn’t conclude until 2 a.m.
It’s not often that a challenge will combine challenges of pure mental and physical fortitude. There were tests for uniform appearance and shooting skill. Harrison also had to swim, drive a tank and properly care for wounded others, staged as mannequins.
When the award ceremony came around, Harrison had no idea if he won or was even a finalist, holding great admiration and respect for his competitors. Filled with anxiety, the weight of the moment he had spent months working toward finally dawned on him. He also finally realized how much it all meant to him.
“I realized I really did care a lot and that I really had given 100% of my effort and really my life,” Harrison said.
A father to two young girls, Harrison said the toughest mental challenge of the competition was being away from his family.
“I really had to focus in and just focus in on what I was doing, and why I was doing what I was doing,” he said.
He trained for the event for months, running miles every day after work and longer distances on weekends.
It was the real combat experience Harrison gained while serving in Syria with Special Forces that he credits for helping him rise to the top. He also attended the Army’s Air Assault and Mountain Warfare schools and has served in the Guard for four years.
Harrison also works for a broadband company outside the Guard.
Harrison said his training in Wyoming also significantly strengthened his mental fortitude.
“Wyoming is a really tough place to live and work if you live and work outdoors,” he said. “It really just gives you a mental edge when things are very difficult.”
Last year, Wyoming Army National Guard Sgt. Tyler Holloway won the Non-Commissioned Officer of the Year branch of the competition, making Harrison’s win the second straight year a Wyoming enlistee has won some level of the national competition.
Harrison said Holloway mentored him and ran a preparation program for the state competition.
A Larger Goal
A Michigan native, Harrison said he joined the National Guard to defend his country and to be challenged on a personally. In many ways, the competition was a manifestation of his original desire to enlist.
It’s a test to “really prove to myself and others what I’m capable of,” he said. “The Best Warrior Competition is exactly that.”
For winning the competition, Harrison will be offered a promotion to sergeant, but he plans to leave the military next summer.
“I really appreciate the opportunities the Guard has provided me, and I think it’s a great opportunity to serve both the country and also within your state,” he said.
Harrison recommends the Best Warrior Competition to anyone in the National Guard who wants a challenge. Those who win receive a great networking opportunity, a chance to represent the National Guard at the All-Army competition and pursue any education path they want within the National Guard.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.