By Carley Dangona
WESTFIELD – For the second year, the 104th Fighter Wing from Barnes Air National Guard Base sent airmen to compete in the Best Warrior Competition presented by the Army.
This year, Tech. Sgt. Val Johnson, 52, a West Springfield resident, competed in the competition against a majority of participants in their 20s.
To qualify for the Army’s Best Warrior Competition that took place at the beginning of April, Johnson had to first compete in the Best Warrior Airman Competition, which took place on March 1. Both competitions took place at Joint Base Cape Cod.
“The competitions were a showcase of how I’ve been molded,” Johnson said. “I’m blessed to be here in the Air Force. I’m so appreciative of the chiefs, the majors and the colonels for having this competition.”
He continued, “It was a fantastic competition. There were very few competitors younger than 27. I was outside my realm of duties, but was encouraged at all times. It was an opportunity to come alongside young airman and soldiers to encourage them to push harder, push farther and get sharper.”
Johnson laughingly noted that he was referred to as “the old guy” and “Geritol” by some of the competitors.
Johnson trains members of the 104th in aircrew flight equipment safety as well as combat and water survival. “I’m well versed in chemical warfare,” he said.
Command Chief Master Sgt. Maryanne Walts attended the Best Warrior Airman Competition in support of the competing soldiers and described its tasks.
She said it consisted of a timed ruck march where soldiers don full combat gear complete with a backpack filled with 30 pounds of sand while running a six-mile course; a map and compass land navigation test; a fitness test that consists of sit-ups, pushups and a two-mile run; a written test that questions soldiers about various topics from the rules and regulations of the command to current events relative to their operations; and a shooting competency test.
“It was very cold and windy at joint base. The climate wasn’t the best for them, but they trucked on,” Walts said. “He [Johnson] was a huge inspiration because most of the people he was competing against were half his age.”
Johnson credited the Airman competition for getting “a lot of my jitters out.”
He explained that during the final Army competition, the ruck march was 12 miles long and he wore a backpack filled with items from a competition packing list. The pack weighed more than 50 pounds.
Maj. Steve Reynolds, who oversaw the Barnes’ security forces squadron and its training, said, “Every skill that an infantry soldier would need in combat are the things you practice for this. You really have to be a well-rounded troop [because] it all goes hand in hand. You really can’t concentrate on one task.”
Reynolds continued, “This competition is built more for the younger troop, the 20-, 21-, 22-year-old. Val being in his 50s and not Army, but Air Force and not [working for] Security Forces but an operations group where he’s less likely to use this skill set – for him to compete at that level and do that well says a lot for him.”
He described Johnson as “dedicated” and “all about positive mental attitude.”
Johnson said his physical preparation included aerobics, pushups, sit-ups and runs with a 45-pound weight in his backpack.
“It was awesome in the pain that it dealt out, in the information that it required me to pull out to answer questions. There’s nothing that can describe how it felt [to accomplish the tasks required of me]. Anyone who competes knows the feeling,” he said of the overall experience.
Johnson said of the second competition, “Being drawn into the Army culture enable us to have more training. The experience broadened our knowledge.”
Johnson said, “I felt so empowered because they lifted me up.” He credited his fellow competing soldiers and numerous members of the 104th Fighter Wing with guiding his training preparation.
“I was like Swiss cheese. The Air Force competition showed me all my holes,” Johnson commented.
He cited the time and guidance of his peers and commanding officers for his success in the Army competition. “I know that I limit myself. I stop myself because I think I can’t do it. I’m my biggest obstacle,” he said.
Both Walts and Reynolds agreed the 104th would compete in next year’s competitions.
“We’ll definitely do it again,” Walts commented.
“We’ll have a lot more competitors,” Reynolds predicted.