Oct. 31—Every year, troops from around the world compete against one another in the Army's "Best Warrior" competition — a battery of mental and physical challenges that is something like a martial cross between "Jeopardy!" and "American Ninja Warrior." But with considerably more sleep deprivation and live ammunition.
Of the hundreds who enter, two victors emerge: a best soldier, and a best non-commissioned officer. It's a prestigious distinction in the Army, bringing a promotion, and a year's worth of commitments as a representative for the military.
The Army's best NCO is 30-year-old Staff Sgt. Adam Krauland, stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson near Anchorage. He works as a cryptologic linguist specializing in Mandarin, an intelligence role deciphering foreign communications in the field.
"It's a long process. We've all been working in our free time really hard to study, to practice shooting, to physically exercise," Krauland said during an interview at a coffee shop on base.
Spc. Justin Earnhart, who is based in Texas, won the Best Soldier award.
The competition is extracurricular, something Krauland grew interested in two years ago and pursued largely outside of his day-to-day duties. He advanced through parochial competitions and ultimately found himself up against 11 other top-performing NCO's during the three-day long field exercises at Kentucky's Fort Knox earlier this month. There were physical fitness tests, trivia on military history and protocols, firearms drills, and a "soldier skills" component.
"We conducted various tasks and missions, as if we were in the field," Krauland said.
Throughout, the competitors had to deal with unexpected curveballs that tested their abilities to think quickly.
"All of the sudden tear-gas would come flying out," he said.
The challenges were compounded by very little sleep, just a few hours a night.
"I wanted to lean into that sort of extreme"
Krauland's path into the military was unconventional. Reared in Grand Junction, Colorado, by generally progressive parents, the Armed Forces was never discussed as an option. He graduated with an economics degree from a liberal arts school in the Pacific Northwest, "which is decidedly not a military school," he said.
Afterwards, he chased rocks.
An avid mountain climber, Krauland first moved to Salt Lake City, and then to Chattanooga, Tennessee, specifically for access to its world-class climbing opportunities among its abundant sandstone crags.
"I moved there for climbing and actually worked at Whole Foods for like seven months," Krauland said. "I was like, 'I just gotta pay the bills.'"
Eventually he traded in the life of an itinerate rock bum for the stability of a corporate job at Volkswagon as a data analyst. It was stable, well paid and sufficiently interesting work. But it was not fulfilling.
"It was just fundamentally unsatisfying," Kraruland said. "I'd done that for three years. I was going to work nine to five every day, going to the same office, seeing the same screen, printing out the same reports, you know, and I just felt like my life wasn't going anywhere."
He described it as his quarter-life crisis.
"I feel like if we get one shot on this earth, I don't want to spend it in the same room for 20 years," Krauland said.
To his parent's surprise, he enlisted in the Army, in large part for the control it afforded him to pick the job specialty he wanted. He studied Mandarin at the Defense Department's elite language school. He trained to jump out of planes. He resisted the gravitational pull toward a career as an officer that might put him back permanently inside of an office.
"I wanted to fundamentally change my life," Krauland said.
That was part of his reason for aiming to end up stationed in Alaska.
"I wanted to lean into that sort of extreme," he said. "I think being in Alaska develops tougher, more resilient soldiers."
"I still haven't honestly figured it out"
After days of field competition, the Best Warriors got to rest and clean up a bit. Then, they flew to Washington, D.C. for interviews with a panel of the Army's most senior enlisted service members.
"They asked me questions. Some of them are knowledge based, but most of them are situational," Krauland said.
Up to that point in the competition, he'd performed well enough, but not spectacularly. The judging and scoring rubrics were largely a mystery, and he wasn't sure how he stacked up against his impressive co-competitors, many of whom had far more intimidating military specialties than his own. There was an artillerist whose skills are presently being applied to cyber warfare. His roommate was an elite sniper. A long shadow was cast by a special forces operator.
"We all thought he was gonna take it for sure," Krauland said.
But the competition pulls from all of the Army's diverse, sometimes unexpected ranks.
"There was a dude from the Army Band," Krauland said. "There was a tuba player in the competition."
The range reflected the diversity he has come to appreciate in the military, a microcosm of the Army over all, where snipers, cryptologic linguists, and tuba players all find themselves engaged in common cause.
"I think we all have these weird, like, macho masculine ideas of what soldiers are. And what I'd say is that I have been disproven of that notion time and time again. Which is really, honestly, comforting," Krauland said.
"As I go through the Army, and I meet people from different jobs, I'm always blown away at just the level of diversity, and just backgrounds people come from and how down to earth carrying everyone is," he said.
In his interview with the senior leaders, Krauland said he spoke a lot about his philosophies on leadership and empowering the troops under his command.
"I think I had a really good conversation," he said, "and really was human with them, rather than just regurgitating the book."
Almost any one of the dozen NCO's competing in the tournament could have won, Krauland thought. There was no obvious favorite going into the announcing of the results.
Krauland thought he'd perhaps done well enough for a top-five finish. The winners were announced starting in sixth-place, then working upwards.
"When they called second, I was like, 'damn, I guess you didn't get it this time'," he said.
But he was wrong. He won.
"I still haven't honestly figured it out," Krauland said.
The victory came with a rank promotion to staff sergeant, and a higher profile in the Army as various sectors of the military use Krauland as a representative to promote their interests.
After the awards, he went out for a nice dinner with his sister, who lives in D.C., then met up with his fellow NCO's for celebratory carousing.
"We we really bonded out there," Krauland said. "It didn't feel competitive at all, which really blew my mind."