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Army Names Soldier, NCO of the Year

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U.S. Army
Tuesday, October 13, 2020

A soldier representing Army Futures Command and an NCO from Army Special Operations Command have been named the winners of the 19th annual Best Warrior Competition.

The 2020 Soldier of the Year is Sgt. James Akinola, a combat medic assigned to Fort Jackson, South Carolina. The Noncommissioned Officer of the Year is Sgt. 1st Class Alexander Berger, who is assigned to 2nd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group at Fort Carson, Colorado.

Their names were announced Oct. 13 by Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston during AUSA Now, the Association of the U.S. Army’s virtual annual meeting.

This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Army’s top soldiers and NCOs competed in the Best Warrior Competition from Sept. 17 through Oct. 9 at locations across the world.

Competitors—11 soldiers and 11 NCOs representing 11 commands across the Army—proved themselves during competitions throughout the year to earn their spot in the Army-level event. 

The 2020 competition is unlike any of its predecessors, said Grinston, who oversees the competition. “We've undergone unprecedented steps to ensure the safety of our soldiers while still creating a positive environment to encourage competition and recognize the best," Grinston said, according to the Best Warrior Competition website.

In September, the soldiers completed an Army Combat Fitness Test, a 12-mile foot march and a rifle qualification with their units. In October, they completed hands-on warrior tasks and a written exam and essay and conducted board interviews with sergeants major from across the Army.

Honorary SMA

Grinston also named retired Gen. Carl Vuono as the sixth Honorary Sergeant Major of the Army.

“Gen. Vuono empowered noncommissioned officers to take action,” Grinston said. “In his words, the way the NCO corps goes, so goes the Army.”

Vuono, a former Army chief of staff who also is a member of AUSA’s board of directors, is a 1957 West Point graduate who served in howitzer units across the U.S. and in Korea and Europe. He also served multiple tours in Vietnam, including with the 1st Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division.

He commanded the 8th Infantry Division in Europe, led the Army Combined Arms Center, served as the deputy Army chief of staff for operations, and commanded Army Training and Doctrine Command.

He was Army chief of staff from June 1987 to June 1991 and is credited with leading the Army through a period of great challenge and change, including the end of the Cold War, Army operations in Panama and operations to free Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, according to his Army bio.

Vuono said he is “deeply honored and grateful” to be named the honorary sergeant major of the Army. “For me to be counted in your number is one of the more moving and rewarding accolades I could hope to achieve,” he said. “You have always been, and you remain today, the very backbone of our Army.”

NCOs are “experts in the art of war, you’re responsible for the health and wellbeing of every soldier entrusted to your leadership, and you must ensure they are ever and always treated with dignity and respect,” Vuono said. “You truly are, in my view, the heart and soul of a trained and ready Army.”

The tradition of appointing an honorary sergeant major of the Army each year began in 2016 when retired Gen. Gordon Sullivan, AUSA’s former president and CEO, received the honor. 

Other honorees include legendary Army Ranger retired Lt. Gen. David Grange Jr., former Army vice chief of staff, retired Gen. Fredrick Kroesen, Elaine Rogers, CEO of USO-Metro, and retired Command Sgt. Maj. Kenneth “Rock” Merritt, a World War II veteran of D-Day, Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge.