“Last year's competition was good — this year's competition was great,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Jeremiah Inman, Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk command sergeant major, during his remarks at the 2017 Fort Polk Soldier and NCO of the Year luncheon, held at the Warrior Community Center June 27.

Editor’s note: Kathy Ports, Bayne-Jones Army Community Hospital public affairs officer, contributed to this article.

“Last year’s competition was good — this year’s competition was great,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Jeremiah Inman, Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk command sergeant major, during his remarks at the 2017 Fort Polk Soldier and NCO of the Year luncheon, held at the Warrior Community Center June 27.

Inman said that out of 1,250 points possible, there were less than 50 points between the winners and runners up. He asked the chains of command to continue working with these Soldiers so they can go on to represent the installation at the next level of the competition — Forces Command.

This will be the case for NCO of the Year Cpl. Steven Huffstutter, 687th Construction Company, 46th Engineer Battalion, and he plans to train hard for the August event.

“It feels good to win, but it’s not over yet — there’s still FORSCOM ahead,” he said. “Hard work pays off, and it’s good that this shines a light on the engineers. While I was training for this I was away from my Soldiers, and now that I’ve had this experience I can share it with them and show them that it can be done, and all the work was worth it.”

Huffstutter competed last year as well, so he knew what he was in for this time around. “Last year gave me a feel for what to prepare for, and it feels good to come back this year and win it,” he said.

The most challenging facet of the competition for Huffstutter was the board, where candidates are dressed in their blues and asked questions about myriad military topics, from survival and weapons training to regulations and Army programs. “It was like taking an exam that you didn’t study for,” he said. “But you just keep your composure and do your best.”

Capt. Joe Barnhill is Huffstutter’s company commander at the 687th. He said it was an outstanding achievement for this corporal to compete and win against others who have been NCOs longer. “He proves himself every day at the company with his work ethic and willingness to learn,” he said. “Winning against sergeants and staff sergeants is impressive and speaks volumes about him. He is a great junior NCO and a model for his peers to emulate.”

NCO of the Year runner-up Sgt. Maiwand Arends, 3rd Battalion, 353rd Infantry Regiment, Operations Group, said the competition was a great experience.

“It was a big accomplishment for me after spending three years in the Army. I definitely will try again next year,” he said. For others who may also be considering next year’s competition, Arends said to go for it. “There is nothing that is impossible. It’s all about motivation, getting it into your head that you want to go out there to experience something challenging and new, and you set a good example for others to follow. That’s what a leader does — lead the way!”

FORSCOM level is not part of the plan for Fort Polk Soldier of the Year Spc. Garret Hayes, U.S. Army Medical Activity. That’s because USAMEDDAC falls under Medical Command rather than FORSCOM, so Hayes has to take an alternate route to the top.

“I’m not allowed to compete at FORSCOM, so my next competition will be the Expert Field Medical Badge,” he said. “I still get to represent my unit, though.”

Hayes said he enjoyed the competition, especially the weapons portion.

“Being in a hospital, we don’t get to mess with that very often, and the last time I touched an M240 was in basic training,” he said, adding that this gap in his experience also made it the most challenging part of the competition. “I had some buddies that helped me out with re-learning the weapons systems and how to take them apart, and it was interesting to be able to do that again.”

MEDDAC Company Commander Capt. Cameron Player said he wasn’t surprised to learn that Hayes won Soldier of the Year. “He is an exceptional Soldier,” he said. “Since he arrived at the unit as a private first class, he has worked hard, earned his air assault badge, he’s been stellar at PT, and has gone above and beyond to prove himself. I am very proud of him and expect nothing but great things out of him. He’s a tremendous Soldier.”

One of the perks of being a runner-up is that they can represent in place of the winner should they be unable to fulfill their duties: This is the case for Soldier of the Year runner up Pfc. Hannah Johnson, 258th Military Police Company, 519th Military Police Battalion. Because Hayes is ineligible to compete at FORSCOM, Johnson gets the shot. She credits her success with her ability to embrace a challenge, and said the more difficult a task is, the more she likes it. “I learned that I can push through something no matter what, and I like that things are not always easy. I like that challenge.” The most difficult part of the event for Johnson was the obstacle course, but she said that merely motivates her to train harder. “It was something I struggled with and I plan to progress on it because I am going to FORSCOM.”

Huffstutter and Hayes were formally recognized at the luncheon and presented with several prizes for their achievement, including gift cards, coolers, bicycles and a new dress uniform.