2 soldiers from Polk unit in competition for top Army soldier title …
Staff Sgt. Richard Caton, 34, of Lakeland and Spc. Manuel Vallejo, 28, of Winter Haven will be in Kentucky next week for the regional competition.
Eric Pera @ciapastryboy
LAKELAND Who will be the Army National Guard s top soldier for 2017? The jury s still out, but Florida is fielding only two competitors out of approximately 10,000 guardsmen. And both are from Polk County:
Staff Sgt. Richard Caton, 34, of Lakeland and Spc. Manuel Vallejo, 28, of Winter Haven. The two beat out eight other Florida competitors March 14 for the opportunity to advance to next week s Region 3 competition at Wendell H. Ford Training Center in Greenville, Ky. The top two finishers then will advance to a national level competition in Minnesota.
From there, it s on to the All Army level competition that brings together National Guard, active Army and Army Reserves competitors from 10 commands across the planet. For now, Caton and Vallejo aren t really thinking much beyond Sunday in Kentucky, the first day of a grueling four-day contest against competitors from nine other states and Puerto Rico.
It encompasses quite a few activities, said Caton, a full-time member of the Active Guard Reserve, 2nd Batallion, 116 Field Artillery Regiment. He represents the non-commissioned officers in the warrior competition.
Our state (competition) was just as robust as this one (in Kentucky), he said. It was intense. We constantly train all the time, but at this level they re seeing who can do it the fastest negotiating the obstacle course, the combat water survival test. This is Caton s first time competing. The married father of four stands 6 feet tall and weighs in at approximately 190 pounds, down from a normal weight of 200 as a result of his recent training.
Vallejo, on the other hand, made it to the same regional contest last year. To get ready for this year s series of competitions, he s taken leave of absence from his full-time job as a security guard at Walt Disney World. Also married and the father of three, Vallejo is active part-time in the National Guard, and represents the enlisted soldiers in the warrior events. He is attached to the same unit as Caton. Advancing through the various levels of Best Warrior Soldier events does foster a certain amount of pride, Vallejo said, but it also opens doors. The skills and grit he displayed in last year s competition led to an invitation to enter Army Ranger School, one of the military s most demanding programs and serves as entre into the Army s elite 75th Ranger Regiment.
This has been my dream since high school, said Vallejo, a native of Michigan who begins Ranger training in August. I always wanted to have that (Ranger) tab.
During next week s competition, Caton and Vallejo will be put through a series of events designed to test their prowess in survival skills, physical fitness, marksmanship under duress, land navigation and endurance, among other skills. Swimming 25 meters (27 yards) sounds easy, Caton said, but you re carrying your weapon and all of your equipment. Another challenge is traversing a 12-mile course while carrying a backpack weighing 35 pounds, he said.
To be competitive you run most of it,” he said. “Typically, (competitors) do it in 2 to 2 hours.
A.J. Artley, public affairs specialist for the Florida National Guard, said competing for top soldier bragging rights requires dedication, a high level of skill and lots of time.
And it s a lot of their own time, he said, especially for those like Vallejo who have civilian jobs.
Of course, a certain amount of bragging goes with earning the top prize, Artley said.
They can say, I m the best soldier that there is.
Eric Pera can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7528.