As they fought to keep water out of their mouths without losing their weapons during water combat survival, Sgt. Mondeka Douei and Pfc. Austin Clayton had to fight off anxiety and focus on breathing.
Water combat survival along with treating casualties, combatives, day and night land navigation, physical fitness, marksmanship and a mystery ruck-march that ended 12 miles later were among challenges that tested 11 Soldiers vying for Blanchfield Army Community Hospital’s Soldier and noncommissioned officer of the year this month.
Douei and Clayton are used to dealing with Soldiers in crisis and their training in behavioral health served them well as they battled through the four-day test.
“It came down to the last event to decide the winner,” said Command Sgt. Major Daniel Santiago, BACH’s senior enlisted adviser. “We are proud of everything our competitors did during this competition. They pushed themselves to the limit and did not quit. They are all winners for that.”
Douei and Clayton were named BACH’s NCO and Soldier of the Year respectively.
Both said the long days, relentless pace and struggles they endured were worth not only winning the titles, but will make them better Soldiers and better people.
Sink or swim
“For me, the hardest thing was swimming. Every single competition I could not pass the water survival test, because you have your whole uniform and your whole kit and you have a weapon and have to swim a long distance,” Douei said. “I was failing it all the time. I only passed it this time and it made me realize no matter how hard things get, repetition is the best teacher. As long as you don’t give up, you will be able to accomplish the task that seems impossible.”
Douei, who is embedded at 101st Combat Aviation Brigade’s behavioral health clinic, competed for Soldier of the Year as a private first class in January 2019, but didn’t win. That made him try harder for this year’s competition after being named Soldier of the Month and Soldier of the Quarter.
He was promoted to specialist early in 2019, and quickly found the promotion points he accumulated put him in the secondary zone for promotion to sergeant. After completing the basic leader course, Douei was promoted to sergeant on Dec. 1, which made him eligible to compete for BACH’s NCO of the Year. That left an opening for Clayton, who joined the Army in 2018 and won BACH’s Soldier of the Month in June – his first month at Fort Campbell.
“I was only here two weeks when I went to my first monthly board and won that,” said Clayton, who is embedded at 3rd Brigade Combat Team’s behavioral health clinic.
He also struggled with water combat survival, and did not pass it the first time he competed at the monthly level, but didn’t give up. That experience helped Clayton excel during the competition for Soldier of the Year.
“It’s a lot harder to swim in uniform than you think,” he said. “I drank a lot of water that first time … But I went in knowing what to expect now and to stay calm.”
By controlling his breathing, Clayton was able to focus on finishing the challenge. He said the competition also taught him about endurance, time management and handling stress.
Men with missions
The competition, administered and scored by hospital NCOs, incorporated warrior tasks and battle drills. Competitors also were tested on medical skills required of Soldiers in medical military occupational specialties, as well as their composure, military bearing, leadership skills and were required to take a written exam, an essay and an oral board.
“It not only makes you a better Soldier, because of these hard tasks we get,” Douei said. “It will also make you a better human being, because every time you come into hard things in your life, as long as you don’t give up and keep going, eventually you will have a day where you see the reason of all that pain.”
One of the challenges tested competitors’ ability to lead a team as they patrolled a mock village and encountered simulations of improvised explosive devices, direct fire and casualties. They had to provide life saving medical aid, call in tactical combat casualty care, treat immediate wounds and accompany the notionally injured onto a helicopter.
The scenarios simulate what Soldiers may experience in combat.
“They went out there, they trained hard, they were pushed and they were stressed,” said Col. Patrick T. Birchfield, BACH commander. “It really challenged them. They ate it up and they were hungry for more.”
Douei said this year’s contest was more difficult than the one he lost last year.
“It was four days and all of the four days felt like that one day we had to go through last year,” he said. “It was four times as physically demanding and it was back-to-back. I thought it was painful last year but this year, we did [almost] everything you can possibly do in the Army.”
Douei, a West Africa native, moved to the United States in 2014 to pursue his education in business before joining the Army two years ago. He earned his citizenship while serving in the Army and said he loves his job. Douei draws inspiration from his parents, who traveled to the United States to attend the ceremony when he was named BACH Soldier of the Quarter.
“They came all the way from Africa and just seeing the pride on their faces, and they knew I had to go to Soldier of the Year, so that was my personal motivation,” Douei said. “I really wanted to win it because I wanted to make that call and tell them I did win it to create that same happiness on their face. That’s what pushed me to keep going and keep moving, because if I won, my parents would be proud.”
Although his parents called his cellphone numerous times during the competition, he couldn’t answer their calls until it was over.
“So, I made that call and they were very proud,” Douei said. “I created the feeling I wanted to create.”
Clayton said his goal is to stand out and follow in Douei’s footsteps – when they’re not competing against each other. He hopes to get promoted quickly, like Douei, and the attention and points he gets from competitions like this may help.
“I’d like to be in his place as a sergeant,” Clayton said. “That’s one of my goals, is to become an NCO. I love the Army.”
Clayton plans to spend his career in the Army and Douei wants to own his own business someday.
“I’d like to stay in medical, but at the same time, I do have this drive where I want to go downrange and deploy,” Clayton said. “We do get the chance if we are in a unit that can deploy.”
More immediate goals are training for the regional competition in April. Both hope to win the Regional Health Command-Atlantic Best Warrior Competition later this year, in which Douei and Clayton will represent BACH.
Ready … set
Clayton has his Air Assault badge and hopes to attend airborne school and any other classes he can to prepare him for more competitions.
The schools, training and experience all work to make him a better Soldier, he said, and be prepared for whatever he must face.
Whether the exercises include a stress shoot, keeping his composure while senior staff interrogate him, or not knowing how long the final march will be, the competition requires Clayton to keep his cool and press on.
“It was definitely stressful,” he said. “It’s just about working on yourself mentally. You have to find that calm state in your head and think, ‘it’s not that bad, just get through it, take a breath and realize what you’re doing. Calm down and do it.’ If you’re running all over the place, it’s definitely harder.”
Although the Soldiers in the competition expected the ruck march on the last day, to their surprise they were dropped off in a hilly area and told only to keep going until they saw the finish line.
“It was only 12 miles but at the same time we weren’t aware it was 12 miles,” Clayton said. “We were dropped off at an unknown location. You are hoping the finish line is over the next hill – and there was a lot of them.”
Douei said the experience can make a difference if they ever find themselves having to deal with one of the scenarios from the competition.
“These are scenarios that happen in Soldiers’ everyday life,’ he said. “So being able to simulate these kind of things gets you ready, in case you go into combat. If you experience that, at least you’ve already been in this kind of simulation and you know how to act under pressure because they put emphasis on us doing these things. It’s nothing new.”