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At Ease: Arkansas SGT Ryan Montgomery

One of the winners of last year's National Guard Best Warrior Competition reflects on his standout year
Motivated by the thousands of Guard comrades he was representing, SGT Ryan Montgomery pushed through self-doubt as well as mental and physical exhaustion. Photo by SSG Darron Salzer
Motivated by the thousands of Guard comrades he was representing, SGT Ryan Montgomery pushed through self-doubt as well as mental and physical exhaustion. Photo by SSG Darron Salzer

It was an exhilarating 2014 for Arkansas Sergeant Ryan Montgomery, 23, who finished second in the Army-wide Best Warrior Competition after earlier placing first among enlisted Soldiers in the Guard’s version of the demanding fitness and skills contest. Montgomery, who’s with the 2nd Battalion, 153rd Infantry Regiment, 39th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, and is now serving at the Warrior Training Center in Fort Benning, GA, talks about what it takes to win, and what’s next for him. 


After you found out you finished second in the Army-wide Best Warrior, how did you react? 

Honestly, I was disappointed because I got so close and fell just short of it. But I understood what winning second place meant for not only myself but for the National Guard. There was intense pride for doing what I did. 


In such a grueling event, what is more difficult—the mental grind or the physical challenges?

I would say the mental, but not what most people think of when you say mental. I think mental as in your mental resilience to keep going. The competition drains you on so many different aspects that just finding it in yourself to keep pushing as hard as you can, three days straight, really takes a mental resilience that a lot of people don’t have.


Was there a defining moment for you?

Winning the National Guard competition. When Command Sergeant Major [Brunk] Conley opened the envelope and called my name, I know there was a lot of noise directly following it because I’ve seen the video, but I didn’t hear any of it. I was in shock and felt like I had truly accomplished something. At that moment, [I felt] that all the work I had put in had actually paid off. There was elation, pride, happiness and then relief that I had done what I set out to do. 


Was there any moment in this competition where you thought, “What am I doing here?”

I’m human. I have doubts. In the final competition, during one of the events, I cramped up pretty badly. I had to take a few minutes to sit down. As I was putting my gear back on, [I could see] a bunch of privates who were there to provide support for us. I was doing my best not to look at them because had they seen me, they would have seen there were tears streaming down my face. I was disappointed in myself and the fact I was letting people down. But as soon as I thought that, I realized I had 350,000 National Guard men and women backing me. It instantly pushes you forward to strive even harder. I immediately put it behind me because there was no point lingering over that doubt. 


Arkansas has had a winner in the Guard’s Best Warrior three straight years. What’s the secret? 

Our leadership takes it seriously in the state. They understand this competition is more than just a friendly competition. They care about how Arkansas does. So they’re willing to make sure we get the necessary training to be successful. 


What does your finish say about the Guard and its commitment to training?

The Guard is more than capable of competing head-to-head with our Active Duty brothers. We have proven we are just as good as they are, and in some cases, we’re better than them. 


Does the title, Soldier of the Year, boggle your mind a bit considering we’re talking about the entire National Guard?

A little bit, yeah. When it comes to this competition, I did what I did because it was the right thing to do. But [chuckling] it definitely makes you sit back and think for a second, “Wow, that’s a huge deal.”  


What’s your advice for next year’s competitors?

Don’t quit. It’s worth all the struggles and all the heartache and the constant hours of training and studying. It’s all worth it in the end.


Your mid- to long-term military goal is to join Special Forces. Why? 

In my mind, it’s the ultimate test that I can push myself through in the Army. Not only that, but the Special Forces mission would put me at the very tip of the sword for the U.S. Army. I would love to experience that. 


So where are you with your college education?

I’m still working toward a degree. I have about 90 hours of college credit right now and I’m trying to see, while I’m down here in Georgia, if I can go ahead and finish up that last 30 hours and start working toward my master’s degree. 


What are you studying? What’s your degree?

I’m actually a history major. I would like to finish my bachelor’s and get my master’s so that when I’m done with the Army, whenever that is, however many years down the road, I can go be a college professor as my, I guess, retirement job.


Speaking of history, I know you like to read novels and historical novels. Is there a historical figure you really look up to, really admire as both a reader of history and a history major?

Historically, to be honest, generally my first go-to is Alexander the Great. Even from a very young age, he commanded troops, he led troops, and he always led by example. I enjoy his personality as a commander. For someone so young, he conquered the majority of the known world at the time. And the things he did and the way he went about it, it’s inspiring especially for someone my age to say, “Hey by the age of 30, this man had conquered the known world. What have you done with your life to this point?” It’s definitely good motivation.


How did you develop a fondness for cooking? Do you have a specialty?

Growing up, my dad always spent a lot of time cooking homemade meals. And my mother as well. And I loved [the meals] so much. I used to watch them and try to pick the things they would do. And that’s developed over the years. Obviously, [there is] trial and error and always a call home to mom or dad, “How did you make this again? What was the recipe?” If I had to choose a specialty, it would be Japanese hibachi-style cooked foods. I have a fondness for Japanese cuisine and a little bit of their culture as well. And I definitely like to bring that home and cook it as much as possible. 


Do you cook for your fellow Soldiers?

I guess on occasion, yeah. Any time someone is hungry and wants food, I’ll be happy to cook for them. I won’t turn anyone down for a meal. 

I know you don’t want to brag on yourself, but it must boggle your mind a little to realize how much you’ve accomplished in three years with the National Guard. [In addition to winning the National Guard Best Warrior Competition and being named Army National Guard Soldier of the Year, he has been awarded two Army Commendation Medals, three Army Achievement Medals, the Army Service Ribbon, the National Defense Service Medal and the Arkansas Service Ribbon.]

Obviously, you don’t know what kind of person I am since this is one of the first conversations we’ve had. But for me, that’s three years’ worth of accomplishments and that’s just the start. A lot of people would say, “Hey, you’re probably all downhill from here. You won the state competition. How are you going to eclipse that in your career?” And I just like to tell them that the competition is not all that I am and I have a lot more to give and a lot more to accomplish. And like I said, I’m only 23 so I’ve got a long way to go.