YANKTON, S.D. — At 5-foot-2, Sgt. Erin VanMaanen would be considered petite by most standards — except by her opponents in the "Best Warrior Competition" (BWC) for Europe.
The Yankton native recently survived an intense, non-stop competition lasting four days. The event pitted the top nine non-commissioned officers and top nine junior enlisted soldiers in the U.S. Army in Europe (USAREUR).
They were tested in every phase, from leadership to marksmanship to hand-to-hand combat.
VanMaanen, stationed with the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade in Landstuhl, Germany, competed as the only woman among the nine finalists. She was the smallest, shortest, lightest competitor.
She received no breaks — and she wanted none.
"There is not a separate category for females, but a popular saying is 'One team, one fight,'" she said. "It means we are all equal, so we all have to achieve the same standard."
Becoming the best possible warrior is a matter of life or death in a combat situation, VanMaanen said.
"A female soldier is a soldier like any other. Bullets don't discriminate," she said.
As an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, VanMaanen showed the ability to hold her own in combat.
"A question I was asked on the board (during BWC) was 'What is (your) opinion on the Rangers being opened to females?', as it is soon to be so. I said I was all for it, with the caveat that the standards would not be lowered," she said.
"While certainly some females would be unable to achieve that level of strength and endurance, many more others certainly can. And we should be allowed the same opportunity as males to attain that honor. Lowering the standard would cheapen any victory we would achieve."
The BWC finalists all previously competed to be named the best in their units. They proved their skills in military knowledge, leadership and endurance. USAREUR's winning pair, announced last month, will now compete for honors at the Department of the Army level.
VanMaanen just missed advancing to the final competition for the title of U.S. Army Best Warrior for 2012. The event will be held next month at Fort Lee, Va. However, all final competitors were invited to the AUSA Conference in Washington D.C. at approximately the same time.
By reaching the European finals, VanMaanen emerged from among thousands of soldiers. The competition is separated into Junior Officer, NCO and soldier.
Her command, consisting of about 8,000 personnel, is allowed to send one competitor for each level. She was the only female enlisted soldier and had advanced through three levels of competition before reaching the BWC.
"Not many females compete at this level, but I believe it was three years ago that a female won it," she said. "I would say one female a year or every other year would be the average."
In preparing for BWC, VanMaanen attacked several different skills. They included written tests, marksmanship, physical fitness tests, 15K run with a 50-pound pack, village assault, hand-to-hand combat and land navigation.
"I was the shortest at the competition by probably half a foot. When training, I'm very aware that I'll be competing against larger soldiers," she said. "For the ruck march, I trained to be able to run most of it, as my walking stride is short and they can out pace me."
Then came the combatives match, which is the Army's style of fighting similar to mixed martial arts (MMA), VanMaanen said.
"Its purpose is to give us a mental edge if we should find ourselves in hand-to-hand combat," she said. "We practice combatives a lot just for fun.
It's a great stress reliever and builds camaraderie."
In her match, VanMaanen literally found herself dwarfed by a competitor but held her ground.
"I fought against a male who was 6 inches and 20 pounds heavier than me," she said. "I was disappointed that I didn't win my match, but I took it to a decision by points after six minutes of fighting instead of submission, so I was happy with that."
Another event left her up in the air. The obstacle course was especially challenging because of her height.
"There is an obstacle called the Stairway to Heaven. It looks like a ladder built for giants. With no ropes or protective gear, you climb about 35 feet up on rungs spaced progressively farther apart," she said.
"At about 30 feet, they were spaced so far apart that I couldn't reach the next one. I had to balance on one rung and jump for the next. It was terrifying, but I made it."
For VanMaanen, the preparation started long before her first level of competition.
"We had very little information on what type of events we would be doing prior to the event," she said. "My platoon helped me train by accompanying me on ruck marches, which are walk/jogs with combat boots and weighted rucksacks."
VanMaanen practiced for land navigation in the hills around her base's airfield during the day and night.
"Night Land (Navigation) is interesting because you are only allowed a red light," she said. "The red light cannot be seen well from a distance, so you are more concealed from enemy observation."
A large part of the overall competition score comes from the board appearance before five judges who ask questions on Weapons, Tactics, Army History, Code of Conduct, and Leadership.
"I have competed in a number of boards over the last few years. At some, they ask you 10 questions and others ask you 100," she said. "This is the highest level I have ever competed at, so I wanted to be as prepared as possible. My platoon helped me study, and one day we added up the number of flash cards we were using (and found it) to be over 1,000. That's a lot of knowledge to try to keep in your head."
During one phase of the competition, participants were faced with medical simulations training. The medical training included combat lifesaver skills, with a standard of providing emergency trauma care and to apply dressings to field casualties.
This year, BWC planners made changes to the marksmanship portion of the competition. The stress shoot is designed with shoot-and-don't shoot scenarios, interspersed between up-hill and down-hill sprints and math equations.
There are two targets: the standard 9-millimeter silhouettes, and targets with shapes, numbers and colors. The competitors are provided 10 rounds and two magazines.
The intense event challenged the competitors on every level, VanMaanen said.
The 20K ruck march required entrants to march through the hills with about 50 pounds of equipment and their weapon. For VanMaanen, the pack amounted to a good portion of her body weight.
The entrants also faced other rigorous challenges: an Army Physical Fitness Test, uniform inspections, a written essay, a written test, a 10K run in Light Military Gear (boots and weapon), convoy operations scenario, react to sniper scenario, downed aircraft personnel recovery scenario, weapons qualifications, weapons assembly, a stress shoot (sprints and weighted sprints followed by precision shooting while timed), call for fire drill (aiming artillery fire at precise targets) and a grenade course.
The BWC represented the latest achievement in VanMaanen's career.
After graduating from Yankton High School in 2005, she attended the University of Wyoming. She joined the Army in 2007, completing Basic Combat Training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo., and Advanced Individual Training at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas.
She was first stationed in Fort Bliss, Texas, with the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Special Troops Battalion, 4th Brigade, 1st Armored.
She deployed with them to southern Iraq in May 2009 and returned in April 2010.
She has achieved the rank of Healthcare Specialist (Medic) with the additional training as Flight Medic. Her MEDEVAC company flies UH-60s (Blackhawks) to rescue and transport injured soldiers.
"I haven't had the opportunity to deploy with this company yet, but I hope I get the chance before my enlistment is over," she said. "It is a huge honor to help soldiers when they are in the greatest need."
After her enlistment ends in 2014, she will complete her college degree under the Army's GI Bill. The program pays full tuition and stipends for books and living expenses.
Since joining the military, she has taken classes through Thomas Edison State College. The Army's tuition assistance program pays full tuition up to a certain amount each semester for attending college either online or in person, as long as it doesn't interfere with the soldier's job.
"While I was deployed to Iraq, I was able to take online classes from my tent in the desert," she said.
VanMaanen views BWC as leaving a lasting impact on both her military career and her life, as it challenged her to improve personally.
"Next month, I'll be headed to the promotion board, which puts me in line to attend more NCO of the Quarter competitions. I don't think I'll be competing at that level again, though," she said.
"The competition is four days of sleepless nights and extreme physical stress, four days of hell. There were a couple tough moments that brought me to the edge of my physical and mental abilities. Because of that, crossing the finish line for the 10K run on the last night of competition was an incredibly rewarding experience.
"Every day of the competition tested my will to continue, so knowing I had finished was empowering."
Information from: Yankton Press and Dakotan, http://www.yankton.net/