Although U.S. Army Spc. Richard J. Schmidt Jr. did 81 pushups in just two minutes, ran two miles in only 12 minutes and 36 seconds, and expertly peppered a target with bullets, the most grueling part of a series of soldier-on-soldier competitions proved to be a question-and-answer session with high-ranking army officials.
"They were all 25 years in the service — combat [experience]. These are the guys you look up to," said Schmidt, a 22-year-old from Bryn Mawr. "When you go in there, you don't goof around, you don't laugh, you don't apologize, you're very rigid in your seat. It's very nerve-racking."
The Command Sgt. Majors grilled Schmidt on everything from his field manual to chemical warfare to the details of certain weapons.
The shooting, physical fitness and questioning sessions made up part of the "Army Soldier of the Year" competition, a way for the military branch to identify its finest warrior.
And although Schmidt didn't take the top prize, he went considerably far in the competition.
A crew chief of a Black Hawk helicopter and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Schmidt began his quest in March by winning a modest contest among the 30 or so soldiers in his company. He raised eyebrows, however, as he fought through a series of competitions to become the "10th Mountain Soldier of the Year," representing the 17,000 or so at Fort Drum in upstate New York.
That competition also included performing medical procedures on a dummy, explaining all parts of a machine gun and even a nighttime activity, where Schmidt found himself wearing a 65-pound pack and using a compass to navigate his way through a five-hour drill.
"I fell face-first in the mud three or four times," he admitted. "It was quite frustrating."
Still, Schmidt won the Fort Drum competition, earning him a chance to face off against soldiers from all over the country at Fort Bragg, in Fayetteville, N.C. There, he showed off his skills in identifying mines and improvised explosive devices — weapons that have killed many active military members overseas.
He won that competition as well, earning the title of "XVIIIth Airborne Corps Soldier of the Year."
"I don't look at it like I'm the best out of anybody," acknowledged Schmidt. "I guess that's what they say when we win these things, but I just look at myself as another grunt in a uniform."
His string of victories ended after he attempted to qualify for the final "Soldier of the Year" contest — one that would determine who is the best warrior in the entire army. However, he finished fourth out of eight, he said.
Since preparing for the contests can be grueling on both mind and body, Schmidt is looking forward to returning to his regular routine of fixing and flying helicopters at Fort Drum.
"Now that it's over, I get to relax," he said.
Schmidt couldn't help feeling happy that he — a Jewish soldier — made it within an arms length of being the best the army has to offer.
"I'm definitely proud of being Jewish and going through all these [competitions]," he said.
Since he returned from Afghanistan in February, he has not been asked to go back there or to Iraq; however, anything can happen in the future.
"Everything is up in the air. There's a chance for the fall, but I'm not sure," he said, noting that he could be sent to either war zone.
Not that he would mind that much.
"I had a blast [in Afghanistan], holding a big gun out of a helicopter," he said. "Find me another job that'll pay me to do that. It's an adrenaline rush to be with my boys and have a good time. And we all came home."