NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Some contestants for the Army's soldier of the year no longer compete against one another in person, but now must be judged remotely.
It's another change prompted by federal budget cuts.
This week, in a conference room in a modern Army office building, a camouflage-clad sergeant major barked out orders like the director on a film set.
He told a handful of uniformed soldiers on posts across the country to move a camera up – no down – so he could get a full view of the person standing in front of him on each of their bases. He needed to see not just their faces, but their boots too. The lighting had to be just right; he wanted to judge their demeanor when they entered a room.
Every detail was important.
"We don't want the soldier behind the desk. That's not going to work," a frustrated Sgt. Maj. Jerry Taylor told soldiers viewing him from a conference room at Fort Benning, Ga. "I've been to Fort Benning. The whole post don't have tables in every conference room."
Taylor was speaking to a camera at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, where the Army's Training and Doctrine Command is based. The command is in the final days of its annual Soldier of the Year contest and for the first time, the command is conducting board interviews with contestants around the country via video-teleconference. Army officials say it is the first of the service's 12 major commands to make that switch for the competition.
The Defense Department has been required to cut nearly $42 billion by the end of September. The Army's share of the automatic cuts over that period has been $7.6 billion.
Ordinarily, the soldiers would travel to Fort Eustis for four to five days of competition where they would directly compete with and learn from each other. That shared knowledge is particularly valuable for TRADOC soldiers, who are responsible for running the Army's basic training as well as more advanced specialty training and education programs at posts around the country.
Among other things, the competition includes a physical fitness test, land navigation, a written exam and a 12-mile march. With a soldier of the year and non-commissioned officer of the year being named Thursday, several contestants were only a few points apart and the live interviews were going to determine the winner. Four interviewers – including Taylor – planned to question and score each soldier Wednesday. The questions can range from Army doctrines and mottos to the U.S. Constitution.
"The top contenders, those scores are pretty close. So it's going to come down to who has the most knowledge," Taylor said. "This can go either way."
A final dress rehearsal using the technology took place Tuesday just hours before two days of interviews with soldiers on 11 bases around the U.S. were set to begin.
The limitations of relying on technology to make small distinctions quickly became evident. The video quality on the large screens broadcasting from each base was a little fuzzy. While soldiers could easily be made out, their facial expressions could not. Audio on some bases was clearer than others. It was not clear if the high-pressure atmosphere of sitting just a few feet away from senior Army leaders could truly be duplicated.
"Would it be better to have them here in person? I really do believe that it would be. But we couldn't afford to do that, so this is the next best thing," Taylor said.
Army officials said it was difficult to pinpoint the savings from doing the competition remotely. In part, that's because travel costs vary depending on which bases soldiers come from each year. But the soldiers typically travel with their immediate supervisors and have their meals and lodging paid for by the Army.
Command Sgt. Maj. Daniel Dailey said this year's changes would likely continue in the future as the Army continues looking to cut costs.
"Everybody knows that sequestration is here and we've got to save money," Dailey said. But he added that this program benefits the entire command, not just the winning soldier.
"It builds inspiration, esprit de corps with the units, the drive for soldiers to want to be the best. ... Will the Army function without it? I'm sure it will. Will the Army be better with it? Absolutely."
The winner of the soldier of the year competition will advance to the Armywide Best Warrior competition this fall, which pits the winners of all 12 major Army commands around the globe against each other at Fort Lee, Va.
Soldiers in the running for the Training and Doctrine Command title are based at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.; Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.; Fort Bliss, Texas; Fort Sill, Okla.; Fort Gordon, Ga.; Fort Benning, Ga.; Fort Lee, Va.; Fort Knox, Ky.; Fort Rucker, Ala.; Fort Meade, Md.; Fort Jackson, S.C.
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis