'The Whole Team Is Pretty Jacked': 3rd Infantry Division Soldiers Recognized Among Top Artillery Crews

Inaugural "Best Redleg" competition
1-9th Field Artillery Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division competing in the inaugural "Best Redleg" competition. (Provided, Army)

Pfc. Zachary Nichols has been in the Army less than a year, only arriving to his unit in the middle of a deployment to Europe last fall. But now he is recognized as being part of one of the best artillery units in the service.

Earlier this month, the Army held its inaugural "Best Redleg" competition at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, a 200-soldier contest from units across the force deciding who is the best artillery team for each major artillery platform. Nichols' 1-9th Field Artillery Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division, based out of Fort Stewart, Georgia, won the M109 Paladin competition.

Part of his job was handling the Paladin's massive ammunition rounds, which weigh about 100 pounds each.

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The six-day competition consisted of 35 teams of field artillery soldiers. On top of the artillery tests, soldiers also competed in a physical fitness test, a ruck march, M4 marksmanship and land navigation -- loosely akin to a Best Ranger competition or Spur Ride, but for artillerymen.

For firing artillery, the rounds need to be moved, loaded and fired quickly. Nichols' crew was averaging about 20 seconds to get a round ready to fire -- half the time the Army expects.

They were able to fire at targets at such a rapid pace, their team was finished firing sometimes minutes faster than other Paladin teams. The crews are made up of eight soldiers.

"We were kind of leaps and bounds ahead of everybody when it came to that," Nichols said in an interview with Military.com.

Nichols is 27 years old. Joining the Army, particularly combat arms, at that age is relatively rare. But he said he was bored in dead-end sales jobs and wanted something more exciting.

"I wanted something that would be challenging, but also something that I could actually work for," he said.

Getting the crew drills nailed down was critical, but the key to their success was physical fitness.

"The whole team is pretty jacked," said Staff Sgt. Brandon Swart, who leads the crew. "That was our strong suit."

The night before the fitness test, Swart's crew elected to do a 1,000-pound club event at Fort Sill, where the artillery competition was taking place.

The 1,000-pound club is a significant benchmark in weightlifting and is the cumulative total of a one-repetition max of a bench press, squat and deadlift. Soldiers who can lift at least 1,000 cumulative pounds across the three events are awarded a T-shirt they can wear with their uniform -- which they did in front of other teams competing.

"We wore our club shirts to the brief so everyone can see it and that we're going to crush it," Swart added.

The soldiers had just come home from a seven-month deployment to Europe and effectively rolled right into the competition. From September through April, the 3rd Infantry Division made up much of the U.S. forces in Europe, as part of NATO's bolstering of its defenses amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The 1-9th Field Artillery Battalion spent much of its time in training exercises in Latvia and Lithuania.

Artillery is among the key weapons in Europe and serves much as the center of gravity in NATO's defense. Ukraine has received Paladins from the U.S., Italy, Latvia, Norway and the U.K. Paladins and other artillery have become a signature weapon in the war, with both sides using an extraordinary volume of shells not seen since World War I.

Ukraine used some 7,000 shells daily over the summer last year. Meanwhile, Russia was firing 20,000 rounds daily, effectively preventing either side from gaining significant ground.

For the 3rd Infantry Division crew, bonding during the competition was key to holding the group together. And they needed to bond quickly, as the team wasn't totally established until just before the competition started.

"We just all bonded right off the bat from the gym and such," Spc. Ny'keem Haynesworth said. "It was easy to [work] together; we laughed a lot through the competition. Now, we can go see our name on a plaque."

Related: On the Front Lines with a Ukrainian Artillery Unit

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