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GMC's Medina-James Named Soldier of the Year

Benning names top NCO, Soldier By Vince Little / The Bayonet Fort Benning has pegged its top warriors for 2009. SPC Tiffany Medina-James is the Soldier of the Year, while the noncommissioned officer honor goes to SSG David Wilkins. Both will represent the post at the Army's "Best Warrior" competition June 1-5 at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. SGT Brandon Leonard was second in the Soldier category. Runner-up in the NCO division was SSG Daniel Roney. "I was surprised," said Wilkins, a long-range marksmanship instructor for 2nd Battalion, 29th Infantry Regiment, 197th Infantry Brigade. "There are a lot of great NCOs out there. I feel honored. "If you try hard enough, you can pretty much succeed in anything. I just put forth some effort and it paid off." Likewise for Medina-James, a parachute rigger in E Company, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment's "pack platoon." Last year, she won company, battalion, brigade and post Soldier of the Quarter boards. In roughly 18 months, Medina-James is three courses shy of completing her bachelor's degree in military science at Georgia Military College. She recently finished Pathfinder School and is putting an application packet together for Officer Candidate School. During spare time on weekends, she also volunteers as an animal worker at PetSmart. "It feels great to represent the Echo Nation," said Medina-James, 25, of Crestview, Fla. "I've been studying, and my unit helped me get ready. I went into the board fully prepared. I actually would've been disappointed if I didn't win." CPT Jeff Livingston, the E Company commander, said he wishes he could have an entire unit with Soldiers of her caliber. "If I need a volunteer, she's the first one to raise her hand," he said. "She sets herself apart by never getting stagnant in her position. She's always looking to excel, doesn't get complacent, never accepts mediocrity. "She's constantly doing something to challenge herself. She's a workhorse. Great Soldier." Medina-James' main duty is packing malfunction-free parachutes. Pack 25 supports every Army Airborne unit - including Special Forces and Rangers - in the Southeast. She wants to reach the 5,000-mark someday, a major milestone in the career field. She said it takes about that many parachutes to get an airborne class through a full training week. "I'm confident in my job and ability. I love it," she said. "I will be sure always. That's our motto. You have people's lives in your hands, and it feels really good knowing that and fulfilling that mission." But Medina-James doesn't just monitor the results of her labor from the ground. She too bails out of C-130s and UH-60 Black Hawks on proficiency jumps about every two weeks. "It's a thrill. I'd go up every day if I could," she said. Medina-James said winning Fort Benning's Soldier of the Year award gets her career on track. "It definitely means a lot being able to represent myself that way, especially being a female," she said. "It shows everyone what I can accomplish, and shows I can be a leader." Wilkins, meanwhile, guides Soldiers through the long-range marksmanship course, teaching the basics of sniper systems and 600-meter scopes. Instructors also are dispatched to different locations around the world. As head of a four-person mobile training team, Wilkins has conducted on-site classes in Germany and Hawaii and at Fort Carson, Colo., and Fort Campbell, Ky. "He can always be counted upon. He always takes charge and goes beyond what is required of him," said SFC Robert Osburn, master trainer for the 2nd Battalion, 29th Infantry Regiment. "If I give him a task, he'll get it done faster than requested. And many times, he's even able to improve upon things." Wilkins graduated Thursday from the Advanced Leaders Course. He's pursuing an associate's degree and wants to attend Ranger School. Wilkins, 25, of Rochester, N.Y., joined the Army in February 2004 and has been to Iraq twice. Between August 2006 and November 2007, he deployed with the Fort Drum, N.Y.-based 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, to Yusufiyah, a city in the old "Triangle of Death" southwest of Baghdad. He earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star after being wounded by small-arms fire during a sniper-team mission in July 2007. One bullet ricocheted off his rifle and grazed an area near his temple. Another round hit him on the backside. "It was a rough deployment," Wilkins said. "We had three guys go missing from my battalion. But we stuck together. We had a good team." The disappearance of the three U.S. Soldiers in a May 2007 ambush near Mahmudiya made headlines around the world. One body was found a week later in the Euphrates River, but it took more than a year before the two others were discovered in a village south of Baghdad.