Beyond Soldier’s Limits…

The eight edition of the competition for the fittest member of the Croatian Armed Forces was held in Udbina on 9-10 May

When the winner of this year’s competition for the fittest member of the Croatian Armed Forces in the category comprising the Croatian Armed Forces and the Croatian police was announced on 10th May, it was the second time that Corporal Nikola Knežević’s name had appeared in the Croatian Ministry of Defence’s official organs. The first time was on 5th May, when this 24-year-old member of the Special Forces Command was named the best student in the 14th class attending the Leadership Development Course, beating out 88 other students. Although the news did not make much of splash, the training through which Corporal Knežević had attained his first NCO rank must have been an excellent preparation for probably the most demanding military competition in South-eastern Europe. After crossing the finish line in front of the Church of Croatian Martyrs in the mountain town of Udbina, Corporal Knežević looked tired but not overly exhausted, even though he had passed around 40 kilometres in over five hours while carrying weapons and gear weighing at least 17 kilos.

“This is the biggest achievements of my career so far. I prepared with my unit and we had good odds at taking the victory. In the end, we were all tied. Some had more luck in the race, some had less luck, but I emerged victorious at the end,” said Corporal Knežević humbly after Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence Damir Krstičević presented him with the winner’s trophy.

However, it would be wrong to reduce the “Major Davor Jović Memorial – First for Croatia 2019” to just Corporal Knežević, even if he was the first out of 146 competitors to cross the finish line. We ought to congratulate and commend all participants who mastered the course set up at and around Barracks “Josip Jović” in Udbina as well as in Krbava field. For instance, how could we not mention female competitors, who had to master the course under the same conditions as their male counterparts? The winning female soldier was Private Mara Pejić of the Guards Armoured Mechanized Brigade.

In a pool of ten female competitors (seven from the Croatian Armed Forces, two from foreign armed forces and one from the Croatian police), the second place was won by Private Gorana Aleksić Janković (Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina), while Corporal Sandra Andrašek (Croatian Armed Forces’ Guards Armoured Mechanized Brigade) came in third. Looking at the results achieved by the competitors from the Croatian Armed Forces and the Croatian police only, the top three were Private Pejić, Corporal Andrašek and Corporal Željka Saratlija from the Military Police Regiment.

“I participated in the competition last year, too, and came in second. So, I have improved my result and that fills me with joy. As far the conditions on the track are concerned, it was quite hot; I would have preferred rain over heat. The most difficult part was waiting for my turn at work posts, but everyone used the waiting period for cooling off. I am proud to have won first place at such a demanding competition as a member of the Croatian Armed Forces,” said Private Maja Pejić at the finish line.

In the category of foreign competitors, the winner was Staff Sergeant Silviu-Dorel Mera from Romania, with the runner-up being Corporal Loridon Selimi from the Republic of Kosovo. The top three were rounded up by Major William Hennessy, a member of the United States Army representing Allied Command Transformation (NATO ACT).

The competition itself, organized by the Croatian Army’s Training and Doctrine Command “Fran Krsto Frankopan” was launched on 9th May with a qualification shooting match from HS pistols and VHS rifles. As is the custom, the running order was determined by the results in the qualifications, with the best marksmen starting first at the next day’s race. The starting line was laid out between two Oshkosh M-ATV MRAP vehicles on the runway at Barracks “Josip Jović”. However, the time laps between the starts were small, so that contestants were still moving in big groups when they reached the first work post (navigation). In general, CROMIL’s journalists and film crew found the course to be rewarding for the coverage of the competition because of the spacious layout of Krbava field as well as the competition’s organizers, who allowed as a look into its public and concealed elements.

The last few editions of “First for Croatia” followed a similar scenario: one competitor would take the lead early on, gain a big advantage and hold onto it until the very end. The situation was different this year; several competitions stood out, with the time lapse between them being only several minutes. For the longest time, First Lieutenant Ivan Gerenčir from the Guards Armoured Mechanized Brigade was in the lead, followed closely by Corporal Marino Protrka from the Special Forces Command. Close by and almost equal in time were the aforementioned Corporal Nikola Knežević and Sergeant First Class Dražen Henc from the Personnel Management Centre. Navigation was followed by throwing hand grenades and an infantry obstacle course, which seemed to be longer and thus more demanding this year.

Shooting with a rifle and a pistol was made more difficult because the fourth and fifth work points were installed on a hilly terrain. However, all competitors in the lead completed the tasks successfully and kept up the pace, so that there were no changes at the top through the sixth, seventh and eight work post (identifying a reference point, identifying and searching persons, extracting the wounded under fire). The outcome slowly started becoming discernible at the ninth work post, where the competitors had to fire from an AT-4 anti-tank weapon with the multiple integrated laser engagement system (MILES). First Lieutenant Gerenčir was on-target. Corporal Protrka caught up with him, but missed the mark and received five penalty minutes. Corporal Knežević arrived to the same work post just four minutes later, hit the mark and moved on. “Get him,” shouted his unit colleague, Corporal Protrka. The noticeably vigorous Corporal Knežević simply put a thumb up and ran on. The experienced Sergeant First Class Henc did not give up, hitting the mark on his first try. Although feeling the pressure from the younger member of the Special Forces Command, First Lieutenant Gerenčir, a 40-something-year-old member of the 1st Mechanized Battalion “Sokolovi” (Falcons), still hung onto the lead after the next work post (passing a contaminated terrain), but Corporal Knežević reached the eleventh working post (crossing a water obstacle) first. The jury was still out on the eventual winner as the race between the two soldiers in the lead continued to be close, with Corporal Protrka lagging only five minutes behind them. We say just because soldiers’ strength decreased with time, while the possibility of “breaking down” or making a mistake on a work post increased. It was also getting hotter, although the weather was rather good during the competition (clear skies and a temperature of 15 degrees Celsius); the only ones who might have complained were those sticking to the military catchphrase: “Bad weather is our weather.” We passed the soldiers in the lead between the eleventh and twelfth work post. Corporal Knežević appeared self-confident and refreshed as he marched forward, but First Lieutenant Gerenčir was only a couple of hundred meters behind him, not losing sight of him. Yet, Corporal Knežević could not begin celebrating after completing the twelfth work post (calling for fire) because he still had to master a climb that led to the finish line. “The most difficult part was the very end, when I had to climb the Way of the Cross below the church,” he later said. The efforts were not too great to prevent him from ringing the bell and saluting the flag at the finish line after five hours and thirteen minutes of marching. His victory earned him applause from the locals and the representatives of the Croatian Armed Forces, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Defence, foreign armed forces, local self-authorities and Homeland War veterans’ associations. The four soldiers we followed throughout the most of the race finished the competition on top: First Lieutenant Gerenčir came in second with four-and-a-half-minute delay, while Corporal Protrka and Sergeant First Class Henc came in third and fourth, respectively. Sergeant First Class Henc’s results from this year and from 2013, when he placed third, show that a soldier can stay fit even if they do not belong to an operational unit.

“Nikola, I give you this trophy for being the fittest member of the Croatian Armed Forces,” Minister Krstičević said when congratulating Corporal Knežević and added: “You have demonstrated the first-rate readiness, ability, strength, dedication and determination typical of a Croatian soldier.”

Acting as an envoy of the President of the Republic of Croatia and the Commander-in-Chief of the Croatain Armed Forces Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, the Chief of the General Staff of the Croatian Armed Forces General Mirko Šundov was happy with the record-breaking number of competitors. He was especially pleased with the turnout from allied and partner countries. “I am proud of all members of the Croatian Armed Forces who have taken part in the competition. They have demonstrated what they are made of and capable of,” General Šundov said.

Yes, the Croatian Armed Forces can indeed be proud of what they demonstrated in Udbina and Krbava field. Although there were three categories in the competition, a look at the cumulative results yields interesting observations. Twelve Croatian soldiers and one Croatian police officer (Luka Špehar, who came in seventh) made up the Top 13. The Special Forces Command has the most reason to celebrate, for six of its members were among the best 13 competitors. The best foreign contestant was Staff Sergeant Silviu-Dorel Mera in the 14th place. Out of 120 entrants who had completed the course, Private Maja Pejić was the best female, having finished the race in the 64th place. A comment made by U.S. Major William Hennessy, who won the bronze medal in the foreign competitors’ category, was quite telling. “The members of the Croatian Armed Forces dominated the entire event. They are extremely competitive and went beyond their limits so as to achieve the best result possible,” said the representative of the ACT.

Competition by numbers

146 competitors

82 members of the Croatian Armed Forces

20 members of the Croatian police

44 entrants from partner and allied countries’ armed forces (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Kosovo, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Slovenia), the United States European Command (USEUCOM) and NATO’s Allied Command Operations (ACO) and Allied Command Transformation (ACT).

Work posts

  1. Navigation
  2. Throwing hand grenades
  3. Infantry obstacle course
  4. Shooting with the VHS-D2 rifle
  5. Shooting with the HS 9 pistol
  6. Identifying a reference point
  7. Identifying and searching persons
  8. Extracting the wounded under fire
  9. Firing from an AT-4 anti-tank weapon with the multiple integrated laser engagement system (MILES)
  10. Passing a contaminated terrain
  11. Crossing a water obstacle
  12. Calling for fire

+ eight control points



Translation by IVA GUGO