CAMP SHELBY and CAMP MCCAIN, Miss. — All was going smoothly for Staff Sgt. Mitchell Scofield on the third day of the Army National Guard’s 2020 Best Warrior Competition, until he lost focus on an event he knew all too well.
“I have been doing ‘call-for-fire’ for years and it’s part of my basic skills as a scout,” Scofield recalled, “but not paying attention really got me.”
For Cpl. Daniel D'Ippolito, performing the medical evaluation portion of the competition at a higher standard than he was used to nearly derailed him.
“Mentally, that gave me the most trouble, which was kind of weird because I love medical [exercises],” he said. “The biggest part was trying to put it behind me and just move on to the next event.”
But when the grueling competition at Camp Shelby and Camp McCain, Mississippi, Sept. 13-16, was complete, D'Ippolito and Scofield persevered through it all, and went on to beat 12 other highly skilled competitors to be named the Soldier and Noncommissioned Officer of the Year, respectively.
For Scofield, an instructor with the Mississippi Army National Guard’s Regional Training Institute, just one word came to mind when it was announced at the closing ceremony that he won: shocked.
“You could never convince me they’d be calling my name,” he said, adding being the winner is “overwhelming because of all the work I put into it, and you see it pay off in the end.”
D'Ippolito, an infantryman with the Arizona Army National Guard’s Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 158th Infantry Regiment, had similar thoughts.
“I still don’t believe it, honestly. There are so many better competitors out there,” he said. “Apparently, being consistent and just laying it all out in the field was enough.”
Command Sgt. Maj. John T. Raines, the senior enlisted advisor for the Mississippi National Guard, said the 14 competitors exemplified the Guard’s commitment to constant improvement, even in the midst of COVID-19, civil disturbance and natural disaster response support.
“All you have to do is look at the news, and you see the Guard out there,” Raines said. “We had 110,000 Guardsmen deployed worldwide. Training and operational missions don’t stop because of the situation.”
The 20-event competition included marksmanship drills, obstacle courses, physical fitness challenges, medical evacuation tasks, a ruck march, interviews and written exams — all designed to find the Army Guard’s best NCO and Soldier.
Raines, who also organized the events, likens the competition to running.
“If you go running by yourself, you get in that comfort zone and you’re only going at your pace,” he said. “If you’re in a competition, you’re trying to steadily improve and make yourself better.”
Before tackling the commando’s crawl, an obstacle course event that required competitors to mount on a rope and then cross over a swamp, Sgt. Donald Swan confessed some apprehension.
“I am not going to lie — I haven’t done this since basic training,” he jokingly said to spectators at the competition.
Ultimately, his athleticism, plus a desire to stay dry and receive a good score, propelled him to successfully negotiate the event.
The competing Soldiers ran the gamut of Army professions — from a cannon crew member to a transportation specialist, from a combat medic to an engineer specialist.
For Sgt. Brian Murphy, a satellite communication systems operator with the Maryland Army National Guard’s C Company, 248th Aviation Support Battalion, the competition events and tasks deviated sharply from his regular duties.
“Most of this competition is a little far-fetched for the typical communications [Soldier],” he said. “So in preparing for this, I focused solely on some of the things we wouldn’t routinely do in a signal unit.”
Part of that, such as basic combat skills, took place in the last event, where competitors were required to move tactically from two points in an urban setting while under fire from non-lethal ammunition.
“It really put me to the test, but I enjoy this stuff,” Murphy said. “At the end of the day, we are still Soldiers [who] are supposed to be confident and competent with these skills.”
Though competitors benefitted from breezy, cool air and overcast skies on the last day, the humidity during the first three days of competition took a toll.
“The most challenging part was just trying to stay hydrated and keeping my body ready for the next event,” said Staff Sgt. Marlon Smith, an infantryman with the Arkansas Army National Guard’s Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 153rd Infantry Regiment. “We’re in Mississippi, and I love the South — but no matter how much water you drink, you’re going to sweat it out.”
Still, his drive to go the distance wouldn’t yield.
“It’s not all about how strong you are, how fast you are, how smart you are — you have to have the perfect mindset that you’re not going to quit,” Smith said.
He added that regardless of the outcome, competitors would remember his name.
“Win, lose or draw — you’re going to know I was there,” Smith added. “So I am not going to make it easy on the winner if I don’t win.”
Despite the competitive nature of the Soldiers, Scofield said the competition was also about teamwork — even if that meant helping a Soldier best other competitors.
“A lot of times, we are actually working with each other to help beat each other,” Scofield said. “If someone is struggling with something, or if they are questioning themselves, it is instilled in us to take care of each other — and that’s what we are going to do whether it’s a competition or not.”
Scofield and D'Ippolito will advance to the 2020 All-Army Best Warrior Competition, slated to be held by decentralized events and virtual means later in the year.
In the meantime, both said they will decompress in their own ways.
For D'Ippolito, that meant “calling my parents and then go and sleep for 14 hours.”
Scofield, however, said activities involving his children would be in his immediate future.
“My girls are going to have a million questions about the competition and they are going to want to play — that won’t stop for a little while.”