By Spc. Sean Harding (Army Reserve)October 18, 2016
FORT LEWIS, Wash. - Last month Arizona resident and Army Reservist Michael Orozco represented the Army Reserve at the Army Best Warrior competition at Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C.
This year's Army Best Warrior competition took place Sept. 26 through Oct. 03. Overseen by Sergeant Major of the Army Daniel A. Dailey, who holds the highest enlisted rank in the Army, the physically and mentally demanding competition put Soldiers through series of tests which included physical fitness, urban combat simulations, weapons qualifications, board interviews, battle drills, multiple "mystery events" as well an essay and written exam. The purpose of the competition is to identify the best enlisted Soldier and non-commissioned officer (NCO) in the entire Army.
Sergeant Michael S. Orozco from Goodyear, AZ, is a Horizontal Construction Engineer (12N) and squad leader assigned to 1st Platoon, 387th Engineer Company, 315th Engineer Battalion, 301st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, 416th Theater Engineer Command. Originally from Payson, AZ, Orozco was one of two Soldiers chosen to represent the Army Reserve at the Department of the Army competition. He was chosen to represent the Army Reserve after winning a series of lower level competitions that led him to winning the Army Reserve's Best Warrior competition.
Orozco first heard about Best Warrior after a morning physical training session during his drill weekend, when his First Sergeant, Christopher S. Mitter, told him about the event and asked him if he would be interested in participating. "It sounds pretty fun and interesting" replied Orozco, and that was the beginning of his journey to Best Warrior.
"I competed several times years ago, and for me it's an important thing," said Mitter. "Our company runs its own competition and he easily won out over everyone that he competed against. So, we took him to the battalion competition and he won there, and the rest was history."
Orozco began his preparation for his company's Best Warrior competition by researching online what types of events have taken place at competitions in the past, and reading Warrior Skills Level 1, the Army's reference guide for common skills and tasks that a Soldier must be able to perform to be successful in combat. He also familiarized himself with different weapon systems that an engineer company doesn't usually have, such as the MK19 Grenade Launcher.
After winning the battalion level competition, Orozco began training at Siege MMA, a fighting dojo in Peoria, AZ, to prepare for the combatives portion of the competition. "The owner and trainers there were very warm and welcoming," said Orozco. "They brought me in and I would train and roll with all of the fighters that came to the gym. We did everything but striking."
Orozco spent his days at the dojo rolling and practicing submissions, and learning techniques from other fighters. The skills that he picked up at the dojo prepared him for all of the combatives events all the way up to the Army level competition.
In February, Orozco traveled to Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington for the brigade level competition, the 301st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade's Best Warrior. During the competition he dislocated his shoulder while participating in a ruck march, and was able to pop it back in so he could continue competing. He was still injured in future competitions but didn't find it to be much of a factor in his performance.
"It slowed me down a little bit but it was something that I was able to deal with. I've had injuries before playing sports," shrugged Orozco.
There were still two more competitions to win before he was able to compete at the Department of the Army level. After winning the 301st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade's competition, he won the 416th Theater Engineer Command's competition, and then won the Army Reserve's Best Warrior competition.
"It was a huge honor to win at the [Army Reserve] level. It was humbling that I was able to accomplish that feat, and I was proud to represent the Army Reserve and show what we have to offer to the 'Big Army.'"
After winning the title Army Reserve Best Warrior, Orozco flew up to Fort Harrison, Montana, along with the runners up for 21 days to train with Army drill sergeants and members of the 20th Special Forces Group. His training included firing numerous weapon systems, combatives training, ruck marches, "a lot of PT (physical training)," preparation for boards, land navigation, combat lifesaving (CLS), and military operations on urban terrain (MOUT).
"We did everything from firing weapons, combatives, ruck marches every week, PT and a lot of board work. That was one of the most helpful things that I did, having that helpful critique from my peers," said Orozco. "There were about 10 drill sergeants there."
Once he returned home from Montana, Orozco was called up on orders by his unit so that he could train daily for the competition. He did ruck marches and PT almost every day, went to ranges with Soldiers from his unit and with his coworkers at Cabela's, and spent a lot of time studying for material that was expected to show up at the board, which was weighted heavily at the Department of the Army level competition.
To prepare for the writing portions of Best Warrior, Orozco had his wife's friend, who was an English teacher and a principal at a local high school, grade essays on current events that he would write specifically to prepare for the competition. He gave her a rubric on military writing style and, "I would write stuff, and she would correct my writing style based on the rubric, and help me prepare for board questions."
After another month of training, Orozco flew to Virginia for the Army Best Warrior competition. "We were given a set schedule that was pretty much thrown out the door once we arrived. We were supposed to take a PT test the following Tuesday, but wound up taking it Monday while we were still in-processing," Orozco said. It then became clear that the Army Best Warrior competition would be unlike anything he or his competitors had seen before.
Train Like You Fight
"Train like you fight, and fight like you train" Sgt. Maj. of the Army Dailey told competitors at the beginning of the competition. If competitors brought a piece of equipment, they were allowed to use it.
"Some of the active duty guys came with some pretty high-speed gear. If that's what they were training with, they were allowed to use it," said Orozco. "We were scrambling to get gear at the last minute. It was definitely a shock for us."
The instructions provided to the contestants were open ended as well. If the instructions given before the event didn't exactly specify what was allowed, it was up to the competitors to interpret them. Furthermore, even once the instructions were given, it wasn't always clear how the event would be scored.
For the shooting events, "we didn't really know what counted for the qualification," Orozco said. "We just showed up and they had us run for a mile and then we had to engage only six targets. For the next shooting event we climbed up into a rappel tower and engaged some more targets. There were no traditional ranges at all."
Part of the competition included a land navigation course in the woods which quickly turned into a swamp after heavy rain and flash flooding made it very difficult to navigate the terrain. That however, did not deter Orozco.
"I used to work as a hunting and fishing guide about three years ago. I have a lot of experience navigating in the forest, so doing land navigation at Best Warrior came very naturally to me. Being in the woods guiding people meant you learn to move around in the woods very effectively."
For the final day of the competition, there was an early morning ruck march in heavy rain. Afterwards the competitors traveled to the Pentagon right outside of Washington, D.C. to participate in a board interview headed by Sgt. Maj. of the Army Dailey, which concluded the competitive portion of Best Warrior.
The next day, Best Warrior competitors were given a tour of Washington D.C., including a tour of Arlington National Cemetery and witnessing a Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
"It was really cool, seeing of all the history out there," said Orozco of his visit to Washington. "I think one of the most moving things was seeing a lot of the Soldiers who had passed fighting for our freedom at Arlington, as well as visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier."
The award ceremony was held the following Monday. Although Orozco did not win the competition, his spirit did not waiver. The same day as the ceremony, Orozco was picked up for promotion to sergeant, and he was notified by the Avondale Police Department that he had been accepted into APD and would begin training at the academy on Oct. 24.
Making it so far in the Best Warrior competition and winning the title Army Reserve Best Warrior opened a lot of doors to Orozco in the military as well. Orozco has plans to attend some of the Army's most respected and prestigious schools, including Pathfinder, Airborne, and Ranger school within the next year. He may also compete in the Army NCO Best Warrior competition in the future.
"It was such an eye-opening experience," said Orozco of the experience. "It was very demanding because it required me to brush up on a lot of the skills that I hadn't practiced since basic training. It was just very humbling and a huge honor to be there and to have made it that far, and to be there with the top 20 guys in the Army competing."
Jack of All Trades
Before joining the Army Orozco did a lot of engineering work in the civilian world, including operating heavy machinery and conducting earth moving operations which he said has helped out with his career in the Army as an engineer. He also spent time working in biology labs studying the biology of fish local to Arizona.
"I've been all over the place. I stay extremely busy. I've worked four jobs at a time," he said. He has also had experience working as a marine engineer and a mining engineer working on boats and building mines.
Orozco joined the Army Oct. 2013, after having a conversation with his wife about the things in life that they still wanted to accomplish.
"My only regret was never serving in the military. And my wife wanted to finish her master's degree. So she continued teaching in a school district in Arizona that would pay for her master's program, and I joined the Army Reserve so I could stay in Arizona," he said.
Orozco isn't new to spending a lot of time outdoors. Before joining the Army, he spent several years as a mountain guide taking clients miles into the Arizona wilderness to hunt and fish. Even now, one of his favorite things to do is to go into the backcountry.
"I spend almost every weekend with my wife and dogs playing out in the woods doing something, whether we're just hiking up a creek doing some canyoneering, doing adventure races or mountain biking," said Orozco. "I like to stay very active."
"He's just so motivated!" said Cpt. Heathra King, commander of the 387th Engineer Company. "He does things that most people would not do, and he does them for fun. He really likes to push himself. He truly embodies all of the Army core values."
There is no shortage of praise for Orozco from members of his unit.
"He was a squad leader while he was a private," said Staff Sgt. Ronald Fields, Orozco's platoon sergeant. "His character is impactful, and he is the epitome of the Soldier that you would want in your unit. It's definitely nice to have someone like him in your platoon."
He was also his company's obvious choice for the Best Warrior competition. "It was a clear choice to send him to Best Warrior," said his platoon leader, 1st Lt. Michael Winters. "It's just sort of his niche in the Army."
Sgt. Orozco has earned the Overseas Training Ribbon, the Army Service Ribbon, NCO Development Ribbon, National Defense Medal, Army Achievement Medal (x4), and Army Commendation Medal (x3). He has also achieved expert qualifications on Rifle, Pistol and Machine Gun, and a gold qualification with the German Armed Forces Proficiency Badge. He also obtained his Air Assault wings and driver's badge.
"What motivated me, at least in the beginning, was I don't like to lose," said Orozco. "But then the people who put time into me like the people at the fighting dojo, my first sergeant, and even my supply sergeant, Staff Sgt. Roy Vasel, who spent so much of his time making sure I had gear. I really wanted to win and do the best that I could for both myself and the people who were rooting for me. And my wife, my family, was the biggest motivation."
Practice Makes Perfect
Orozco says the thing he had to work at the most for the competition was the first aid portion. He had his EMT license at one of his previous jobs, but hadn't used it in several years and the type of trauma that a Soldier is expected to treat in the military is quite different from what one encounters in the civilian world. Marksmanship came rather naturally for him, as he does a lot of hunting outside of the Army.
"I've learned that I am pretty resourceful," said Orozco. "I can do a lot with little. A lot of the time we weren't really sure what was going to be thrown at us during the competition or what we needed to prepare for, so I was able to adapt and take what little I had and run with it."
"Find something that motivates you," concluded Orozco. "A reason that you want to better yourself. For me, it was getting a chance to go to Army schools that I wouldn't otherwise get a chance to go to, like Air Assault and Pathfinder. If you stay motivated and are willing to take some risks and put yourself out there, if you apply yourself, you can really go to a lot of places in the Army. Set your path and go with it."
Orozco will be formally promoted to sergeant at a ceremony at his unit this weekend, where he will be pinned by his wife, Heather.