FORT McCOY, Wis. — Staff Sgt. Benjamin Latham rose from his chair on a cool, overcast September afternoon, and stood among his peers and superiors as they showered him in applause. As his teammates from the notorious “Team 7” chanted their trademark “Luck-y! Luck-y! Luck-y!” Latham approached the stage at the outdoor ceremony for the third time in rapid succession.
Onlookers, most of whom were dressed in highly-decorated Army Service Uniforms, chuckled in disbelief at hearing his name called so many times that afternoon. This time would be the most significant, however. As he stood before the crowd, he approached Command Sgt. Maj. Andrew Lombardo knowing that he had conquered yet another monolithic obstacle in his life. Latham had outlasted all other competitors en route to becoming the 2020 Army Reserve Best Warrior as the top noncommissioned officer winner.
The Army Reserve Best Warrior competition is a grueling gauntlet of events that tested competitors’ mental, physical, and emotional endurance over the course of five days. This year, competitors were graded on the Army Combat Fitness Test, the German Basic Fitness Test, a 100-meter swim, an obstacle course, two ruck marches totaling 20 miles, a medical simulation lane, a shoot house, a military police decision-based scenario, an improvised explosive device lane, land navigation, and weapon qualifications for the M17 and M9 pistols, the M4 carbine (during both day and night), M320 grenade launcher, M240B and M249 light machine guns, the M2 machine gun, and the M26 shotgun, all with precious few hours each night to rest. Emerging from such a diverse battery of tests with the highest average score proves a Soldier’s versatility, determination and grit.
As Latham, a 29-year old drill sergeant and combat engineer from Joliet, Illinois, returned to his seat amid a wave of applause and congratulations, he managed his newly-acquired mountain of awards. His Best Warrior trophy found its place among his marksmanship and physical fitness awards. After a whirlwind week of non-stop action, he finally had a moment to reflect on what he accomplished, and how he got here.
Latham grew up in northern Illinois, in a small farm town called Harvard. Even at an early age, Latham was no stranger to hard work. He helped on the farm until getting his own job. At seventeen, Latham moved out of his parents’ house and fully supported himself.
“After a year of working two jobs, I worked from sun-up to the middle of the night basically. I worked at a car place, I worked at a restaurant, and I would just go from one to the other. I didn’t have very many days off, and I didn’t like that life. It was a struggle. I saw a lot of my friends going down the wrong path, doing things like drugs, excessive drinking, a lot of them were getting in trouble, and I didn’t. I kind of saw the writing on the wall there, and was kind of smart enough to be like, ‘I need to figure out what I’m gonna do, because I can’t sustain this.’”
Latham had always considered the military growing up, but his circumstances were making it look more appealing by the day. In July of 2009, he joined the National Guard as a motor transport operator. From the beginning, Latham felt right at home.
“When I went to basic, I loved it. I found that I was good at it. I had never exercised before, but I grew up on a farm. I was active, I just hadn’t conditioned my body, and I found that it came really easy to me. I enjoy doing (physical training). I like learning new skills,” he said.
These traits would come to define the next several years of his life.
Latham graduated Advanced Individual Training as the honor graduate with a high physical training score, and his unit rewarded him with an immediate slot in Airborne School. This would be the first in a series of specialty schools and unique challenges Latham would volunteer for. Upon completion of Airborne School, Latham joined the honor guard and performed military funeral honors for three years, eventually becoming an instructor for it. He also joined the Illinois National Guard biathlon team. The next few years would see Latham doing convoy missions all over the state, and even into Canada. But eventually Latham stagnated in that position, and he grew bored.
“I was kind of starved of some leadership that would help me cultivate my potential, because I always craved more. I want to do something cool,” he said.
One of Latham’s coworkers in his civilian law enforcement job had been trying to recruit him into the Army Reserve to be a drill sergeant for quite some time, and Latham was finally ready to listen. He let his initial contract with the Guard expire, turning down a promotion to E-6 in the process. It was a heartbreaking compromise, but Latham knew this would be the best path forward.
Latham joined the Army Reserve with a new military occupational specialty: combat engineer. Shortly after completing his training, Latham went to drill sergeant school, and eventually deployed to Saudi Arabia. This would prove to be a pivotal period in his life, both personally and professionally.
He met his eventual wife, Ivina, in Saudi Arabia while she was working security at the U.S. embassy. It was also during this trip that he found the inspiration for the rest of his career.
“I worked as an instructor for pre-Ranger courses that we developed for the Saudi special forces,” he said.
Latham worked alongside an impressive and diverse cast of characters, ranging from former Navy Seals, Navy divers, former Rangers, EOD, and Special Forces.
“Working with those guys was probably the turning point in my career. It made me realize what level you have to operate at to be those things, and I wanted to do those things! After my experience there, I just kind of put my head down and decided that I need some more training. I need to be stronger, faster, smarter, and I want to know everything,” he said.
He returned from Saudi Arabia motivated for the challenge of a lifetime. He wanted to go to Ranger school, but he knew that it would be hard for his command to justify sending him. Sapper school, on the other hand, would be far easier to justify sending him as a combat engineer, so he set his sights on that. He coordinated a pre-sapper course for himself, did all the prerequisites, and even built his own packet.
“My command was gracious enough to send me, after I showed them, ‘Hey, I have everything. I just need your okay.’ I went to Sapper as a walk-on, and graduated on the commandant’s list. It was an incredible experience. It’s hard to really put into words just how difficult the course is. It really tests you. It tests your intestinal fortitude beyond measure, and it finally gave me that fire hose of knowledge that I’d been searching for. It is so fast-paced. There is no crawl, walk, run. You get there, and it is run, run, run, run, run. Pushing through that taught me so much about myself. It gave me the confidence that I can accomplish any task. Any mission, no matter what it is. I know that I can do anything. Not a lot of Soldiers can say that,” he said.
Latham returned to his unit a new man. He was overflowing with both confidence and gratitude to his command. So when they asked him to compete in the Best Warrior Competition, it was an easy decision.
“I said, ‘Yes, of course.’ First of all, I know that I have what it takes to win it, because I just completed the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I was on top of the world. I was strong, fast, smart. I was in the zone,” he said.
Latham breezed through the lower level competitions with relative ease. The events themselves were challenging, but more predictable than what the Army Reserve Command would have in store for him at Fort McCoy.
“They turned it up to 10,” said Latham. “We woke up super early. We were in the field. Every event was a mystery, and they threw stuff at me that I just didn’t expect. I think (the U.S. Army Reserve Command) definitely stepped their game up. They know what they’re doing with these competitions. They definitely put a lot of planning and consideration into this. Just the logistics alone blows my mind. I didn’t expect them to have such logistical manpower. There were so many moving parts that it was pretty overwhelming. So that definitely exceeded my expectations,” he said.
The event got underway at a blistering pace, and never relented. Competitors started with an early wake-up to perform the initial test: the ACFT. Latham was scouting his competition and took notice of a couple standout Soldiers.
“I had my eye on a Sgt. (Gabriel) Martinez, and a Sgt. (Jose) Galva. Sgt. Galva seemed very knowledgeable. Sharp, young E-5. He seemed strong, efficient, knowledgeable. I mean, those are all the things that you’re looking for. And Sgt. Martinez just runs like the wind. That guy’s fast. He ran like a very low 12 (minutes) on the two-mile (run) in the (Army Combat Fitness Test).”
Immediately following the ACFT, the event coordinators hit Latham with the first curve ball.
“Biggest surprise? Honestly, probably the (German Basic Fitness Test). Immediately after the ACFT? Man, got me on that one. Didn’t see that coming! I thought we’d do the ACFT and move on to something else, and they were like immediately into another PT event. I was like, ‘Okay, these guys are stepping it up!’”
Shortly after the initial flurry of physical tests, competitors would be divided into their teams, and Latham would meet the other members of Team 7. This experienced team of outstanding NCOs would go on to dominate both the competition and the spotlight. The team had instant chemistry, and their combined charisma and solid performances quickly earned them notoriety among both competitors and cadre.
“As soon as we got split into Team 7, Lucky 7, we started coming up with mottos. We were joking all the time. Everybody at every lane, all the cadre, they would know us when we showed up, because we were loud and in charge.”
Team 7’s diverse set of knowledge, experience, physical gifts, and chemistry led them to excel in team-based events like the military police lane.
“Honestly I think my favorite event was the MP village,” said Latham. “It was very realistic. It brought me back to the days when I used to be a police officer. Dealing with crowds or doing crowd control. We ended up wrestling with a lot of people and doing some combatives in the middle of the street. They made it extremely realistic ... It was good. That’s the kind of training you need! The way the scenario flowed, it was almost like multiple scenarios in one. The situation constantly evolved.”
It wasn’t all smooth for Lucky 7 though. With such an experienced team of NCOs, the cadre running the land navigation course intentionally gave them the most difficult lane.
“I was most frustrated on land navigation. We had to push through some very thick stuff with some really tall elevation. It was good for terrain association, but we had trouble finding a point because it was so overgrown with thorns, and it was not easy to move around and search. We wasted too much time and we busted time. That’s my favorite thing to do is land nav. So that was really heartbreaking, not getting a perfect score on land nav. That was the hardest moment for me emotionally, because I’m very competitive, and I hold myself to a high standard. When I fail something, I get pretty frustrated about it, and it’s hard for me to shake it,” he said.
But Latham persevered, and excelled in every other event. The week sped by as one event blurred into the next, with competitors sleeping in the field for a handful of hours at a time. When events follow each other as quickly and intensely as the BWC, it can be hard for individual memories to stand out. But Latham knows which memories he will cherish the most from this competition.
“Working with the guys in Team 7. That’s the kind of stuff I love about the Army. When you’re going through stuff that sucks, and you have guys or gals to your left and right, and you’re going through the same suck as everybody else. You’re wet, you’re cold, you’re tired, you’re hungry, and you can still laugh and joke and have a good time doing that. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what gets you through things that really matter, like when you go to combat, and you have to deal with all that, while bullets are flying by your head, and still keep your head. That’s the kind of stuff that matters. I’ll talk to the guys in Lucky 7 for probably the rest of my career.”