Fort Benning Public Affairs
FORT BENNING, Ga. – When he got the big news one hot August day last year that the Army would send him to Britain for training at one of the world's most prestigious military institutions, Alexander Nappi was both surprised and elated.
He was then a student in Officer Candidate School here, and now the Army was giving him a chance offered to very few: a year at the British Army's esteemed Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Winston Churchill is just one famous Sandhurst graduate.
What Nappi couldn't know at the time is that the distinction of being selected would lead eventually to even more good news, so good it would pose "a pretty big shock."
He'd entered the Army in 2019 from Washington, D.C., after earning a bachelor's degree in history from George Washington University. Nappi was born in Smithtown, on Long Island, New York. But his father's work for a big U.S. firm took the family to many places, including Thailand, Japan, and Brazil. Nappi had a longstanding interest in military history and in college decided to apply for OCS in hopes of becoming an Infantry officer.
"I told my recruiter the day that I walked in that I want to go to OCS and I want to be an Infantry officer," said Nappi, now 24. "And that never changed."
Every year OCS sends two of its very best people to Sandhurst's Regular Intake Commissioning Course, the same program that trains British cadets to become commissioned officers in Britain's active-duty army. The course includes students from numerous other countries, who are sent to gain valuable training. The academic year is 44 weeks over three semesters.
At Fort Benning, OCS candidates who ask to be considered for the opportunity go before an interview panel at Fort Benning.
It's headed by the OCS commandant, Lt. Col. David T. Holstead, who also commands the unit that trains OCS candidates, 3rd Battalion, 11th Infantry Regiment, 199th Infantry Brigade.
The brigade is part of Fort Benning's U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence. MCoE trains Soldiers for the Infantry and Armor branches, which together make up the Army's maneuver force. Also on the board is the British Army's liaison officer to Fort Benning, Lt. Col. Kieran B. Holling.
"The interview board is a grueling process," said Holling. "Each candidate sits through perhaps 40 to 45 minutes of questions from the board which cover all things from current affairs, general knowledge, military, understanding of ethics, the U.S. position in the world, so that we can judge the suitability of the candidates to engage at Sandhurst and be successful in the course."
The board looks for those who are most "likely to integrate well in an international setting and to represent the U.S. Army well," Holling said. The 3rd Battalion's command sergeant major and executive officer also sit on the board, as well as the company commander and first sergeant of the candidate being interviewed.
Nappi began OCS training in June 2019 as a member of Class 007-19, assigned to 3rd Battalion's Charlie Company.
That August afternoon more than a year ago – Nappi remembers the day as not only hot but "Fort Benning-hot" – the panel interviewed each of five candidates separately. Nappi was one of those selected.
"I'd say it was a combination of surprise and elation," he said in a video interview from Sandhurst. "It certainly didn't feel like a done deal or even mine to lose, going into the board. Because there were some genuinely good candidates."
Then, in September 2019, Nappi graduated OCS, was named its Distinguished Military Graduate, and, newly-commissioned a second lieutenant in the Infantry, headed for England to start at Sandhurst in January.
He knew that if he could make it through Sandhurst's academic and tactical rigors and arduous physical demands, it would be a major achievement. It would furnish superb military training and also add distinction to a junior officer's record.
His year at Sandhurst ends this week, and Nappi has more than made it through: Sandhurst's commandant, Maj. Gen. Duncan Capps, announced at a Nov. 30th ceremony which cadets had earned awards for their outstanding performance, and Nappi is recipient of the International Award.
It's given to the International Officer Cadet who achieves the best military, academic and practical scores in the class. The International Award is equivalent to Sandhurst's Queen's Medal, awarded to a British Officer Cadet for top scores in those same three areas.
"That's the sort of thing I would never have anticipated coming out of that," Nappi said of earning the award. "It's fantastic. Much more than I anticipated. So this has actually been a pretty big shock to me."
The awards, including that to Nappi, are to be presented Dec. 11 at Sandhurst during the graduation event known as the Sovereign's Parade.
During the year, said Nappi, academic studies included – among other topics – the development of maneuver warfare, defense and international affairs, leadership, management, communication skills like active listening, and factors that influence behavior.
Tactical training included basics of fire and maneuver, how to carry out various attacks, including ambushes and raids, and fighting from defensive positions.
And the physical training tested body and mind, he said.
"The British like to run with weight," said Nappi. "They really like to run with weight."
Physical tests included a 2 km run with a 55-pound load in 15 minutes, he said, and a log race, a team event in which a platoon does a 5K run carrying 200-pound logs.
The "high point" of the course is in the Black Mountains of Wales, where squads of cadets have 36 hours to make their way across 60 kilometers "conducting all the navigation, ups and downs, with about 40 pounds," said Nappi.
"Then you put it all together for a day and a half with no sleep because you're trying to cover that ground," he said. If the squad takes a wrong turn, "now you have to backtrack and re-do it."
As to Nappi's earning the International Award, "Honestly," said Holstead, the OCS commandant, "I wasn't surprised. I won't say I expected it, but I wasn't surprised." While at OCS, "then-candidate Nappi was extremely confident, extremely intelligent, so all our questions on things like global affairs – he nailed them," Holstead said of Nappi's appearance before the selection board.
"And he had the right demeanor, that I thought would fit in over in Great Britain," he said. "He had an expansive knowledge of world affairs, of diplomacy, so his intellect was through the roof. He was also in great physical condition. He was in the top 10 of his class at OCS, and he carried himself with confidence and charisma. And I knew from the beginning that he would do well over there."
Also slated to graduate Sandhurst this week is the other OCS graduate selected that day last year, 2nd Lt. Elijah M. Villapiano, who upon completion of OCS was commissioned an Armor officer.
Holstead sensed that Villapiano too was a sound choice for Sandhurst.
"Lieutenant Villapiano is a very insightful and thoughtful individual," said Holstead. "And I looked at him and knew that his experience at Sandhurst would create a great return on investment for him, personally, and for the Army. I knew he would get a lot out of Sandhurst, that he could translate that into direct leadership here in the United States Army."
Both Nappi and Villapiano are due back at Fort Benning in January for further training here. Nappi is scheduled to start the Infantry Basic Officer Leader Course, Villapiano the Armor Basic Officer Leader Course.
Nappi said his time at Sandhurst afforded knowledge and numerous insights across a wide array of military concepts and practices that included leadership, operational planning, warfighting and many others.
Sandhurst, including its leadership training and strenuous physical demands, also brought home the vital need to keep the right attitude and stay "focused on the bigger picture in trying conditions, sort of a quintessential Army leadership requirement," he said.
"It is something that really allowed me to dig deeper in myself and figure out how to remain positive and mission-focused," he said.
Another key benefit of the year at Sandhurst was the chance to work with members of foreign militaries.
"When we find ourselves in the international operating environment, which we invariably do, I have a sense of how to act and how to be when you're operating with foreign partners, that very few junior officers get until they are in that situation and they have to figure it out on the fly."
"It's a huge achievement on a couple of levels," Holling, the British liaison officer, said of Nappi's winning the award.
"For him personally, he has acquitted himself exceptionally well across a broad range of disciplines," Holling said. "He's learned a new set of military skills – some of those he's already had – but he's picked up new sets specific to the British Army, he's acquired all of those.
"But also he's been tested in the academic arena in competition with top-flight graduates from some of the world's top universities," he said. "I mean Sandhurst takes a very strong cohort of British young men and women, often with exceptionally strong educational backgrounds, and he has come up with the top flight of those students across the board," he said. "They're all outstanding candidates in their own countries. So on the personal level he's achieved a great deal.
"But the other thing that he's done," said Holling, "he has delivered on the request that was made of him, by volunteering for that course: to go and represent OCS, MCoE and the U.S. Army well, in an international environment. He's got recognition for the U.S. Army and it's educational program that delivers him as a commissioned officer, and it's got him personal recognition for his academic and military ability.
"And that's why candidates are interviewed in such a rigorous process and selected so carefully," said Holling, "to try to pick the people who will deliver in that difficult competition. And he's done just that."