FORT SILL, Oklahoma (April 6, 2021) -- Enduring a week of exhausting physical and mental challenges, nine NCOs and three Soldiers competed in the 434th Field Artillery Brigade’s Best Warrior competition March 29 through April 2.
Competitors were pushed to their limits on a dozen events ranging from the Army Combat Fitness Test 3.0 to swimming to stress shoots to a 12-mile foot march and ending with an appearance before a knowledge board in front of command sergeants major.
In the end, Drill Sergeant (Staff Sgt.) Matthew Loupe, C Battery, 1st Battalion, 40th Field Artillery; and Sgt. Hunter Chapman, A Battery, 1st Battalion, 79th FA, won and will move on to the Fires Center of Excellence and Fort Sill Best Warrior competition in June. (Chapman was just promoted and competed as a junior Soldier).
Loupe said all his physical training preparation paid off. “Physically, we were all right there competing, I had to dig down and definitely find who I really am.”
Chapman said it felt good to win. “I know I have a lot more in the tank that I can give.”
Also competing were: Senior Drill Sergeants (Sgt. 1st Class) Maria Acuna-Nava, E1-22nd FA, and (Sgt. 1st Class) Samantha Matlock, B/1-19th FA. Drill Sergeants (Staff Sgt.) Windell Anuntak, D/1-19th FA; (Staff Sgt.) Michael Rabaino, B/1-31st FA; (Staff Sgt.) Michael Labre, D/1-22nd FA; (Staff Sgt.) Paige Louque, D/1-79th FA; and (Sgt.) Jaimi Sloan, A/1-31st FA; and noncommissioned officer Staff Sgt. Joshua McNeal, 95th Adjutant General Battalion (Reception).
For the Best Warrior Soldier (junior enlisted) the other competitors were Cpl. Joseph Evans, 95th AG BN; and Spc. Austin Neale, B/1-19th FA.
Fort Sill Drill Sergeant of the Year (Staff Sgt.) William Tazwell designed the competition. He said he put an emphasis on knowledge based on regulations. Competitors never knew what event was coming up, and were not told how they were doing in the standings.
Day three of the competition started with a refreshing swim March 31 at 6 a.m. in Rinehart Fitness Center pool. Tazwell said it was an event he and the brigade command team came up with.
“The competitors already had been through so many physical activities (March 30) so that was a grueling day. To start today off in the pool after they were already sore, it really shows who is willing to go the distance,” he said.
Tazwell said they tried to use every type of range and facility to test the drill sergeants and received great support in setting up the competition. “Our counterparts at MWR always do a good job allowing us to reserve this space.”
The competitors were required to swim in their Operational Camouflage Pattern jackets and pants. The first down-and-back lap was unencumbered other than added water weight that saturated their uniforms. Back in the shallow end of the pool, they picked up their weapons and swam three lengths of the pool to finish in the 13-foot deep end. Once there, they placed their weapons on the tile outside of the pool while treading water. Then, the hard part: take off their jackets and pants, placing each outside the pool to stop the timed event.
Being that it was the competition’s mystery event, competitors learned as the event unfolded.
Labre was one of the first pair of swimmers.
“It’s always good to get in a different type of environment and see how your body adapts and tries to overcome,” he said. “The water is one thing, but doing it with a weapon and in uniform was … a pretty grueling event.”
Labre said fatigue increased a lot once he picked up his weapon. Toward the end he felt like he was starting to sink, but then external motivation gave him a little boost.
“It’s always good to go against someone as it keeps the competition there,” he said. “That made me want to push just a little bit harder.”
Acuna-Nava took a different tack to complete the event. She did it by slowing things down in her head and concentrating on completing one swim stroke at a time.
“Hearing Drill Sergeant Tazwell say, ‘Hey Acuna, you got it!’ I just kept telling myself that in my head, and that helped me finish (the event).”
Extricating herself from her ACU, Acuna-Nava said she felt a jolt of adrenaline kick in when her head dipped below the surface and water ran up her nose, but she had a plan in place.
“The last leg of the swim I kept thinking what am I going to do first. Unzip my jacket, undo the buttons on my sleeve. I just ran it through my head step by step and that’s what I did,” she said.
Rabaino said he figured out what to do watching competitors who entered the pool before him. In doing so, he became something of an innovator that others followed.
“Once I decided what types of swimming strokes I would use, I needed the use of both hands. I just stuffed my weapon in my jacket and the pistol grip hooked onto the zipper,” he said.
Each competitor had been assigned a senior sponsor from their unit to help them prepare for the competition physically and mentally, and to keep them motivated throughout the testing, said Tazwell.
Staff Sgt. Walter Banks, A/1-79th FA training NCO, was the sponsor for Chapman. He said they began prepping for the competition about 1.5 months ago.
“We studied a lot of material including regulations, manuals, and on subjects provided on memorandum of instruction,” Banks said. “He (Chapman) started PT-wise with a couple practice ACFTs, and focusing on those events that were physically demanding.”
Command Sgt. Maj. Scott Slater, 434th FA Brigade CSM, said the Best Warrior competition creates a value of fitness. It shows who is the best of the best on Soldier skills, as well as mental toughness.
“Ninety percent of this year’s competition is based on mental agility, and how you deal with friction points,” he said.
Anuntak said he volunteered to compete in Best Warrior because he wanted to challenge himself, and to represent his unit. Although everyone was competing against each other, there was camaraderie and encouragement between the competitor, he said.
Right before the final event, Matlock said she felt good about how well she performed overall. She endorsed the competition.
“I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to test their mental and physical strength and the extent of their Army knowledge,” she said.