Soldiering on: After layoff, guardsman wins ‘best warrior’ competition

Cpl. Daniel D’Ippolito, an Arizona National Guard infantryman, crosses the finish line after an 11-mile ruck march as part of the regional competition in July for Best Warrior Competition. He said he was never sure he was good enough for the contest, but decided to give it his all this year. (Photo by Spc. Elizabeth Johnson/U.S. Army)

Arizona National Guard Cpl. Daniel D’Ippolito treads water as part of the regional Best Warrior Competition for guardsmen from Southwestern states, Guam and Hawaii. D’Ippolito eventually won the Guard competition and went to the all-Army event. (Photo by Spc. Elizabeth Johnson/U.S. Army)

Arizona National Guard Cpl. Daniel D’Ippolito crosses a rope bridge in September on an obstacle course at the Army National Guard 2020 Best Warrior Competition. He won, becoming the first guardsman from Arizona to advance to the all-Army event. (Photo by Spc. Austin Eldridge/U.S. Army National Guard)

WASHINGTON – Daniel D’Ippolito’s situation was hardly unique in March when he was laid off from his job renting heavy equipment, one of the tens of thousands of Arizonans who lost jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic that month.

What he’s done since then, however, is unique.

After he was laid off, D’Ippolito, a corporal in the Arizona National Guard, dedicated himself to training for a grueling Army competition that he never used to think he was good enough for. Now the 26-year-old can claim to be one of the best in the country after the U.S. Army Best Warrior Competition, where he squared off for the better part of a month against soldiers from across the U.S., including Special Forces and Rangers.

He is also the first soldier from Arizona to qualify for the competition.

“This is the first time we’ve had a soldier or non-commissioned officer compete at the headquarters Department of the Army level,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Fidel Zamora, senior enlisted official for the Arizona National Guard. “So, this is really huge.”

Zamora said D’Ippolito’s accomplishment “speaks very highly of the Arizona National Guard.”

“On behalf of the state leadership, we’re all extremely proud of Cpl. D’Ippolito and his accomplishments, and we wish that for all of our soldiers and airmen that are serving in the Arizona National Guard,” Zamora said.

D’Ippolito was far from confident when he entered the competition, but decided to enter anyway.

“I always thought that I wasn’t good enough, but I would just give it my all,” D’Ippolito said.

The competition is designed to meet standards set forth by the Army, all while recreating the fog of war to complicate the challenge. So soldiers, starting at the battalion-level, shoot targets with various weapons; maneuver over, under or around different obstacles; and communicate by verbal, physical or electronic means under confusing conditions.

While active-duty soldiers train on these skills daily, National Guard and Reserve soldiers must find time to prepare along with their work and home lives. For D’Ippolito, for example, that meant training at night while attending business meetings during the day while on a business trip to California.

Arizona National Guard Cpl. Daniel D’Ippolito, in his dress uniform, was named best non-commissioned officer in the National Guard’s Best Warrior competition this summer, alllowing him to go on to the all-Army competition. (Photo by Spc. Bryton Bluth/U.S. Army)

D’Ippolito’s former supervisor at Barnhart Crane and Rigging, Michael Nott, who had to deliver news of the layoff, also told D’Ippolito that this was an opportunity to fully invest himself toward a longtime passion.

“When I had to lay him off, I told him that his calling was to be a soldier because he excels at that,” Nott said. “His passion is at that and I would go to battle with him personally at any time.”

He said it was “not surprising” to hear that D’Ippolito was competing. Nott, who first met D’Ippolito while the soldier worked as an intern and attended Arizona State University, called him an “upstanding American citizen” who’s “focused, driven and wants to succeed.”

D’Ippolito was able to skip the local competitions because Arizona does not have enough competitors to fill out a field, allowing him to go straight to the state competition.

He said his favorite event was the “stress shoot.” In it, soldiers in full body armor have to perform a series of physical exercises that reduce their hand dexterity and mental focus, and are then judged on the accuracy of firing various weapons at a series of targets.

“When I end up winning state and regionals, that kind of was a wake-up call for me,” he said.

After state and regionals, D’Ippolito went to the national competition for guardsmen at Camp Shelby Joint Force Training Center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Endurance became the biggest challenge, competing for three to four days in a row and averaging about two hours of sleep per night.

“They cram a lot of events in a small amount of time with very little sleep,” D’Ippolito said. “The physical exhaustion over a multiday event was hard and it’s something that I had to strategize.”

He said one of the best strategies became budgeting his time and energy to pass one stage, even if it meant not getting as high a score as he wanted, but just moving on to the next challenge with enough energy to complete it.

Zamora said the competition is a way for service members to test their own skills and become the well-trained fighting force that is needed in battle.

“I think it’s very important for all service members to have that drive within them to be competitive, because competition makes you better,” Zamora said. “It sharpens your skills and it makes you that subject-matter expert that all of our citizens in the nation expect us to be when we’re on the battlefield.”

The annual “warrior” competition, started in 2001, ultimately crowns the best non-commissioned officer and soldier in the country. When this year’s winners were announced on Oct. 13, D’Ippolito did not make the cut.

Regardless, D’Ippolito said the competition was a way to challenge himself and improve upon his skills as a soldier.

“Often times, I feel like I need an event to drive me to be at that next level,” he said. “This was an excuse to do that.”

He said military service is something he gravitated toward since he was a kid and he credits his success to his faith.

“I attribute a lot of my success, not only as a soldier but as a person, to my relationship with God,” D’Ippolito said. “I think that refining my character helps me become a better person and a better soldier.”

News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Josh Ortega is a California native and Army veteran who expects to graduate in spring 2021 with a bachelor’s degree. He serves as the business editor for the Downtown Devil in Phoenix.