The Best of the Best Judges the Rest

06/07/2013   Co-written by Staff Sgt. Jeremy Fowler and Sgt. 1st Class Michelle Conrad 362nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
 

FORT DEVENS, Mass. —The fight is on; Soldiers have all but come to fisticuffs and are throwing each other down, and grappling fiercely as they attempt to subdue their opponent. Sweat beads on the warrior’s faces as they attempt to gain dominance over their quarry, another Soldier.

This is not for training, this is real, this matters-this is for points. In the adrenaline-fueled brawl that ensues, it takes the watchful eye of an expert to ensure the competition does not result in injury. It takes someone who can command, without question or comprise, the raw emotions that are prevalent on the mat. They have just the right person, someone that all Soldiers are obedient to; it takes an expert, it takes a drill sergeant.

Sgt. 1st Class Michael Espinola has the distinction of mediating these bouts and was called on for his expertise in the area, as well as his heart and unflinching spirit for training Soldiers.

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On Jun. 5, 2011, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Espinola (left), a drill sergeant with Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 304th Regiment Brigade, 98th Training Division out of Ft. Devens, Mass. was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries sustained during an improvised explosive device in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Courtesy Photo

“I chose Espinola to assist me because I knew I could depend on him to get the job done,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Carlos Lopes, organizer for the 316th Sustainment Expeditionary Command’s Best Warrior Competition 2013. “I wanted an unbiased group of Soldiers to make sure the competition was fair.”

As Soldiers of the 316th ESC gather for their annual shot at the title of the best warrior and NCO of the year competition at Fort Devens, Mass. 23-29 March 2013, they face many obstacles in their quest. This year, contestants will be required to show some ‘fight’ if they want to come home victorious.

Sgt. 1st Class Michael Espinosa(left), the primary instructor for the Combatives tournament for the 361st Sustainment Expeditionary Command Best Warrior competition held at Fort Devens, Mass., watches Spc. Kelly (middle) perform the straight arm bar technique on Staff Sgt. Nadeau (right), a drill sergeant with Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 304th Regiment Brigade, 98th Training Division Mar. 29.

Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Michelle Conrad, 362nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.

The combatives event was one of the main events at the competition, giving Soldiers a boost up, or setting them back in the rankings against their peers.

Espinola enjoys watching Soldiers compete and demonstrate their skills in the warrior events. As a drill sergeant, he knows that the competitors at some point were affected by a Soldier wearing that ominous, khaki campaign hat.

“I made the decision to become a drill sergeant so I could lead the next generation of Soldiers coming into the military,” Espinola said, “I feel a drill sergeant has the greatest ability to influence a Soldiers’ first military experience, and leave an impression they will remember for the rest of their career.”

Espinola, a native of Lowell, Mass., joined the Army in Oct. 2000, as a light infantry Soldier on active duty before transferring to the Army Reserve as a drill sergeant in Sept. 2004.

Now with Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 304th Regiment Brigade, of the 98th Training Division out of Fort Devens, Mass., Espinola serves as a senior drill instructor where he continues to get the opportunity to train the next generation of America’s warriors.

While Espinola may serve part time in the Army Reserve as a Soldier, his dedication to the profession of arms and the training of Soldiers never takes a day off.

The Army Reserve drill sergeants train approximately 50 to 250 new Soldiers in a ten-week session during their annual training period at Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo.

While his experience as a drill sergeant was useful for other events in the competition, it was his Combatives training that granted him a seat as a judge at BWC 2013.

Espinola continues to leave his mark in the Army Reserve as a specialized instructor in the Army’s hand-to-hand combat training program, also known as the Modern Army Combatives Program (MACP). He is the only certified MACP level-three instructor in his brigade.

“I have taught over 30 level-one classes and I have assisted in ten level-two classes since I became a MACP level-three instructor in 2009,” said Espinola, “I enjoy teaching combatives and watching Soldiers develop their skills as they learn the techniques.”

With only four levels of MACP, Espinola is near the top of his game, and nearing the top of his certifications. Level-four is a four-week course that combines all the levels and a graduate can certify Soldiers on any of the previous levels.

Espinola plans on attending the level-four combatives program within the next year, so he can assist in training incoming drill sergeants in Delta Co.

It’s this dedication to excellence and unwavering courage in the face of danger, pain and uncertainty that defines Espinola.

He’s a fighter at heart, and has a Purple Heart, and Bronze Star with Valor device to prove it.

Sgt. 1st Class Michael Espinola (left), walks around evaluating a competitor for the Best Warrior competition, who is reacting to an nuclear, biological, and chemical attack after receiving indirect simulation at Ft. Devens, Mass. Mar 28. The competitor, with training atropine injection needles in his hand, renders buddy-aid to a Soldier during a simulated NBC attack.

Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Michelle Conrad, 362nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.

Throughout his four deployments Espinola has gained vast knowledge that he passes on to younger Soldiers. Among his experiences that he has learned so much from, it was his second tour to Afghanistan in 2011 that gave him pause and showed him the dangers of war. In this instance he stood up valiantly and displayed his dedication to those he serves with.

As part of a weapons escort team bringing weapons and ammunition to the Afghan National Army and police, Espinola’s vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device.

“I was the lead vehicle on the convoy ... my vehicle was struck with a 300-pound improvised explosive device. My truck was lifted 6-feet in the air and it landed on its side 20-feet off of the road,” said Espinola.

The attack left the entire crew unconscious and injured with lacerations and fractures. Espinola came to first. Dazed and confused, but unwilling to quit the fight, he continued to take care of his fellow warriors.

“As I unbuckled myself, I began working on a plan to get everyone out of the vehicle safely,” said Espinola. “My gunner and driver where badly injured.”

Espinola, remembering the training he has given to junior Soldiers, extracted the unconscious driver, still buckled in the vehicle.

In a demonstration of true leadership, courage and valor, Espinola, injured and bleeding, ensured all his Soldiers moved to other convoy vehicles for safety before leaving the vehicle himself.

“I was the last to leave the vehicle, when I started to receive small arms fire from a rooftop,” described Espinola.

“I was blocked off behind Espinola and I saw him and his gunner engaging the enemy,” said Staff Sgt. James Burke, who was in the convoy with Espinola.

He engaged the enemy with his one remaining Soldier and continued until the enemy stopped and they were able to move to the safety of the other vehicles.

“I remembered the training I had which allowed me to stay focused under the pressure,” said Espinola.

Even Staff Sgt., Burke was inspired by the gallantry of his comrade. “He has a unique ability to thrive in uncertainty and make quick decisions and make them work well; failure is not an option for him.”

For his actions in the heat of an attack, his wounds suffered and his continued dedication to his Soldiers despite weighty conditions, Espinola received a Bronze Star with Valor device and a Purple Heart.

This fighting attitude and inability to quit cements his success as a drill sergeant, and also as a MACP instructor. With every life experience a lesson and every Soldier a chance to teach a lesson learned with experience, there is never a dull moment for Espinola.

The Soldiers that grapple may never know his full life story, but they respect him. They may not know his sacrifices, but they applaud him. They may not know of his demonstrated valor, but they would never question his dedication to them as future leaders.

So as the pools of sweat grow and the aches and pains of the warriors mount, the watchful eye of the drill sergeant combative instructor watches like a hawk, when needed, teaches like a professor when called upon, and performs like a Soldier- always.

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