Story by 1st Lt. Joshua T. Fosher
“I am a Sapper Leader, the cutting edge of my country’s sword.” The talents of the Sapper’s of the 2d Engineer Battalion were recently showcased on the division stage during the 1st Armored Division’s Iron Sapper competition. During this competition teams from the battalion took first and third place overall, an impressive feat in itself but when you combine the individual accomplishments with the fact that all of the battalion’s team finished the grueling course the magnitude of the collective effort truly takes hold. For these Sapper teams, the results from the event was no fluke; they have worked hard to prepare themselves mentally and physically and the competition served as a validation for their hard work.
A select group of Soldiers from the 2d Engineer Battalion volunteered to undertake the long road of training to become Sapper leaders. The Sapper tab worn on the left shoulder is a way to distinguish those who have proven their skill as combat engineers during the intense Sapper Leader Course. The course is a mix of intense physical challenges and rigorous classroom training where candidates are constantly tested on small unit tactics, leadership skills, and War-fighter tactics required to perform as a member of a combined-arms team.
With all of the combat line companies returned from Afghanistan, the 2d Engineers has been able to institute a pre-Sapper training program geared towards training the junior leaders of the battalion to be successful during the rigorous course. The training program was entrusted to two graduates of the Sapper Leader Course, Cpt. Nathaniel A.Weander of HHC and 1sgt. Oscar V. Rodriquez of the 40th Mobility Augmentation Company. Rodriquez relied heavily on his experiences from the past to shape their plan, “I have been a part of this type of program before. My biggest take away was to push these guys and show them how much they could accomplish physically, but not to break them”.
Candidates must meet certain milestones during the training to be eligible to attend the course at Ft. Leonard Wood, MO. Each Soldier must complete a 12 mile road march with a 40lb rucksack in under 3 hours, pass a combat water survival test, pass a Sapper physical training test to include two minutes of pushups, sit-ups and complete a five mile run in under 40 minutes. To supplement these physical tests, the training program had the Soldiers spending long hours in the gym and the pool, and ruck marching to boost their physical condition. The instructors had to balance the physical requirements with the health of each Soldiers to ensure they remained healthy for the course.
Physical training is not the only area in which the candidates are put through. During the general subjects phase of the course, subjects range from medical, land navigation, demolitions, air and water operations, mountaineering, landmines, and weapons used by enemy forces. With their experience of personally going through the training, Weander and Rodriquez pulled out the harder subjects like knots and tactics, and gave classes to the candidates on the checks and safeties for each of the required knots they will have to know in order to pass the school.
Some lessons roll straight from the classroom into the physical train such as the ruck sack raft. In this lesson Soldiers are taught how to take their ruck sacks and some common military supplies and turn them into a raft capable of safely transporting the Soldier’s gear across a ford site. Though exceedingly challenging, the benefits of such tasks far out-weight the toll it takes on the Soldiers body, giving them the confidence of mastering a technical challenge and putting it into a practical application.
At the end of the day the training program, candidates know they get back from the program what they put in. The first major test for the candidates came during the Iron Sapper competition hosted at Fort Bliss. This 37-hour competition took place on 11 and 12 March with each Sapper team competing in engineering tasks across Fort Bliss. Tasks included live demolitions, knots, weapons proficiency and qualification, as well as many more tests over the rigorous course. The 2d Engineer Battalion sent eight teams to the competition after each team member earned their slot by taking part in the strenuous training program.
The competition culminated on the parade field across of the 1st Armored Division where the exhausted participants finally were able to set down their ruck sacks. Up to this point no team knew their score but were proud to have finished the physically and mentally taxing course. Of all of the participating units, the 2d Engineer’s were the only unit to have all of their teams finish. Ltc. James R. Koeppen praised his Soldiers for their great work, “I am extremely proud of our Soldiers who participated in the Iron Sapper Competition. They represented themselves, the 2nd Engineer Battalion, and White Sands Missile Range very well. I think the fact that all of our teams finished and represented about half of all the teams that completed the competition shows how mentality and physically prepared they were for the competition. I believe their performance sent a positive message to the 1st Armored Division; when the 2d Engineer Battalion arrives for duty next year, the division will get a tough, well trained, and professional Engineer Battalion.”
After a quick bite to eat and a much needed rest in the sun, the participants formed up on the parade field to hear final results of the event. The announcement came and the Soldiers from the 2d Engineer Battalion had taken first and third places overall. The third place team was represented by 1lt, Cody R Millhouse from the 573rd Clearance Company and Pfc. Rory J Stewart from the 595th Sapper Company. Both Soldiers received certificates of achievement for their hard work and determination during the competition.
The first place team was comprised of 1lt. Zebulun C Coulter of the 40th Mobility Augmentation Company and 1lt. Andrew P Storey of the Headquarters Company. “The course was tough but we got through it working together. Our strengths really complement each other well,” Coulter explained. These two were no strangers when it came to working together as they both had served down range together as platoon leaders during the 595th Sapper Company’s last deployment to Afghanistan.
Proud and weary the competitors took one final photograph all together in front of the division headquarters. With a loud, head turning “Sapper Steel!” from Csm. Devardy Arnold, it was evident that the 2d Engineer Battalion had burst on to the Fort Bliss Engineer scene.