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Sappers: Masters of Movement

When it comes to mobility and countermobility on the battlefield, Sapper combat engineers are the ultimate problem solvers. How do you become one of the Army’s most elite, multifaceted warfighters? You leave your limits behind at Sapper Leader Course.
Soldiers jump out of the back of a CH-47 Chinook during helocast training. Photo by Preston Keres
Soldiers jump out of the back of a CH-47 Chinook during helocast training. Photo by Preston Keres
Sapper Leader Course trains students in demolitions. Photo by Melissa Buckley
Sapper Leader Course trains students in demolitions. Photo by Melissa Buckley
A Sapper Leader Course instructor teaches cadets how to build a raft out of a poncho and rope. Photo from U.S. Army
A Sapper Leader Course instructor teaches cadets how to build a raft out of a poncho and rope. Photo from U.S. Army
In the 2012 Best Sapper Competition at Fort Leonard Wood, MO, a contestant slices through 10 half-inch-diameter rebar rods in the thermal breaching exercise. Photo by Melissa Buckley
In the 2012 Best Sapper Competition at Fort Leonard Wood, MO, a contestant slices through 10 half-inch-diameter rebar rods in the thermal breaching exercise. Photo by Melissa Buckley
Sapper Leader Course trains students in waterborne operations. SFC Adam Farrington joins Sapper trainees warming up with push-ups before the poncho raft swim. Photo by Preston Keres
Sapper Leader Course trains students in waterborne operations. SFC Adam Farrington joins Sapper trainees warming up with push-ups before the poncho raft swim. Photo by Preston Keres

Most people never actually reach the point of physical exhaustion. It’s not the feeling you get when you just can’t run any farther or can’t do any more bench press reps. There’s a place you reach beyond that—a sensation you recognize only once you get there.

If the two Soldiers wading out of the water didn’t know it before today, they do now. Water pours from their uniforms as they try for the 20th time to heave their makeshift raft above their heads. The instructor shouting at them is remarkably unhelpful; to an outside observer, it could seem as if he doesn’t want them to succeed. In reality, he’s doing them a favor.

They’ll take time later to wish they’d worked on their swimming more before today, but right now their brains can process only the task at hand. They can’t go any farther without the raft over their heads, but it took on too much water while they were trying not to die crossing the lake, and now it’s too heavy. They’ve already failed their evaluation—their muscle fibers may be tearing, but they’ll get zero points all the same. Still, the Soldiers can’t quit. If they did, they wouldn’t be Sappers.

Sappers are elite combat engineers: highly trained experts at building things and tearing them down again and making things move—whether they want to or not. They construct and destroy roads, bridges and buildings. They lay mines, clear minefields and construct field defenses. They make sure Soldiers and their equipment can get to where they need to go. And they prevent the enemy from doing the same.

Sappers are employed in dedicated Sapper battalions and embedded in frontline combat engineer or infantry platoons. Explosives, excavators and steamrollers are among their tools. Their missions take place on land, helicopters and boats (like the Combat Rubber Reconnaissance Crafts known as Zodiacs). If it sounds like they do a little of everything, it’s because they do. And none of it is easy.

Sappers, whose name derives from the French word “Sapeur,” for a soldier who dug saps, or tunnels, have served and played pivotal roles in every American war. General George Washington credited the U.S. Army’s first chief of engineers, Louis Duportail, for his “military genius” in the successful siege of Yorktown.

If you want to be part of such a legacy, if you want to stand among some of the most versatile warfighters in the Army who epitomize the “quiet professional” mantra, you have to start at Sapper Leader Course (SLC) in Missouri. It’s there where you’ll reach your breaking point. But considering where you can go after that, there may be no better place to be.

  

WITHIN THESE WALLS

Fort Leonard Wood (FLW), one of the world’s premier training sites for combat engineers, sits hidden in the rolling Ozark Mountain hills, a two-hour drive from St. Louis, MO, the nearest major city. Within the walls of this post live some of the Army’s most critical U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command schools: Basic Combat Training, military police school and engineer school. Sapper school is broken into two phases. After an initial Army Physical Fitness Test, the first 14-day phase begins. It’s a mix of general subjects, including demolitions, infantry tactics, mountaineering, water crossing and more. Most events consist of a period of instruction, followed by a practical exercise, which is usually graded.

The second 14-day phase is all about the patrol. Tasks include urban operations, breaching, patrol movement techniques, and raid and ambush techniques. This phase culminates in a field training exercise that tests not just how well the Sapper candidates perform, but how well they lead. Each student is required to perform (and have a successful evaluation) in a leadership role. Sapper school isn’t just about book knowledge—it’s about putting that knowledge into practice.

“The hardest thing about Sapper school is time management. You’re up early, so time is important,” says Sergeant First Class Adam Farrington, a member of the 251st Sapper Company in Maine’s National Guard. “If you don’t come here prepared, you’ll struggle. Be ready to run, be ready to ruck. Be up-to-date on your ten-level skills.”

Farrington left his four kids and wife at home knowing he would bring back some intangible benefits. “I like being pushed to the point of breaking,” he says. “I’m thirty-five years old, and I like proving to myself that I can stay with the young bucks. I enjoy it.” He says when he goes home, he’ll take with him not just new Army skills—he’ll also have a new appreciation for what’s really important to him in life. 

In many ways, the SLC is just like any other military school. You could show up to observe training on any given day and expect to see intense physical and mental exertion, interrupted by the usual smoke sessions and chow breaks. But one of the first striking differences of Sapper school is its pace. There are no hurry-up-and-wait moments. Each minute not taken up with training or evaluation is used to practice, study or help your buddy. 

In this environment, where the difference between success and failure can be a matter of a few points, and where up to a third of the course’s total available points come from team or buddy-pair events, you have to be able to rely on relationships. Just like in the real world, success comes through a combination of extreme effort and collaboration.

Always eager to team up and get into the trenches with his students, Captain Matvey Vikhrov serves as a lifeguard during water-crossing day, “motivating” his students while he does it. He has nothing but the utmost respect for the professionalism of the instructors and evaluators who work for him. Since the beginning of 2013, he’s commanded the cadre here. He and his chief instructor, Master Sergeant Kevin Wiseman, have put together a team of combat-proven specialists.

“Each instructor has done something to improve the course,” Vikhrov says. “Like any schoolhouse, we want to improve the place where we work. We want to leave [it] better than when we found it.”

Wiseman says Sapper trainers aren’t just professional Soldiers, they’re professional instructors. “Everybody is handpicked in some way,” he says. “And then once they get here, they receive a two-week course just on how to be an instructor. They’re the best of the best.”

One instructor, Staff Sergeant Joshua Knea, one of the newest members in the schoolhouse, says the most practical thing taught in the course is the versatility to operate in any environment, even under the most difficult conditions. “It gives the Sapper leader the ability to work in all those environments and apply [all of the techniques] he’s learned, whether it’s things from the SLC or in leadership schools he’s previously been in, to be able to mix all those things together and be able to put them to effective use,” Knea says.

 

DOING IT ALL

Because Sapper school is designed specifically to test and develop Soldiers’ ability to perform in a wide range of environments, its training events are more varied than nearly any other Army school. From base-level tasks such as land navigation to high-level demolitions tasks to written examinations, Sappers must be able to do it all.

To get to the SLC, you have to be an Active or Reserve Component volunteer, O-3 or below for officers and E-4 through E-7 for enlisted. Priority for training slots is given to Soldiers in combat engineer and certain other combat arms MOSs. For the most up-to-date requirements, contact your training NCO.

There are a lot of reasons to go. Jumping out of helicopters is fun. Climbing mountains and rappelling off towers is, too. Patrolling the forest in the middle of the night is, well, if not fun then at least exciting. But the best reason to attend is to learn. And if you do go, Wiseman says you should come ready to be stretched.

“Each Sapper who comes here and completes the course will definitely know that their limits are further out [than they thought]. ... A lot of Soldiers in the Army will go to the edge of their comfort zone, but they won’t cross over to where they’re uncomfortable. We try to push them into that uncomfortable zone, and then show them you can be in that zone, be comfortable and have control.”

“Helocasting,” one of the most challenging events—and a favorite among course attendees—is a troop insertion technique using helicopters to drop Soldiers in water, with or without Zodiac boats. Sapper school is one of a handful of military courses in the world that performs helocasting operations. Techniques taught here are so specialized that units from all over the country send their trainers to observe the instructors and take info back to their units to improve techniques and procedures.

Each graded training event in the course has a number of points assigned to it. At the end of the course, the Sapper candidates’ scores are added up for each event. Only Sappers with 700 points or more (out of a possible 1,000) qualify for the Sapper Tab. So some Soldiers will make it to the end but not qualify to wear the tab. They will, however, still have completed one of the most difficult courses in the U.S. military.

 

ALL ABOUT THE TEACHING

Every potential Sapper who starts the SLC will finish it, with few exceptions. While some of the elite combat schools pride themselves on how difficult it is to make it through, the SLC prides itself on the training. Of course, any Sappers who refuse to complete an event (occasionally they are too afraid to rappel, or can’t complete the swimming required) are removed from the course for “failure to train.”

There is also the occasional injury or emergency situation that forces a Sapper to be removed from training. And some Soldiers just can’t handle the pace, or the lack of sleep, and quit. They, too, are removed. But those who aren’t, who have the will to just keep going, will make it to the end. “Our instructors are here to teach, coach and mentor Sappers,” Vikhrov says. “Our goal is not to select those who are eligible for the Sapper Tab, but to teach the candidates so that they reach that level—that standard set for the Sapper Leader Course—and earn their tab. After graduation from the course, those Sappers can go back to their units and teach other Soldiers the skills that they learned here at the course.” This policy of letting each student complete the SLC allows for a unique focus on the quality of training, and makes Sapper the most practical of all the Army’s elite combat schools.

So what motivates Soldiers to subject themselves to this kind of environment? Like most elite troops, Sappers are driven to prove themselves against the biggest challenges they can find. But talk to Sappers at the SLC and you’ll see something else: practicality. They’re not just here for the tab. They’re here to learn, because unlike any other elite Army combat schools, the SLC is focused on education, not exclusion.

“A lot of schools you go to, if you fail an exam, they send you home. At this school [as long as you’re here], you will be trained,” Farrington says. “Regardless of your abilities, in the end—tab or no tab—you will be a better Soldier. If you’re here to get a tab, you’re here for the wrong reason.”

Sergeant First Class Phillip Ables came to Sapper school without a guaranteed spot in the course. He convinced his unit, the 152nd Engineer Support Company in New York, to send him to FLW even though he was still in standby status and not officially in the course. “I came because I wanted a challenge,” he says. “There’s so much information that you can retain [and] so many practical things you can learn that will help you in your job, no matter what kind of engineer you are.”

That “we’ll get it done” attitude exemplifies the Sapper mentality. And it’s one reason Sappers keep moving the Army where it needs to go. Forward.

 


 

TRIPLE THREAT

Sappers are experts in mobility, countermobility and survivability skills. Here’s a breakdown.

 

Mobility

Sappers clear and build routes to move people and things. Sometimes that means blowing up whatever’s standing in the way. Sometimes that means building roads or bridges—whatever it takes to get a unit where it needs to be.

Countermobility

Sappers are also experts at stopping things from moving. From placing mines to destroying bridges, they’re tasked with impeding enemy movement.

Survivability

When your job description is essentially “do whatever it takes to get the job done,” you’d better be ready for anything. Sappers are professional survivors, trained to thrive in any conditions.

  


 

EQUALLY TENACIOUS

Of all the ways Sapper school is unique among military schools, the most surprising has nothing to do with the training itself. “Since 1999, we have had sixty-one females who went through the course and earned the tab,” says the cadre commander, Captain Matvey Vikhrov.

The Sapper Leader Course (SLC) is groundbreaking from a gender-equality perspective. It’s the only elite Army combat school that allows females to enter. And their pass rate? That might surprise you too. “In the last three years, the percentage of females earning the tab was actually higher than the percentage of males who earned the tab,” says Vikhrov. “The females who arrive here know what’s coming. They know they’ll have to prove themselves. They know the Sapper tasks. They’re very prepared, and that helps them earn the tab.”

The fact that the school allows females to go through the training just reinforces the SLC’s emphasis on practicality. The cadre has stripped away any unnecessary or outdated Army conventions, and places its emphasis fully on the best part of Army doctrine—the usable, real-world information that saves lives and makes better Soldiers. Then again, that shouldn’t be surprising—they’re engineers, after all. They’re trained to tear things down and build them back—better.

 


 

A DAY IN THE LIFE: WATER OPERATIONS

The Sapper Leader Course lasts 28 days. Here’s just one of them.

 

0300: Last night’s training event just ended—bedtime.

0600: Wake-up. Yeah, that’s a solid three hours of sleep.

0615: Chow. Use extra time to practice knot tying.

0645: Get on convoy headed an hour away to water training site. Try to sleep.

0800: Instruction. Learn how to make a raft out of a poncho. What? Just a poncho? Well, and some rope.

0930: Practical exercise. Build a poncho raft in 15 minutes. Earn points.

1015: PT. In the middle of instruction? The cadre don’t say this, but it’s actually to warm up your body for the intense swim ahead.

1030: Water crossing. You and your buddy must swim across a lake in 15 minutes using the raft you just made. Sole success criterion: Stay alive. Secondary objective: Earn points.

1115: Chow. Try to dry out. Congratulate yourself on not dying.

1200: Instruction. Learn how to flip a capsized Zodiac watercraft and how to use it to assault a land position.

1300: Practical exercise. Flip a capsized Zodiac and assault a position. Earn points.

1430: Go meet your new best friend, the CH-47 helicopter, which fits your whole platoon and your collapsible boat with room to spare. Get briefed on safety procedures.

1500: Commence helocasting operations. Jump out of the CH-47 into a lake with a handful of your closest friends. Sole success criterion (again): Don’t die. Secondary objective: Remember this moment—you’ll be telling your grandkids about it one day.

1800: Chow. Try to wipe the smile off your face as you exchange helocasting stories with your battle buddy.

1900: Study time. Practice your knots for the hundredth time.

2100: Lights out. Don’t feel too lucky to be in the rack this early—tomorrow is a 0330 wake-up for boat PT—the same as the Navy SEALs do.