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You Might be a Sapper If…
A cadre member stands next to one of three rows of tables under an aluminum roof on a hot and sticky August morning at Fort Chaffee Joint Maneuver Training Center in northwest Arkansas. Fifteen-pound shape charges, 40-pound crater charges, sticks of C4 and wires cover the table on the left. Team West Virginia—one of four National Guard teams competing in Sapper Stakes 2015—approaches the explosives as if it were dinner time at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Squad leader Staff Sergeant Bobby Poling and Specialist Jakob Potts slice into the C4 to insert the detonation cord. Poling, Specialist Evan Grizzard and Specialist Zakhar Zimin then tape the C4 to the 40-pound crater charge under the watchful eye of the cadre member.
After placing the 15-pound charge on the range (the 40 pounder remains on the table), they retreat to the bunker. The shape charge will blow a hole into the ground, into which they will place the crater charge. Grizzard shouts those four magic words, “Fire in the hole!” and pulls the trigger. With that, the most anticipated event of this competition among combat engineering teams becomes reality. Finally, 24 hours into the second annual contest among Reserve Component units (and the first year featuring Guard teams), after miles of running and rucking, a Zodiac paddle and carry, a weapons check, knot tying and numerous other tasks testing the skills of these 12B Soldiers, something will go boom.
First one bomb goes off, then another, each successive blast rattling the rib cages of fresh-faced specialists and grizzled sergeants alike. The explosions bring smiles to their faces, because for these Soldiers, blowing stuff up is almost as fun as it is important.
“There’s no simulation there,” says Lieutenant Colonel Dwight Ikenberry, the chief of operations at Fort Chaffee. “It’s as realistic a training as you can get.”
From Aug. 30 through Sept. 1, Sapper Stakes put Guard teams from Missouri, North Carolina, West Virginia and Wisconsin and 16 Army Reserve teams (six Soldiers per team compete in each event, and teams bring up to two alternates) through physical hell and mentally draining technical tests. But Sapper Stakes is more than just a competition. It’s a way for these warriors to measure themselves against the standards of Sappers, the most elite combat engineers, and determine whether they might be good candidates for the Sapper Leader Course at Fort Leonard Wood, MO, where Sappers get tabbed.
While Sappers do many things, they are known for mobility and counter-mobility. They make it easier for infantry troops to keep moving and harder for the enemy to do the same. They clear mines and improvised explosive devices, build bridges and roads, and are trained to survive in any conditions. Sappers also attack the enemy from land, sea and sky, perform land navigation and know weapons systems inside and out.
Sapper Stakes is a little like a team-based NFL Combine. But instead of running 40-yard dashes in an air-conditioned stadium, Soldiers here hike 12 miles carrying 40-pound rucksacks after a full day working outside in the blazing heat. Like standouts at the Combine, outstanding performers at Sapper Stakes have bright futures.
Army Reserve Captain Chris Scott, commander, 688th Engineer Company (Mobility Augmentation) out of Harrison, AR, and officer-in-charge of Sapper Stakes 2015, spent months last fall visiting Fort Chaffee to identify locations for a contest that would leave the Soldiers physically and mentally exhausted but also eager to learn more. He’s already looking forward to next year’s event.
“Come on out. We’ll see what [you’ve] got,” he says, offering his version of an invitation to teams for the 2016 competition. “The meat grinder is here waiting for you. This competition wastes no time. We do not hand out participation trophies. We are here to find the best. If that’s who you are and who you want to be, you’re coming to the right place.”
Competing in Sapper Stakes helps combat engineers become better combat engineers, of course, and, by extension, better Soldiers, better teammates and better leaders. And it shows them what they need to do to become great Sappers.
After three days of witnessing this meat grinder up close, a few of these prerequisites became clear.
YOU NEED TO LOVE TO BLOW THINGS UP
When the dust settles—literally—after the first blast, Team West Virginia walks back out on the range, this time carrying the 40-pound crater charge. The smell from the shape charge explosion hangs in the air. Specialist Brandon Garner peers down at his team’s handiwork. The blast spot looks like God used lightning to make a golf hole. Using white ribbon they have tied to the 40-pounder, team members lower the charge until it sits just below the surface.
Poling, a range safety officer back home, and Zimin form the wire into a circle on the ground, with the bomb as the center. All the while, team members take care not to step on the cord and gently place rocks on top of it to keep it in place. As Poling and Zimin finish their work, the rest of the team heads back to the bunker. Jokingly, they choose right then to speak in bad British accents—mimicking a movie perhaps?—about the nice walk they are taking, stopping for a spot of tea—and about blowing stuff up.
Garner yanks the trigger, the detonation cord flashes like a tracer and BOOM! Seconds later, dirt rains down on the trees, ground and roof of the bunker.
Poling (left) uses pulling the trigger as a way to reward his guys—kind of like a boss letting his young assistant park the McLaren. That kind of leadership, plus his demeanor and care for his men, draws the attention of Scott and other Sapper officials. “He was very on point,” Scott says later. Scott talks with Master Sergeant Michael Murray, operations NCO of the 489th Engineer Battalion and NCO in charge for Sapper Stakes, about Poling. “[He] was the guy that [Murray] and I identified as the best leader out of all the team leaders,” Scott says.
YOU NEED IRON LEGS—AND A RESILIENT STOMACH
It’s the first event of the competition’s first day. The moon remains high in the sky when Scott summons team leaders. Scott tells them they will row a Zodiac across a lake (below), carry it around a pylon and row it back. Then, Scott says, each team will combine to do 500 burpees.
Chins drop. Mouths gape. Bad words are thought, if not said. Scott asks if there are any questions. A Reservist raises his hand. “When you said 500 burpees, what did you really mean?” Scott and everyone else just grin.
Because it’s the very first event, the Soldiers are amped up when they get back to shore with the Zodiacs a few minutes later. “Let’s pace ourselves” had not yet entered their thinking.
Soon enough, breakfast leaps from stomachs to bushes. But that, um, transfer, isn’t what matters. It’s what follows.
After the burpees, the teams run 2 miles, grab their full rucksacks and hike 4.1 miles. By 9 a.m., they have rowed, ralphed, run and rucked. Then they have to perform tasks that require mental acuity and small motor skills: tying knots, disassembling weapons, building inert explosives and taking a Sapper knowledge test. “Physical and mental resiliency,” Scott says. “That’s what we’re really trying to develop—the ability to fight through fatigue.”
When North Carolina Guard Specialist Damian Quiles-Crespo enters the weapons test tent, someone asks him how his morning was. “Fantastic,” he says, with a smile and an expletive between “fan” and “tastic.”
He walks to one of four tables in the tent. On and around each table sit six weapons—an M2, M4, M9, MK19, M249 and M240B. There are also six pieces of paper, face down, each with the name of one of the weapons. Whichever one he chooses, he’ll have to take apart, put back together and function-test.
Quiles-Crespo turns over one piece of paper. He gets the M4—the most common weapon among the six. As he works, he and the cadre member make small talk. He tells the official he attends East Carolina University. The cadre member has friends who went there. Despite the social scene around campus, Quiles-Crespo tells him, “I’m an engineer, so I have no time for partying.”
All the while, Quiles-Crespo takes the gun apart and puts it back together as effortlessly as if he were tying his shoe. “I build these for fun,” he says.
I watch as a dozen Soldiers participate in this event, but none shows as much command of a weapon as Quiles-Crespo shows over his M4. (He also threw up during the burpees more than any Soldier I saw. But he kept getting back in line to do more.)
YOU NEED TO NAVIGATE IN ANY ENVIRONMENT
It’s Sunday evening, a little after 7. Just in case the competitors think the land navigation exercise will involve only land navigation, Scott makes it clear that “exercise” will be involved, too. The teams have to combine for 100 push-ups before finding their way through the Arkansas forest, still sweltering as darkness falls. They have to find two points, then return and do 100 more push-ups; then two more points and 100 more push-ups, and so on, until they find eight points total.
Team Missouri Staff Sergeant Kerry Proffitt approaches a cadre member to get the coordinates of the first two points. Thunder rumbles in the distance, and lightning burns through the dusk. The rules require the competitors to keep going through even torrential rain; if any lightning becomes dangerous, the cadre member will blow whistles to signal a halt to the competition.
The official reads the two numbers, and Proffitt writes them down and reads them back. Proffitt then gives the Defense Advanced GPS Receiver (DAGR)—the “dagger”—to Specialist Clinton Sargent and gives him the numbers to type in.
Members of Team Missouri walk from the staging area down the road for a few hundred yards until they reach a turnoff. It’s a half-road, half-path, with wheel trails on either side and waist-high weeds between them. As they start, they can only hope that the storm clouds they walk toward will soon be gone.
After a few minutes, the DAGR instructs Sargent to turn right into the brush. He pauses. “Follow it where it tells you to go,” Proffitt says. “That’s why we’re using it.” The overgrowth stretches to their waists and beyond, so thick they can’t see the ground they’re walking on. Who knows what manner of critter crawls beneath them? Later, in the dark, Sargent yells, startled, when he sees a dead armadillo.
About 100 yards from the road-path, Sargent stops. He turns to face a bush. Inside, he finds a piece of paper with “6L” written on it and attached to a stake. It seems almost too easy. The cadre had placed dummy points close to real points so they might be discovered by mistake. Looking down at the DAGR, Sargent verifies he is standing exactly where the device tells him to. He trusts that he is where he’s supposed to be.
“Your trust is empowered by your knowledge of the system. The reason [Proffitt] is telling him to trust it is he has probably used it downrange at some point,” Scott says. “The whole thing the Army tries to push is [to] trust but verify. The sergeant is the verification point.”
Now it is time to start looking for the second point. They turn around to walk back through the brush toward the road-path. “I need a machete,” says Missouri Guard Specialist Brad Nelson.
Despite having logged 6-plus miles on their feet this day already, the team runs down the road-path, with Sargent in front, going where the DAGR leads him. The road-path takes him to a road. Sargent turns right, walks a few hundred feet, then turns right again into the wild.
The terrain is worse here than before, as the brush is much denser. Members of Team Missouri hold whipping branches for each other, shout about unseen trenches and warn of prickly bushes. Leading the way, Sargent pauses for a beat as he approaches a tree. “I found it!” he shouts. Maybe 10 yards ahead of him, under a cover of branches, is a stake and a piece of paper with “KL” on it.
Proffitt opts to lead the team back to the staging area over the road instead of through the brush. That requires more steps, but every single one of them is easier. A few raindrops hint at a coming deluge, but the storm never hits.
YOU NEED TO BE ABLE TO WALK UPHILL FOR 4 MILES. IN A SAUNA.
If you want to know what it’s like to do brutal physical activity all day at Fort Chaffee in late August, Poling sums it up: Sapper Stakes is “the most fun you can have sitting in a frying pan.” He jokes that his team was unprepared because it did not train in front of a hairdryer.
The heat reaches the mid-90s and stays there all day, every day. High humidity takes its toll on every team. There is no cloud cover, little shade and no breeze. On the first day alone, Soldiers plow through 30 IV bags.
Everybody is in survival mode before the 12-mile ruck starts just after 7 p.m. on Day 2. As far as the competition is concerned, the entire team has to finish in three hours (the Army standard for a 12-mile ruck) to get points. That seems unlikely at the start and impossible when, at the 4-mile mark, the pace is three hours, 36 minutes. This highlights a point Scott makes often with his men: They will not rise to the occasion. They will fall back to their highest level of training. The teams that train hard have a great advantage over those that don’t.
With the three-hour time out of reach, teams merely want to finish together—a theme common to this event and the competition as a whole but easier said than done.
The first 4 miles are uphill. When Team Wisconsin reaches the top, Specialist Aaron Galindo gets sick, and Specialist Alexander Scray lags behind.
Their squad leader, Staff Sergeant Josh Steffens, orders them both to stop; that makes the team’s two alternates part of the main team. As much as they hate to quit, Galindo and Scray acknowledge that Steffens is right when they arrive at the medic tent at the forward operating base.
Galindo says he wants to hike from the finish line toward his team members so he can encourage them when they near the end. Every few minutes, Galindo walks into the medic tent to check on and encourage other guys who have dropped out, even though they are “playing” for other teams. “They’re still my battle buddies,” he says. “You’ve got to have everybody’s back. If I was down, I’d want someone to look out for me.”
An hour later, out on the ruck route, 1.7 miles from the end, Sargent walks with three fellow Missouri Guard Soldiers; the rest of the team is far behind. From afar, he sees the light from my headlamp and thinks it marks the finish line. When he discovers there is more hiking left, he jokes that he isn’t happy to see me.
Though the air is hazy with dust and fog, the rising moon still shines so bright that the Soldiers cast shadows onto the road behind them. “I’m on auto-pilot,” Sargent says. “These aren’t even legs anymore. These are just little objects propelling me forward.”
The Wisconsin National Guard team, minus Galindo and Scray, trail Sargent by a few minutes. The team from Wisconsin remains together, a rare occurrence on this night of exhaustion, exertion and attrition.
Specialist Josh Mezyk limps onward. “I’m pretty sure I can feel the blood pooling in my boots,” he says. “It’s going to be awesome taking these bad boys off.”
A medic van drives by, the air-conditioned comfort inside a teasing retreat from the heavy night air. “You know how easy it would have been to get on one of those?” Steffens asks, in more colorful language, to nobody in particular. “Too easy.”
Walking next to Steffens, Private First Class Zach Tesch responds by paraphrasing a quote from President John F. Kennedy and finishing with his best Boston accent: “We do not do things because they are easy, but because they are haaahd.”
Scott approaches from behind. As he passes each group, he jokes with and encourages the Soldiers as they endure the pain that he created. He designed the 12-mile ruck to be Sapper Stakes’ weeding-out event and intentionally made the first 4 miles uphill so he could see how Soldiers would respond. “Hopefully, this is an eye opener,” he says. “This is by no means out of the realm of challenge they would face to earn that [Sapper] Tab.”
As hard as the ruck is, Scott says, the next morning will be an even more important test. “Guts got them here,” he says. “But something deeper and more meaningful will get them up on the third day.”
YOU NEED TO STICK TOGETHER
For members of Team Wisconsin, that something is a sense of seeing this mission through. They cross the finish line in the 12-mile ruck as a team, one of the few units to do so. The next morning, they rise early and work outside in the hot sun all day again. Day 3 is their day on the detonation range. After their turn blowing up the 15- and 40-pound bombs, they sit as a team in the shade of a medic truck.
Later that day, the top 10 teams advance to a final, winner-take-all mystery event called X-mile. Three National Guard teams—Missouri, West Virginia and Wisconsin—qualify for X-mile. But Missouri and West Virginia drop out after their squad leaders make the difficult but necessary decision that their teams are too exhausted to continue safely. Later, leaders of the event say they completely understand the need to make that call.
X-mile turns out to be essentially a 5-mile long Sapper obstacle course, with runs in between five obstacles. If competitors fail at an obstacle, the penalties include push-ups and carrying a 40-pound sandbag on the next run. As the start time approaches, Scott calls his cadre members together for a final meeting. He tells them to enhance the stress applied to the Soldiers while they are doing tasks and then to do nothing but encourage them in between tasks.
Team Wisconsin’s first task is to disassemble, reassemble and function check an M240B machine gun (above). None of the three teams ahead of Wisconsin completes that task properly, and the time it takes them to try leaves Wisconsin with an opening to make up ground. Mezyk appears to do everything quickly and correctly, but the cadre gives him a no-go because he had failed to close the dust cover. The rest of X-mile becomes a slog of punishments and runs.
The 402nd Engineer Company, an Army Reserve unit from Des Moines, IA, wins Sapper Stakes 2015. Team Wisconsin finishes fourth.
Afterward, as the Wisconsin Soldiers (below) gasp for air, having logged 43 miles on their feet over three days, they look like they’ll sleep for a week. But they want to stay awake long enough to enjoy this moment, this end of the hardest thing most of them have done in their military careers.
“Every second, I want to quit. But we don’t quit,” Steffens says. “When I’m feeling down, Mezyk picks me up. When Mezyk’s feeling down, [Sergeant Levi] Parker picks him up. We all look after each other.” The Soldiers had a single goal—most certainly deep and meaningful to them—and they accomplished it: On the final night, the teammates walked across the finish line as one.
THE GUARD TEAMS
In civilian life, they are students, paramedics and dog groomers, among other professions. But in the National Guard, they are all combat engineers and teammates. Sapper Stakes teams were required to have six members and could bring two alternates.
35th Brigade, 1140th Battalion, 1138th Engineer Company
SQUAD LEADER: SSG Kerry Proffitt
TEAM MEMBERS: SPC Mark Whaley, SPC Clinton Sargent, SPC Imaum Weakley, SPC Brad Nelson, SPC James Cardenas, PFC Jcruz Mendoza, SPC Darrell Gregory
“I’m pretty beat, but I’ve got too much heart to quit.” — Mendoza, at roughly the 11-mile point of the 12-mile ruck, which he finished despite being an alternate
TEAM NORTH CAROLINA
130th Brigade, 105th Battalion, 151st Engineer Company
SQUAD LEADER: SSG Darnell McDonald
TEAM MEMBERS: SGT Alejandro Piocuda, SPC Damian Quiles-Crespo, PFC Nicholas Morales, PFC Joshua Guin, PFC Montreal McCrae
“Take your time. Breathe. Exhale. Inhale. C’mon, buddy, you got it. Push it. Rest when you’re dead.” — McDonald to Guin during the event requiring 500 burpees
TEAM WEST VIRGINIA
111th Brigade, 1092nd Battalion, 119th Engineer Company
SQUAD LEADER: SSG Bobby Poling
TEAM MEMBERS: SPC Jakob Potts, SPC Anthony Betts, SPC Brandon Garner, SPC Evan Grizzard, SPC Zakhar Zimin, SPC Lance Hearn
“We don’t know how far we’re going to go. You could go either way with that. You could say, ‘I could go another 10 miles,’ or you could shut yourself down.” — Betts
64th Troop Command, 641st Battalion, 273rd Engineer Company
SQUAD LEADER: SSG Josh Steffens
TEAM MEMBERS: SGT Levi Parker, SPC Josh Mezyk, SPC Zach Tesch, SPC Craig Kiesow, SPC Aaron Galindo, SPC Alexander Scray, SPC Cody Hartmann
“The guys that want to come here need to work together on their off time, learn to work as a team. [Without that chemistry], you can take the best guys at every task and put them together and they don’t mesh.” — Steffens
EMBRACING THE PAIN
The competition demanded laserlike focus, but there were lighter moments, too. The following was overheard during a 4.1-mile ruck on the first day.
“Paddling the boat hurt only my arms. The burpees hurt everything else. It’s a progression down the body. And now everything hurts.” — SPC Evan Grizzard
“I thought this competition was strictly multiple choice exams.” — SPC Jakob Potts
“Everyone wants to be a Sapper. No one wants to hike in a heavy [expletive] ruck.” — SPC Anthony Betts
“You’re halfway there.” — Members of Team 12 from the Army Reserve, singing Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” as they walked by Team West Virginia, though they had no idea how long the ruck would be
“There’s no reason to get discouraged. You’re literally just walking with heavy [stuff] on your back. There’s no science to it.” — SSG Bobby Poling
SO YOU WANT TO BE A SAPPER?
Get in shape and study hard. The list of requirements for entry into Sapper School is long. It includes a score of at least 210 on the APFT (including at least 60 in each event) and proficiency in 24 tasks, from maintaining an M240B machine gun to operating a night vision device to placing breaching charges. For more information, go to www.Wood.Army.mil/sapper