38 teams compete for title of 2012 Best Sapper at Fort Leonard Wood
April 25, 2012
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. -- One competitor described the competition as smashing the 28-day Sapper Leader Course into 53 hours of grueling tasks spread across Fort Leonard Wood. Now two engineers have proven they are the 2012 Best Sappers -- Capt. Mike Kendall and Staff Sgt. Frank Batts, from the 82 Airborne Division, in Fort Bragg, N.C.
"It hasn't sunk in yet, but it feels good," Batts said.
Brig. Gen. Duke DeLuca, U.S. Army Engineer School commandant, watched the Best Sapper competition kick off with 38 teams in the dark, early morning hours of April 19, and was impressed as he cheered on the final 10 teams pushing through the finish line early Saturday morning.
"Only the strong survive, and you are the strongest of the strong Sappers. You inspire us all with your mental toughness, physical resilience, strategizing and tactics and your pure animal drive to survive and win on the battlefield. You guys are animals," DeLuca said.
Capt. Thomas Hatfield and Capt. Nassar Jabour from the 54th Engineer Battalion in Bamberg, Germany, placed second; and 1st Lt. Isaac Olsen and 1st Lt. Casey Williams from the 307th Engineer Battalion in Fort Bragg, N.C., placed third.
"To watch these guys go through everything they went through is absolutely amazing," DeLuca said.
On the first morning of events, the competitors started with a non-standard physical test, which proved to be quite the challenge for Batts.
"The first event was definitely the thing that broke me off. It hurt me pretty bad," Batts said. "As soon as I came across the finish line, I couldn't hold anything in, it all came out. I was puking everywhere."
But there was no down time. The Sappers immediately continued on to the 10 timed tasks that made up the Round Robin beginning with the helocast and swim. The rest of the day was spent navigating from one event to the next.
"We enjoyed weapons, and we were pretty good at the breaching. We felt solid about everything we attacked," Batts said.
From thermal breaching to casualty evacuation, the tasks are designed to push Sappers past their mental and physical breaking points -- filtering the smartest and strongest Sappers to the next level of competition. Following the Round Robin, the Sappers were cut down to the top 30 scoring teams.
"You have to be strong enough to survive and you have to be a technical expert at everything you can be," Kendall said. "It's challenging to have the humility to say 'I am not good at this; I need you to carry me on this.' It's hard because we are really proud guys, but our teamwork paid off."
Through the first night, teams participated in land navigation, those scores cutting the teams to 20 for day two -- Sapper Stakes.
The eight events of Sapper Stakes tested the competitors on their combat engineer skills with tasks like field expedient charges, in-stride breaching and mountain operations.
During the mountain operations event, Sappers had to evacuate a "casualty" down a 92-foot cliff and this year they weren't using dummies. To add realism, a Soldier was strapped into the stretcher called a Skedco. To the Sappers' surprise, the Fort Leonard Wood and the Maneuver Support Center of Excellence Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Wells volunteered to be rigged in the stretcher.
"A few of the Soldiers detailed to be strapped into a Skedco litter looked a little nervous. A leader cannot know how their Soldiers are being treated unless you walk in their boots," Wells said.
Wells didn't think twice about his safety. "They are some of the finest Soldiers in the U.S. Army," he said. "The two Sappers executed the litter rappel to standard and in excellent fashion. I told them we're a metaphor; young leaders carrying an old Sapper off the field."
This day wrapped up with a 16-mile ruck march, which cut the teams to 10.
"During the road march, each of us had our periods where we were motivating each other," Kendall said.
The ruck march was Wells' favorite event to witness.
"It was dark and quiet. In the distance, you could see two chemlights heading our way. It was inspiring to see. As they passed us I told (my wife) 'That's what real Sappers look like.' You could tell the competition took what little energy the Sappers may have been holding on to. I guess you'd call it a gut check. Their feet and strong backs didn't get them through the foot-march; they just refused to quit and let their battle buddy down," Wells said.
With little to no sleep on the third and final morning of competition, the Sappers mustered their last bit of motivation to tackle the x-mile run, which included 10 more physically demanding challenges spread across an undisclosed number of miles.
Through it all, the winning team said they simply did their best and charged forward.
"We generally decided on a way to do it, went with it and made it work," Kendall said.
Batts agreed. "As soon as one event was over we just looked toward the next event. We tried not to think about how well we did," he said.
Kendall contributes his team's success to training and competing with fellow Soldiers from Fort Bragg.
"We trained together with three other teams. They are a great group of guys," Kendall said. "One of the teams was medically dropped on the first day. But they came back and helped us. As we were coming off of a lane they would grab our rucks and weigh them for us and make sure our gear was set. It's critical to have a good support team."
Kendall said he was grateful his regiment gave him the opportunity to compete and even though he is one of this year's Best Sappers he believes the Sapper Leader Course cadre are the ones who deserve all the attention.
"The Sapper Leader course cadre that put this on are absolutely amazing. They are true professionals. They put in a lot of effort, it's amazingly coordinated," Kendall said. "They are the real heroes of this competition."