Sappers: Engineer commandos on the front lines

By Staff Sgt. Scott GriffinMay 13, 2014

FORT MCCOY, Wis. - A sapper - also known as an elite combat engineer or pioneer - is a combatant skilled in a variety of military engineering duties such as minefield placement or clearing, bridge-building, demolitions, field defenses, and road and airfield construction. Sappers are responsible for tasks facilitating movement of allied forces and impeding those of their enemies.

"A sapper is an engineer - most of the time a combat engineer - who is a subject matter expert in a variety of engineer duties, whether that be bridging, demolitions or general construction," said Master Sgt. Paul Santagate, of Copperas Cove, Texas, a sapper and command sergeant major for 1st Battalion, 345th Engineer Regiment, 157th Infantry Brigade, 1st Army Division East.

In the modern American Army, the sapper supports the front-line infantry. They are trained for defensive and offensive infantry tasks. Outside of America, the British and Commonwealth nations use the term for combat engineers, as well as Australia, Canada, India, Israel, France, Greece, Poland and Portugal. Sappers of the French Foreign Legion have a long and proud history of their "sapeurs," and traditionally grow large beards and wear leather aprons and gloves while carrying axes in their ceremonial dress uniform.

Sappers install portable bridges, tank traps and other construction that provides tactical support; they build major support facilities such as supply roads, fuel depots and airports; and additional tasks such as the disarm and dispose of mines and unexploded ordnance. Sappers have supported the front-line infantry in every war in American history.

"As a sapper, you are looked on as a SME, a subject matter expert," Santagate said. "You are devoted to tasks involving the facilitating of movement of U.S. Forces and allied forces and - on the other side of that same coin - devoted to impeding the enemy on the battlefield."

Derived from the French word 'sappe' - a derivation of the archaic French word for 'spade' - the name became connected with 17th century military engineers who would dig covered trenches that allowed them to approach the walls of a fort that was under siege. Sappers would also tunnel under the fort wall and collapse the tunnels which would then undermine the walls. The trenches and tunnels they dug were called 'saps' and the troops who dug them became known as 'sappers.'

Even with the covered trenches, sappers could not approach an enemy fortification directly. They would instead use a technique perfected by the Marquis de Vauban, the foremost military engineer of his age, and approach at an angle that avoided enemy fire enfilading the sappe. This allowed cannon to suppress the defending bastion, from which the sappers would then change their trench course, zigzagging toward the fortress wall. The process was repeated, continuing to bring their artillery closer to the enemy until they could sufficiently breach the walls. In a broad sense, sappers were the absolute experts at demolishing or overcoming fortification systems.

Today's combat engineers and sappers still build field fortifications, pave roads and breach terrain obstacles as well as the practices and techniques of camouflage, reconnaissance, communication methods and enhancement of survival by other troops. Army Reserve Sappers use a wide variety of equipment and vehicles for construction rigging, demolitions, obstacle clearance and construction, fortification assault, bridge erection, expedient road and helipad construction and engineer route and road reconnaissance.

"I think there's more of a push now and in the near future ... The older combat engineer tasks and sapper tasks that we're used to, a lot of [newer engineers] are not familiar with those," Santagate said. "So as we go into the decisive action fight, a lot of training is going to have to take place to get our combat engineer force up to a standard we were used to prior to 9/11."

In recognition of the achievements of combat engineers, Army Chief of Staff General Peter Schoomaker authorized the wear of the sapper tab as a military badge on June 28, 2004. Soldiers do not necessarily need to hold the combat engineer military occupational specialty to be awarded the sapper tab but they must have graduated from the Sapper Leader Course operated by the U.S. Army Engineer School at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Currently the Army only authorizes four elite service tabs for wear on the uniform - the Special Forces tab, the Ranger tab and the President's Hundred Tab as well as the Sapper Tab.

"Sapper Leader is a course a lot of people compare to Ranger school," Santagate said. "Obviously it's engineer specific. I've talked to people who've been through Sapper and Ranger. The ones that I've talked to, they've all told me that Sapper course is a quicker pace, so you're doing a lot of work in a shorter period of time."

"Most people who want to go to Sapper school, you're just not gonna do a 4187 [personnel data sheet] and tell your command you want to go," Santagate said. "There's a requirement for an APFT and it's not your normal 60 percent in each event. And understandably so because it is definitely a physically demanding course. Not only do you have to be mentally strong, you have to be physically strong to do a lot of the tasks demanded of you."

Sapper Leader Course is a 28-day course focusing on training leaders in small unit tactics and leadership skills to perform as part of a combined arms team. SLC is often compared to Ranger school in terms of difficulty and intensity and has a 40 percent drop rate. The first phase covers general subjects such as navigation, demolitions, air and water operations, mountaineering and weapons used by enemy forces. The second phase covers basic patrolling techniques and battle drills with an emphasis on leadership. Subjects covered include urban operations, breaching, patrol organization and movement, reconnaissance and raid and ambush tactics. The course concludes with a three-day training exercise and five-day field training exercise. Sixty percent of missions are engineer-based with the remainder based on infantry missions.

Santagate said that while Soldiers have individual preparation to do before the school, their priority during the school should be on more than themselves.

"It's all about teamwork," Santagate said. "It's always good to look yourself in the mirror and think your the greatest thing since sliced bread and butter, but it's all about the team. You're only as strong as your weakest guy on the team. To be competitive - not just at Sapper Leader Course but anything in the world - you want to be the best you can be. Obviously there are certain things you have to do on your own ... it's good to be 'I' but it's better to be 'team.'"

The course is open to enlisted Soldiers (E-4 promotable and higher), cadets and officers up to the rank of captain. The course is open to Soldiers in combat or combat support branches but priority is given to engineer, cavalry and infantry Soldiers. The award itself is retroactive back to the graduates of the first Sapper Leader Course on June 14, 1985. Unlike special forces and rangers, the school and tab are available to female Soldiers as well.

Santagate said he hopes that the Sapper Stakes competition will have a great takeaway benefit for every Soldier passing through.

"This [event, spanning] several days here at Fort McCoy, hopefully it builds team camaraderie," Santagate said. "We'll all see by the end of it. I'm a firm believer - I don't care what component you are - we all wear 'Army' over our heart. One dog, one fight."