By Sgt. Devin WoodSeptember 2, 2015
FORT CHAFFEE, Ark. - A fresh-legged cadre member stepped out into the dark, setting the pace for 134 Soldiers whose legs were torn from two days of competition. They did their best to keep up, a few already falling into a van riding behind the formation.
Two up-hill miles done. Only 10 more to go.
This ruck march would separate the the strongest teams from the pack, and went a long way toward deciding this year's winners.
"We crawled across the line, but we finished," said one Soldier after the march.
U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard combat engineer teams from around the country navigated their way through physically and mentally challenging events during Sapper Stakes 2015. Sapper Stakes is a nationwide competition, inviting Sapper teams to compete, enhance their leadership and strengthen teamwork in a field environment Aug. 30- Sep. 1, 2015.
"It's real world environment stuff out here," said Staff. Sgt. John Mullins, a drill sergeant with A Company, 1st Engineer Brigade, 31st Engineer Battalion, out of Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. "You're never going to be able to just drive up in a vehicle and throw something up. You're going to be asked at times to go out and they will drop your necessities from a bird. You have to operate fatigued. You have to be able to ruck 12 miles and still be able to fight and set up your position ... If you can't do that, you're a useless force."
When the final event is complete, these combat engineers will have traveled approximately 45 miles by foot, mostly carrying gear.
Competitors constructed fences with concertina wire, detonated explosives, carried 200 pounds of dead weight a half mile on a Skedco stretcher and divided 500 burpees among their 6-man teams.
On day two, they started at 4:30 a.m and returned to their bunks at 1:00 a.m the next morning. If fatigue wasn't enough, the heat index at Fort Chaffee hovered in the 90s, the humidity attached itself to the faces of each competitor as sweat poured throughout the week.
"I didn't really know what to expect," said Spc. Jeffery O'Connell, a combat engineer from the 309th Engineer Company, Brainerd, Minnesota. "Didn't know how much they were going to push us ... it's pretty intense."
"A lot of guys coming off active duty perceive the Reserve as low tempo," said Staff Sgt. Omar Castaneda, a combat engineer with the 350th Engineer Company out of Bell, California. "When they come out to an event like this, it says otherwise."
This year, the competition was organized and run by the 489th Engineer Battalion, headquartered in North Little Rock, Arkansas.
As the active Army reduces its ranks, many Soldiers find a home in the Army Reserve, and continue their service while also pursuing civilian careers. Anyone looking for an easy ride, need look elsewhere.
"We still run at the same tempo as the active component and train as hard as they do," said Castaneda. "We just have a civilian job."
For Sgt. Nicholas Kloberdanz, a combat engineer with the 402nd Sapper Company, Des Moines, Iowa, a former active duty Soldier, and banker, the Reserve component provided some much needed time away from the office and the camaraderie that one might miss when leaving active duty.
"I have a masters degree, so I'm not in this for money," said Kloberdanz. "It's just a fun thing to do. I have a desk job ... It's nice to get out and do those things I did on active duty, like play with explosives. While I may not be doing the active duty go, go, go cycle anymore, I still get to enjoy coming out and doing these fun things every once in awhile, and playing around on the weekends, working with my guys ... That's what keeps me coming back."
The competing teams looked to their more experienced Soldiers for guidance throughout Sapper Stakes. Several of the events they faced dealt with combat engineering skills that haven't been taught at the school house for several years due to the current urban operational environment overseas.
"It's the first time I've done anything like this," said Spc. Ross Odom, a combat engineer with the 309th Engineer Battalion, Boise, Idaho. "It's a good experience, I'm learning a lot and I'm with guys that are dropping knowledge on me left and right, and its helped me getting here and I know it will carry me through the competition."
The competence of a team leaders played a major role in the success or failure of a squad.
"It relies heavily on the team leaders, their knowledge and what they've been training their teams," said Mullins. "A lot of the tasks out here, such as the 11-row fence, aren't really practiced at the unit level, so the team leader has to know it, and how to properly manage his Soldiers and his time, so that you don't wear your guys, you have to be on your game and have a proper plan."
"It's back to the basics where a lot has been forgotten," said Mullins. "Over these deployments, the focus has been strictly on route clearance, and we have gotten away from the mobility, counter mobility and survivability part of our jobs."
While opportunities to lead in this type of environment don't come along every day, this was but a small taste of what these leaders would see in a combat zone or in the coveted Sapper School, a 30-day, high intensity specialty school that sits atop many combat engineers' career bucket lists.
"Every possible thing a combat engineer team leader would be expected to do is being thrown at these guys here," said Castaneda. "They are working under pressure with limited time, and resources and they are expected to adapt."
"It's pretty rigorous," said Castaneda. "You aren't going to get this kind of leadership training anywhere else unless you're deployed."
One of the toughest jobs leaders face in this type of environment is to maintain unit cohesion and morale. The teams must stay motivated.
Drive and perseverance are key to winning Sapper Stakes.
It took a little extra to reach the end of a 12-mile ruck march, their legs cramping and locking up from two physically demanding days. A few quit, and it's hard blame them. Those who finished survived for one more day of suck. And several of this year's competitors are already priming to show up again next year.