FORT BLISS, Texas - Fifty teams, fifty miles, in just fifty hours. Those are the odds stacked against the first Fort Bliss team to take on the Army's elite combat engineer competition in three years.
1st Lt. Denys Villatoro, an operations officer and native of Homestead, Florida, and 2nd Lt. Kevin Steiner, a reconnaissance officer and native of Fairfax, Virginia, both assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 16th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, will represent America's Tank Division in the 14th Annual Lt. Gen. Robert B. Flowers Best Sapper Competition (BSC) from Mar. 30 to Apr. 1 at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
The Army's premier engineer competition, which was renamed in 2018 in honor of the 50th Chief of Engineers, tests the mental and physical tenacity and grit of America's top combat engineer Soldiers. Sappers will travel more than 50 miles in 50 hours throughout the rugged Ozarks during the grueling competition while carrying a ruck sack that weighs more than 80 pounds and competing in a variety of events, testing them to their mental and physical breaking point.
Physical fitness is key, but a large part of the competition is to solve problems engineers may see on the battlefield. "Sappers are experts in solving complex problems," said Steiner. "If there's an issue that somebody doesn't know how to solve, we come in because we're experts in different niche fields, like mountaineering, waterborne operations, and pathfinder operations."
Sappers are also experts in mobility, countermobility and survivability. "If you need to get people from point A to point B, or you need to stop people from getting from point A to point B, we're the people you call to facilitate that movement," Steiner added. "Regardless of whether it's over a lake, a river, or a mountain cliffside, we have the means and ability to get people where they need to go."
During the course of three days, they will compete on limited amounts of sleep and will have to complete a series of combat engineer tasks including demolition and land navigation, as well as a ruck march, exam, team-building events, strength and endurance events, an X-Mile run and jumping out of a helicopter into a lake.
As of this year, both members of the team must be Sapper Leader Course graduates, whereas previous competition rules required only one.
Coaching the Fort Bliss Best Sapper team is Sgt. 1st Class Zachery Stiles, an operations sergeant from Denver, Colorado, also assigned to HHC, 16th BEB, 1st ABCT, 1AD.
Previously Stiles served as an instructor for two years at the Sapper Leader Course, a rigorous leadership program operated by the U.S. Army Engineer School and prerequisite for competing in the BSC.
In fact, the Sapper school is where Stiles first met Villatoro.
While building a Best Sapper Competition training program at Fort Bliss, Stiles tapped the Sapper- and Ranger- qualified, U.S. Military Academy at West Point alumni first, knowing the full extent of his capabilities.
His partner Steiner, a James Madison University alumni, just arrived fresh from completing the Engineer Basic Officer Leader Course (EBOLC) and Sapper school.
Knowing he would have the most current U.S. Army Engineer School training possible, Stiles pulled him in to join Villatoro who had already been training for some time.
Together they will be the first team to represent Fort Bliss at the national competition in three years.
According to Villatoro, this may not come as a surprise to some. "People kind of get this mentality that an armored division is more laid back, but it's not true," he explained.
The teammates and their coach are hoping to amend that perception with a strong showing at the competition.
"We're trying to change the way people think about an armored division," said Stiles. "Trucks break down, machines will always fail you. We don't rely on machines, we rely on the toughness of the individual. Sappers don't break down when times get tough; you can lean on them and get the mission done."
For Steiner, becoming a Sapper is the pinnacle of an engineer in the Army, so he jumped at the chance to compete in the name of the division.
"We want to do the best that we can since we're representing the 1st Armored Division," said Steiner. "It gives us a great sense of pride that we're going to be the faces for the division at this competition."
Preparations in El Paso have been extremely challenging for the two Sappers. Both Soldiers are first-time participants in the competition.
A basic week consists of nearly four hours of various physical training every morning and weekly visits to the aquatic center and obstacle course.
There are also hands-on and academic classes with Stiles regarding demolition calculations, unexploded ordnances, knots, and anything else that the team might encounter in the competition.
"We're enablers. We clear the way so that infantry or armored units can get through," said Villatoro. "Any obstacles there are, we can either take them down or build them. If there's a bridge we need to tear down to prevent enemy advancement or a bridge we need to build so that we can use it to our advantage, we make it happen."
El Paso is well known for its dry desert landscape with flat lands and temperate airy climate.
On the other side of the spectrum, Fort Leonard Wood is home to the Lake of the Ozarks and can be best described as heavily wooded with rolling hills and cold winters.
Despite El Paso and Fort Leonard Wood being polar opposites in terms of climate and environment, Steiner and Villatoro agree that training in El Paso has its advantages.
According to Steiner, their weekend trail runs high up in the Franklin Mountains are not only great for preparing for Fort Leonard Wood's hilly terrain, but also for building endurance.
"My first month and a half here, I could barely run because I wasn't used to the altitude," said Steiner. "Now that we've both adjusted to the elevation, it'll be a completely different ball game in terms of readiness once we get to Fort Leonard Wood."
As part of their preparation, both are competing in the 31st Annual Bataan Memorial Death March at White Sands Missile Range in March.
The Bataan Memorial Death March is a challenging 26.2 mile march through high desert terrain conducted in honor of the heroic service members who defended the Philippine Islands during World War II, sacrificing their freedom, health, and lives.
Competing in such an intense march less than two weeks before the BSC might be daunting to most, but the Sappers are up for the challenge.
"It's definitely something good for us. The 26 miles will prep our feet and get them ready for Best Sapper," said Villatoro.
"We could not be more proud and excited for the Catamounts battalion to represent the Iron Division at the 14th Annual Best Sapper Competition," said Lt. Col. Jason Legro, Battalion Commander, 16th BEB.
"The team's commitment to the Regiment is nothing short of outstanding. We are looking forward to seeing them compete."
For those that cannot make it to Fort Leonard Wood in person, you can follow their progress on the Best Sapper Competition Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/BestSapper/ and the BSC website: https://home.army.mil/wood/index.php/units-tenants/USAES/ Sapper/BSC.