Spc. Lillyanne Clarke and 1st Lt. JP Sumayang, 898th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 81st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Washington National Guard, hold the Sapper Tab after completing the Sapper Leader Course at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, July 1, 2022. (Courtesy Photo)
Spc. Lillyanne Clarke and 1st Lt. JP Sumayang, 898th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 81st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Washington National Guard, hold the Sapper Tab after completing the Sapper Leader Course at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, July 1, 2022. (Courtesy Photo) (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

CAMP MURRAY, Wash. – Spc. Lillyanne Clarke didn’t let second-guessing stop her from making history.

As a 19-year-old female combat engineer with the 898th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 81st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Clark has heard side comments about her ability to be a hardened combat engineer in the Army. “Nothing offensive,” she said. “Just little comments here and there whenever I participated in combatives and ruck marches – stuff like that.”

On July 1, Clarke became the youngest female graduate of the Sapper Leader Course. She’s also the first enlisted female and overall second female in the Washington Army National Guard and just the eighth enlisted female to complete the grueling course.

Known as one of most challenging and difficult schools the Army offers, the 28-day course at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, is designed for combat engineers. It trains leadership skills in mountaineering, rappelling, demolitions, obstacle breaching and many others.

Although the course is designed to be brutal and demanding, Clarke looks back on her experience with a bit of fondness. Sleep deprivation and operating off of very little food are part of the experience, she said. At one point during the training, in the middle of the night, she started to see and hear things that weren’t there.

“I remember seeing cartoons,” she recalled. “And I thought the trees were cadre and they were telling me to move out. You learn so much about yourself. I didn’t know I could run off of zero sleep and very little food.”

Clarke’s Army career is just getting started. She graduated high school in 2020 and has already completed a year-long deployment to Poland. That was part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence mission to deter aggression in the region. She was attached to an infantry platoon in the 3rd Battalion, 161st Infantry Regiment.

“On the deployment is where I really learned how to be a more competent combat engineer,” Clarke said. “We were in the field training so much, and I really dove into the engineer manual to learn as much as I can.”

All the knowledge she absorbed in Poland helped her immensely as she navigated the sapper course. Her training on infantry tactics, field-expedient demolitions and patrolling made her stand out from all the officers in her class.

“But I struggled with operation orders and mission planning,” she said. “All the officers knew how to do that – I had to learn a lot in that area. Now I can write one on my own.”

She also struggled with preconceived ideas about her abilities. During one training event when she was paired with two men, she overheard comments about how she would likely slow them down.

“I felt like I had to prove myself,” she said. “It turned out that one of the guys was the one slowing us down and I had to help carry his ruck.”

When she returns to her unit for drill, she hopes she can motivate her fellow Soldiers to attend the course. She and her fellow Sapper Leader Course graduate, 1st Lt. JP Sumayang, plan to collaborate on a pre-sapper course they can implement at their unit to help prepare other Soldiers who will attend the class.

“That is what I hope my [sapper] tab will do,” she said. “That it will help to change perspectives and that females will be taken a bit more seriously in combat arms.”

Clarke has her eyes set on Ranger School next and plans to attend the two-month course next year.

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