Soldiers achieve consecutive Best Sapper Competition wins

By Melissa BuckleyApril 25, 2024

Soldiers achieve consecutive Best Sapper Competition wins
1 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – U.S. Army Engineer School Commandant Col. Joseph Goetz and USAES Regimental Command Sgt. Maj. Zachary Plummer present Capts. Matthew Cushing and Joseph Palazini with Meritorious Service Medals during the 2024 Best Sapper Competition awards ceremony April 23 at Nutter Field House. (Photo Credit: Melissa Buckley) VIEW ORIGINAL
Soldiers achieve consecutive Best Sapper Competition wins
2 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – While competing in the 2024 Best Sapper Competition, Capt. Matthew Cushing sits in the turret of a Humvee and aims a machine gun while his teammate, Capt. Joseph Palazini, spots targets April 21 on Range 24. (Photo Credit: Melissa Buckley) VIEW ORIGINAL
Soldiers achieve consecutive Best Sapper Competition wins
3 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Capts. Matthew Cushing and Joseph Palazini participate in the Sapper Stakes portion of the Best Sapper Competition April 21 on Range 24. (Photo Credit: Melissa Buckley) VIEW ORIGINAL
Soldiers achieve consecutive Best Sapper Competition wins
4 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – While competing in the 2024 Best Sapper Competition, Capts. Joseph Palazini and Matthew Cushing disassemble, then re-assemble a machine gun before completing a mounted machine gun qualification April 21 on Range 24. (Photo Credit: Melissa Buckley) VIEW ORIGINAL
Soldiers achieve consecutive Best Sapper Competition wins
5 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Capts. Matthew Cushing and Joseph Palazini are the first competitors out of the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter April 19 in Waynesville’s Roubidoux Park where the 2024 Best Sapper Competition begins with a nonstandard physical fitness test. (Photo Credit: Melissa Buckley) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — The winners of the 17th Lt. Gen. Robert B. Flowers Best Sapper Competition are Capts. Matthew Cushing and Joseph Palazini, from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky — making history as the first team to win the competition twice, and also back to back.

The winning duo was named during an awards ceremony April 23 in Nutter Field House.

“It feels good to win again. I am here to motivate my Soldiers to be better and push themselves. I hope this inspires them to come to Sapper school and strive to be ‘Best Sappers,’” Cushing said.

The 2024 Best Sapper Competition started with 100 Soldiers, in 50 teams of two. By the end of the four-day competition, competitors traveled roughly 56 miles on foot in 65 hours while being tested on more than 20 tasks, according to competition organizers.

The competition is designed to showcase the Army’s combat engineering military occupational specialties.

“Sappers are the multi-tool of the Army. If a complex problem comes up, everyone looks at us to solve it. And that is exactly what we will do,” Cushing said.

The competition started with a nonstandard physical fitness test April 19 in Waynesville’s Roubidoux Park. Then, competitors began their night land navigation course across several of Fort Leonard Wood’s wooded training areas.

Cushing said the land navigation course had different zones with six points to locate, driving them to develop a strategy to get as many points as possible.

“We just kept going to get as many points as we could. We can sleep after the competition. We were forced to analyze the points to find all the zones. We had to run to the sixth point. I have a massive bruise on my knee from running down that hill,” Cushing said.

Sapper Leader Course Instructor, Sgt. 1st Class Derick Elizardo, served as the NCO in charge of this year’s competition.

“While planning, I kept asking myself, ‘What skillset does a Sapper need to have to emerge as the best?’ It is an even balance of physicality and a technical individual, who can display a knowledge that makes them capable of executing these tasks proficiently,” Elizardo said. “As opposed to years past, we front-loaded their miles at the beginning of the competition. We flipped the script and punched competitors with a bunch of miles up front.”

Palazini said that was a surprise, but he and Cushing knew if they could push through to the technical challenges, they might have a chance at winning again this year.

“The miles up front really impacted our bodies, mostly our legs. We knew we would survive and thrive once we got to the technical aspects. We were fatigued, but confident in our knowledge. We studied the Sapper Handbook, and several other technical manuals and field manuals. We really dove into the way things are done and why,” Palazini said.

A round robin of events was scheduled for April 20, including threat ordnance identification, recovering a wounded Soldier while under fire, identifying deficiencies in rescue gear before hauling a casualty up a steep incline, calculating explosives, mountaineering, conducting engineer reconnaissance, wire cutting, river crossing and a stress shoot.

“The round robin of events was also on foot. I made a very long route on arguably the worst terrain we have on Fort Leonard Wood,” Elizardo said. “It was about 18.5 miles with seven tasks.”

Cushing said the round robin route was one of the hardest aspects of the competition.

“That terrain was rough. There were several, let’s go with mountains, in a row between stations. We did almost 20 miles in the first eight hours of this competition. Then another 18 miles for the round robin. It was brutal on our legs,” Cushing said.

That night, the teams were surprised with a mystery event, including a high-intensity interval training workout, followed by a technical exam.

“Keeping with the theme of physical and mental strength, we immediately gave them a technical exam on bridge destruction,” Elizardo said. “It was a lot of physical exertion by this point. I was getting some really dirty looks by Sunday morning.”

An event called Sapper Stakes took place April 21, and the competitors were driven between nine lanes and tested on different weapon systems, counter-mine operations, urban breaching, cleaning buildings, destroying anti-vehicle obstacles, bridge reconnaissance and building, and placing and priming charges. During the night, the Sappers performed the x-mile road march event.

Capt. Ryan Reid, Sapper Training Company commander, said that 12-mile route is the infamous Sapper Leader Course route, commonly referred to as, “the hardest 12 miles in the Army.”

The road march ended April 22 with more physical challenges, the x-mile run. This year, the final push to the finish line ended up being 3.5-miles long.

For the final event, the competitors were flown to Gammon Field aboard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. From there, they made their way across the cantonment area, through a gauntlet of nine different physically challenging stations, before returning to Gammon Field, where they finished by running through a U.S. Army Engineer castle.

Both Cushing and Palazini serve as company commanders with the 21st Brigade Engineer Battalion, 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team.

Cushing was born on Fort Bragg, North Carolina (known as Fort Liberty since 2023), but considers Scarborough, Maine, to be his hometown. He graduated from West Point and has masters’ degrees from the University of Louisville, in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Missouri.

Palazini, a Franklin, Massachusetts, native, earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire, and also has a master’s degree from the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

They were deployed separately for much of the past year, but they kept each other updated on their physical fitness training schedule and made the most of the time they were able to spend together.

“He was in Romania, and I was in Germany. We set our physical goals and planned out what we needed to study,” Cushing said. “He was able to come to Germany for a week, and that is when we really dove into the technical manuals and reached out to our subject matter experts from the battalion. I believe you should pretty much memorize all 404 pages of the Sapper Handbook. What sets a Best Sapper apart from a Sapper is encompassing and knowing what is in that handbook. Then, take what you know from that handbook and dive into it further. That is what we are good at.”

Palazini said a lot of Sapper doctrine has changed since they went through the Sapper Leader Course about six years ago — studying the Sapper Handbook and reaching out to subject matter experts was the key to their success.

“Things constantly change and become more efficient. We have to be continuously learning new things and new techniques to evolve. You can’t come to the Best Sapper Competition with the goal of winning, because there are 49 other teams with the same goal. What sets us apart is the systematic approach to our training,” Palazini said. “For example, for medical training, we reached out to our unit’s medics. For marksmanship, we reached out to our noncommissioned officers, that have been to the Army marksmanship course.”

Besides being physically fit and confident in Sapper knowledge, the team said their mindset during the competition helped them to excel.

“This is a fun competition. Don’t get me wrong, it sucks, but you can’t get mad at each other and be 100% serious all the time. You are fatigued and drained, but you have to keep some humor in everything you do,” Cushing said. “When executing a lane, you are either going to do well, or you are not. Once the lane is complete, forget about it. Think about it for about eight seconds and move on. There is no point in dwelling on if you did it right or wrong. You have to be able to focus on the next lane, the mission at hand.”

Taking second place this year was 1st Lt. Eric Niino and Master Sgt. Ivan Varela, 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Fort Moore, Georgia.

Third place went to Cadets Samuel Dickerson and Isaiah McNeilly from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

When asked if they plan to compete in the Best Sapper Competition again next year, Cushing said he looks forward to coming back, “as a coach.”