“Sapper” is the Army’s nickname for the combat engineers who take on a variety of duties all centered around clearing the way for infantry to get where they need to go.
The name comes from the French word “sappe,” meaning to undermine and collapse a wall.
This week, 50 two-person teams of sappers from around the world are at Fort Leonard Wood in the Missouri Ozarks to compete against each other in an event designed to test the wide-ranging skills a sapper needs.
“A washed-out road? We fix the road. If the enemy puts IEDs in the road, we find and clear the IED,” said Col. Marc Hoffmeister, a sapper and the assistant commandant at Fort Leonard Wood, talking about some of the things combat engineers do. “If they put mines in wired to protect their position, we blow a hole through the wire and clear the mines, and we let the infantry get on and deal with the enemy on the objective.”
Who's the Best?
Since Fort Leonard Wood is the home base for all of the Army’s engineers, sapper teams come home to participate in an arduous, three-day competition to see who is the best at the specialty. The participants don’t know what they will be asked to do. It could be finding mines, building a bridge, or plotting a marching course in the dark.
Hoffmeister compared the Best Sapper to running a marathon, but having to stop a few times along the way to take a physics test.
“People don’t necessarily fully appreciate the intellectual demands that is placed on a soldier in combat, especially an engineer,” Hoffmeister said. “Because an engineer is a complex job in an unforgiving environment in the most lethal sport there is in the world.”
While the teams are coming from Army installations as far away as Italy and Korea, there are two teams based at Fort Leonard Wood among the 50 competing this week.
Not Just For Fun
Staff Sgt. Rafael Agosto is on one of the teams. He said the competition will make him and his fellow sappers better at what they do in combat.
“It’s not just for fun. If we do find ourselves in one of these situations down range and we know what to do, and we can do it without sleep and with a little bit of food, we will still be able to perform at all times and make sure our soldiers are right there with us,” Agosto said.
Agosto is active on social media, and he said he hopes his performance in the competition can inspire other people.
“I’ll never quit at anything. And I want to show people that in life, they need a better mindset,” Agosto said. “Never give up.”
Staff Sgts. Derrick Baker and Jose Carrillo make up the other team from Fort Leonard Wood.
“It’s definitely about the bragging rights,” Carrillo said. “We’re competing with the best of the best. Just finishing in the top 50 is definitely bragging rights in itself.”
Baker compared the Best Sapper Competition to the Super Bowl and the Olympics rolled up into one.
“There’s only 50 teams here, top 100 in the regiment right there, that’s how I look at it,” Baker said. “That’s still bragging rights right there.”
Portions of the competition are open to the public to watch. The Army is hoping that will help bring attention to the hard work and skills of its soldiers.
But the sappers aren’t in it for the notoriety. Baker said he knows people outside of the military have heard of specialists like Navy Seals or Green Berets but don’t know what a sapper is.
“I’m OK with that,” Baker said. “We’re not like big, flashy people. If people outside the Army don’t know who we are, it doesn’t hurt my feelings. I’m a pretty humble person.”
But Baker admits if he and Carrillo win, or even if they finish, the will be very, very proud of the accomplishment. And some of that humility will give way to bragging.
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