Third of six part series: Sappers feeling effects of training Print E-mail
Thursday, 13 June 2013
Story and photo by Melissa Buckley
GUIDON staff
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In week two of the Sapper Leader Course, the physical and mental stress of the fast-paced training is setting in on the students, causing the class size to dwindle.  

“If you look at the course schedule, the individual events are not hard. When the events are combined back-to-back, the students do not have time to recover — that is what makes this course hard,” said Capt. Matvey Vikhrov, Sapper Leader Course chief of training.
After a 300-meter poncho raft swim, the buddy teams exit the water. Staff Sgt. Hudson Costa, Sapper instructor, makes sure the students don’t let the poncho rafts rest on their heads.

Week two started with 33, but three more Sapper candidates have left the course — due to either voluntarily dropping-out or injury — bringing the current class count to 30.

Early in the week, Cpl. Christa Hepler, 11th Engineer Battalion, Fort Benning, Ga., was injured. She could have left the course on a medical profile, but she refused to quit. She wants to be the first enlisted female to graduate.  

“I separated my shoulder doing the one-rope bridge, I think it was when I hit the water. I just keep thinking — I am here, I’ve made it this far. I’m looking forward,” Hepler said. “It hurts, but I’m not quitting now.”

Hepler said for her to even have a seat in the class is a privilege and she’s not giving it up without giving it her all.

“Honestly, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me, because of my rank. And I’m not a 12B (combat engineer), actually I’m a 12C (bridge crewmember). So, this could be my only chance,” Hepler said.

Her peers and instructors watched as she pushed through the most difficult days of week two.

Master Sgt. Kevin Wiseman, Sapper Leader Course chief instructor, said the most challenging events were during water operations at Lake of the Ozarks Recreation Area.

“The boat physical training is the most strenuous. The RB-15 Zodiac boat weighs about 350 pounds by itself. They carried a boat one and half miles through hilly terrain. They had three stations where they stopped and caught their breath, took a drink of water, then executed calisthenics — with the boat,” Wiseman said. “Even though there are 10 of them holding the boat, at about the two-hour mark that 350 pounds feels like a whole lot more.”

In addition to the boat PT, Sapper candidates had to build a poncho raft, swim 300 meters with it in less than 35 minutes, execute a helocast from a Chinook then swim to shore and do capsize drills.

Despite her injury, Hepler said she actually enjoyed her time in the water.

“The water events are my favorite. I love to swim,” Hepler said.

Other events in week two included a cliff rappel, a head-first Australian rappel off Sapper tower, a knots exam and land navigation.

Only about half the students passed land navigation. According to Wiseman, how well the Sapper candidates do on events plays a role in the mental toughness of the course.  

“Two failed the road march; one person failed the technical demo test, and then 14 Sappers failed land navigation. For those who have failed an event, that is probably weighing heavily on their conscious now, because they have to wait until the last day to re-test,” Wiseman said.

Besides worrying about passing events, the physical aspect of the course is starting to take a toll.  

“I’m pretty sore every morning, even my fingers hurt,” said Sgt. Michael Gutierrez, Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C. “I’m getting enough sleep, but not a lot — only about three to five hours a night.”

Gutierrez said the worst part about the course is trying keep his battle buddies focused.  

“When others are breaking down mentally, we have to try to keep us all working together. We have to learn to work together or we are going to fall apart when we get to Patrolling,” Gutierrez said.

According to Vikhrov, the Sapper candidates having to depend more on each other in week two is by design. The instructors accomplish this by transitioning the students from individual events to team events.

“In the beginning of the course, the students take their Army Physical Fitness Test, do a ruck march, rappel and take a demolitions exam — which are all individual events. Next are events like the poncho raft swim and land navigation — those are buddy-team tasks. Finally, it takes squad-size teams to execute events like the boat PT. By the time they transfer to Patrolling, they will be working together, even though they just met each other a couple of weeks ago,” Vikhrov said.

Today, they are transitioning from phase one, the General Subjects phase, to phase two, the Patrolling phase.

“The biggest days of week three are the first few. The instructors will be teaching the patrolling techniques, the different types of raids, how to do recon, and an ambush. It’s important that students get the classes down now; it sets them up for success once they start student patrols,” Wiseman said.

Gutierrez said he is looking forward to starting with the second phase.

“I have learned that whenever there is down time, it’s important to gather your troops and teach them something. It’s how we better ourselves as Soldiers,” Gutierrez said. “During Patrolling, I want to build my confidence as a leader and learn to direct a squad or platoon in a combat environment.” 
Last Updated ( Wednesday, 26 June 2013 )