The U.S. Army Engineer School at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, is home to one of the toughest engineer courses the Engineer Regiment has to offer — the Sapper Leader Course.
As the Army’s premier leadership school for combat engineers, the course provides the maneuver commander an asset to ensure mobility, counter-mobility and survivability.
That is a tall order considering the course, which has evolved since its humble beginnings in 1985, must build unit leaders in specialized engineer and infantry techniques in a mere 28 days.
“The Sapper Leader Course prepares junior leaders to lead and execute combat engineer tasks and missions in a physically demanding and stressful operating environment,” said Capt. Donald Lew, Sapper Training Company commander. “Even though we teach the course 14 times a year, it is highly competitive to get in, and once admitted, candidates have a 50 percent chance they will earn the right to wear the Sapper tab.”
When candidates arrive at Fort Leonard Wood, they take a Sapper Physical Fitness Test; and at 3 a.m. on Day 1 of training, they must complete a 12-mile road march within three hours in order to gain acceptance into the course.
“I came here not knowing too much about the course and it kicked off with that 12-miler,” said Staff Sgt. Kome Eteuati, 6th Ranger Training Battalion, Ranger instructor at Camp James Rudder, Florida, who graduated the SLC in March. “That is the hardest 12-miler I have ever done in my career.”
Those who make it through the road march begin phase one of SLC, or General Subjects, which includes classroom instruction, practical exercises and written examinations. General Subjects covers physical fitness, conventional and expedient demolitions, air operations, mountaineering, water operations, land navigation, communications, knots, medical techniques, foreign weapons and threat ordnance and identification.
Candidates must score 700 out of 1,000 points in phase one in order to move on to phase two of the course, Patrolling.
“In Patrolling, we bring them out here to teach them some basic infantry tactics,” said Sgt. 1st Class Robert Moore, Sapper Leader Course instructor. “They will learn how to move through the woods or any environment; how to conduct raids, ambushes and recons, and how to function as a patrol. We teach orders and how to plan and execute those orders. Land navigation is a big part of the course.”
“The Sapper Leader Course is really demanding physically,” Moore said. “You’re tired; you’re hungry, and you have to be able to think the entire time. There’s a lot of decision making that has to be done when your body has just had enough.”
Making the cut is not just about having the physical strength to maneuver across austere terrain in all weather conditions while humping a 60 to 90-pound ruck sack. What separates a lot of the graduates from those who don’t earn the Sapper tab is the ability to retain and apply information very quickly.
“Blocks of instruction are fast paced,” Moore said. “We throw a lot of information at you in a very short period of time, and you do need to retain that.”
Additionally, the making of a Sapper Leader is based in large part on personal fortitude.
“Participants in this course make their own decisions,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jared Gay, Sapper Training Company, subject matter expert. “Instructors will tell Sappers what time they are leaving for the next event, and Sappers have the choice to gather their gear, study or sleep.”
According to course instructors, seeing how well the candidates apply their knowledge and carry out the mission is the easiest way to tell if they are learning, however, the Sapper Leader Course adds another layer to review its candidates.
“A peer-to-peer student evaluation occurs by the squad and platoon to assess each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” said 1st Sgt. Matthew Zwolinski, Sapper Training Company, chief instructor. “A poor peer evaluation could result in being administratively dropped form the course.”
If candidates are not successful in one or both phases, students are allowed one chance to repeat each phase of the course. However, if they fail a second time, they will be dismissed.
Graduates of the Sapper Leader Course recommend preparing before arrival.
“I did a lot of physical training — rucking, running, working out, training up on knots and demo every day — to get it down to a tee,” said Spc. Brandon Jordan, a horizontal construction engineer with the 307th Brigade Engineer Battalion, Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Jordan, who graduated the SLC in March, looks forward to bringing lessons learned back to his unit and recommends to “get ahead by studying everything you can before you come here.”
In addition to earning the right to wear the Sapper tab, which was authorized for permanent wear June 28, 2004, instructors and students alike say the course teaches them the skills they need to lead others, support the maneuver commander and stay alive.
“Going to this school makes me a better platoon leader for my future platoon,” said 2nd Lt. Dakota Farrer, 39th Brigade Engineer Battalion, Fort Campbell, Kentucky, a recent graduate of the SLC. “I want to be the best I can be for my unit, to keep them safe and do what we can to accomplish the mission.”
Moore added, the course is great because skills he learned when he went through kept him and his paratroopers alive during his deployments to Afghanistan.
“I was able solve problems by applying techniques I learned in the Sapper Leader Course to fix communication systems, procure water and defend a perimeter,” he said.
“Sapper tab candidates find out who they really are at this course,” Moore said. “They will learn how far they can push their bodies past what they thought they could do. The goal is to make a better and well-rounded leader we can send to any type of unit throughout the Army. I recommend any engineer leader coming through this course.”
“The way I explain it to junior Sapper leaders is you never know when you’re going to need this stuff,” he added. “They might write information down in their book thinking they’ll never need it, until that moment happens and they are like, ‘Holy cow, I know how to do this. I know how to get out of this problem.’”
For more information about Sapper Leader Course dates and eligibility, visit http://www.wood.army.mil/sapper/SLC_Report.html.