A team of Soldiers belonging to the 450th Engineer Company, the 350th Eng. Co., and the 374th Eng. Co., moves through concealing smoke to enter and clears a building as one of the evaluated exercises for Sapper Stakes at Fort McCoy, Wis., May 6. Sapper Stakes is a combined competition hosted by the 416th Theater Engineer Command and the 412th TEC to determine the best combat engineer team in the Army Reserve. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Michel Sauret)
By Staff Sgt. Scott Griffin
FORT MCCOY, Wis. - Mine detection. Call for fire. Weapons jumble? OK. Land navigation. Ruck march. Casualty evacuation ... most Soldiers know what that stuff is, right?
Throw in a non-standard Army Physical Fitness Test, in-stride demo (we'll come back to that), a deliberate crater ... Deliberate crater? What is that about?
All together, these make up three quarters of the events that Army Reserve combat engineer teams took part in for the inaugural 2014 Sapper Stakes competition at Fort McCoy, May 5-9. The 15 teams averaging six Soldiers each worked to win medals and bragging rights through the next year.
"Sapper Stakes is an engineer collective competition, but it trains on a lot of the core mobility/counter-mobility tasks and skills that 12Bs (combat engineers) need to be proficient on but sometimes are not tasked on," said Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Moore of Spring Hill, Kansas, a platoon sergeant in the 348th Route Clearance Company out of Belton, Missouri.
The combat engineers are fully trained but often tasked on different missions due to real-world battlefield demands.
"This really brings us back to our roots as 'masters of the battlefield' as far as movement, or enhancing movement, or denying freedom of movement (to the enemy)," Moore said.
Contrary to popular belief, combat engineering covers more than big booms.
"It's not just the demolitions; it's also breaching the wire, finding the mines and explosive hazards; it's also the reconnaissance," Moore said. "Engineers go out and find the structural capabilities of bridges, the capacity of tunnels, route classification. Not all of those are being tested here, but it's totally within our scope as engineers to accomplish that."
Back to that in-stride demo thing ...
Team 13 - also with the 348th Engineer Company out of Belton - packed composition C-4 explosives into two of those green stakes used to hold up street signs. Once the C-4 is packed in, the team began laying down a line of detonation cord tied in knots at specific lengths. The detonation cord doesn't explode exactly, so much as it burns at a very high temperature. The knots create a higher heat point that trigger the explosion.
The Soldiers remained surprisingly calm the entire time, despite the fact they're holding enough packed explosive to blow down a wall.
It doesn't take much to make a boom big enough to atomize a human being, but as one Soldier pointed out, "This ain't our first rodeo." He's a private first class, holding an entire slab of C-4. Civilians have to apply for special licenses to get their hands on this stuff because it's such a controlled item.
At Sapper Stakes, it's just another lane.
"These guys are going down an in-stride breach lane where they're going to construct an improvised Bangalore torpedo and use that, along with one other charge, to breach a mine-wire obstacle once they get down on the demo range," said Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Marshall, an observer controller trainer with 1st Battalion, 345th Engineer Regiment, 157th Infantry Brigade, 1st Army Division East out of Camp Atterbury, Indiana.
Bangalore torpedoes go back decades, having been devised by Captain R.L. McClintock, an officer in a British Indian Army unit - the Madras Sappers and Miners - at Bangalore, India, in 1912. McClintock used it to explode leftover booby traps and obstructions from the Boer and Russo-Japanese Wars. The
Bangalore is essentially a tube packed with TNT or Composition-4 explosive that is shoved into or on top of an obstacle then detonated to clear a path a few meters wide.
"For in-stride breach, we look at the fundamentals of breaching," Marshall said. "As a combat engineer, that's our bread and butter. If we can't breach things, we don't bring anything to the mobility of the fight. We're watching these guys as they go through the fundamentals of breaching - suppress, obscure, secure, reduce and assault. Those are the key points they need to hit to make them successful on this range."
Bangalores have been used all around the world since McClintock's moment of discovery. Check out the D-Day scenes of the films "Saving Private Ryan" or "The Big Red One" for great examples of Bangalore in action. They form surprisingly huge explosions for their compact size. Huge.
The 348th was ready with the Bangalore. The range safety personnel had cleared them to move down-range to the blast area. They didn't bother asking whether they should move tactically, they just did it. Marshall and his crew seemed pleased. A 20-something-year-old Soldier carried the 12-pound bomb in his hands, and nobody worried about a thing. In less than fifteen minutes, there would be a very large explosion at the other end of the range.
But it's not all about the demo.
Sapper Stakes is about teamwork ...
"All combat engineer units have a (secondary mission requirement) to fight as infantry," Moore said. "Doing the patrolling techniques, doing the movement under fire, the raids and ambushes, the reactions to contact, but we can go one step farther and reduce the obstacles as opposed to having to bypass them or manually overcome any obstacles."
Sapper Leader Course (SLC) is uniquely challenging by its nature - an elite combat engineer school that earns graduating troops one of the few coveted extracurricular shoulder tabs authorized for wear by the Army.
"They know how to turn up the stress and take you out of the comfort zone, so when you're in a leadership position, not only do you have to do the right thing, but you also have to be able to motivate your subordinates and hold them to those very high standards," Moore said, adding that team-based events like Sapper Stakes can help prepare Soldiers for the rigors of Sapper Leader Course itself.
"It's totally a team-building event," Moore said. "Initially (SLC) was for units to send all of their leadership to, they'd send entire battalions of (noncommissioned officers), first sergeants, company commanders and platoon leaders so basically you would know the guy to the left and right of you. Since then they've gone to more of an individual setting as far where they pull from, but it still relies heavily on teamwork - y'know, the (Soldier) to your left and your right - and looking out for him because eventually he's gonna be looking out for you."
Sapper Stakes is about the improvement ...
Marshall had high hopes for Soldiers as they complete the competition and return home.
"Continue to train and if they come back to do something like this again it's better, it's easier for them, and we can add things to make it more complicated for them so it'll make them think," Marshall said. "This is a great training event that brings things back to the basics of engineers and soldier skills and I think this event is really on the right track."
"The more competitors, the more competition," Moore said. "The more organizations, the more collective ideas shared. Put them all together and you can hopefully come up with the best way. Broaden that pool of knowledge and you can only get better."
Moore said that Sapper Stakes fills a critical gap in some of the Army's key competitions, and it's something he'd like to see continuing to improve and grow in coming years.
"In the Army there's very few team competitions," Moore said. "You have Best Warrior Competition, Best Ranger, Best Sapper, but there's not a squad-based or fire team-based competition. There's one for (cavalry scouts), but it'd be great to see because engineers are one component that active duty, Reserves and National Guard all kind of share equally."
Sapper Stakes is about the future ...
Moore envisions a standardized competition for the active Army, Guard and Reserve that would send the top two teams from each component to an overall Army competition.
"I think - 10 years down the road - if that was something that becomes sustainable," Moore said, "that would be amazing."