DARIEN, Ill. –
Two engineer officers under the 416th Theater Engineer Command are the newest graduates from the elite Sapper Leader Course out of Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
Capt. Brandon J. LaLonde and 1st Lt. Christopher R. Tapia both graduated as part of the original 16 students out of a class that began with 53; the dynamic duo both make up the leadership team of the Michigan-based 428th Combat Engineer Company - Infantry (CEC-I), as the Company Commander and Platoon Leader, respectively.
The Sapper Leader Course is one of the more demanding Army courses and has a physical, a mental and a leadership component to it – and these components are often blurred, depending on the day and task.
“Physically, I gave it my all, one day at a time,” said LaLonde who also made the commandant’s list.
He said though he was competing with many Soldiers just out of Basic Training and 10 years younger, he was able to pull from his nine years as a prior enlisted member and a lieutenant. The leadership skills he brought with him helped bolster that assessment and allowed him to focus on other aspects, like the mental and physical challenges.
“The most important piece of the school was how it familiarized us with the tools in our kit,” LaLonde said of the specialized training.
Tapia agreed, adding that the expansion of knowledge beyond the basics helped better prepare him for more unexpected scenarios.
“I’ve never been challenged to that degree,” Tapia said. “It was more of a mental grid, than anything. You show up physically ready to go, but the mental work it takes to just go day by day, hour by hour, just to get through this one task, one task at a time… It was mentally challenging.”
Beyond that, Tapia also said he was impressed with the way the schoolhouse encouraged building a cohesive team by having all students take off rank during the course. “It removes rank as a barrier,” he said. “It allows those not normally in a leadership role to get up front and vice versa for those not used to being a joe.”
Tapia also said it helped him get to know himself better. “It allows you to be you – for better or worse. You figure out your shortcomings and see where your strengths are.”
Both leaders said now they are bringing back that knowledge and motivation to the Soldiers of the 428th CEC-I and hope to inspire young engineers in the unit to attend the course.
“I would really ask them to think about it – why did they join the Army in the first place and join our company,” Tapia said. “To be ready, they really have to have that sense of ‘why’ and how that translates to the unit – not just doing it for a tab.”
Plus, LaLonde said getting more enlisted Soldiers would be key in bolstering the future Army Reserve Soldiers within the ranks, as it continues the education and motivation cycle.
The Sapper Leader Course is a demanding 28-day leadership development course for combat engineers that reinforces critical skills and teaches advanced techniques needed across the Army. This course is also designed to build esprit de corps by training Soldiers in troop leading procedures, demolitions (conventional and expedient), and mountaineering operations. The course culminates in an intense field training exercise that reinforces the use of the battle drills and specialized engineer techniques learned throughout the course.