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NEWS | Sept. 1, 2015

Army Reserve, National Guard Soldiers survive Sapper Stakes, turn a challenge into friendship

By Staff Sgt. Debralee Best 412th Theater Engineer Command

FORT CHAFFEE, Ark. – “It’s a rough, tough competition … Three days of tough-guy stuff. Only the best engineers will win.”

Spc. Elliott Vitelli, combat engineer, 680th Engineer Company out of Webster, New York, is one of the U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers competing in Sapper Stakes 2015 at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, Aug. 30 to Sept. 1.

Sapper Stakes is a three-day competition challenging combat engineers through various physical and mentally events focusing on mobility, counter-mobility and survivability. Last year, the inaugural event was exclusively an Army Reserve competition. This year National Guard Soldiers were invited to participate. Four states accepted the offer: Missouri, North Carolina, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

For some of these teams, this was a last-minute scramble to put a team together.

“I got a phone call, and they said there was an event coming up, and it’s the first time our state has been invited to do this,” said Spc. Zakhar Zimin, combat engineer, 119th Engineer Company (Sapper), West Virginia National Guard out of Moundsville, West Virginia. “They asked me if I wanted to do it. I said, ‘Yeah, sure, I love doing this stuff!’ It was kind of a short notice so we didn’t have a lot of time to prep.”

While other National Guard units put their teams together earlier and had more time to train, they still ran into difficulties getting Soldiers to the competition.

“We originally had three companies train up in our battalion. Most of them had to drop out because of … (other exercises),” said Capt. Troy Meneffe, commander, 151st Engineer Company (Mobility Augmentation), North Carolina National Guard, out of Laurinburg, North Carolina. “We’re one of the units who has (an exercise) coming up next year. We stayed on there, so they really volunteered to come out here.”

In coming to this competition, some of the Soldiers missed their first week of the school semester and will have to retake tests when they return home.

“It’s really hard for them,” said Meneffe, a Jacksonville, North Carolina, resident. “I appreciate them coming out.”

Getting to the competition with complete teams was half the battle for the National Guard units. The competition itself hasn’t been a stroll in the park as Sapper Stakes was designed so that each Soldier rucked, ran and marched a cumulative 45 miles minimum in three days.

“We’ve never done anything like this before. It’s a good challenge, good test of knowledge of our unit and what we can do. (We’re doing) pretty good, not bad. Better than I thought we’d do,” said Zimin, a Clarksburg, West Virginia, resident. “We’re just here to survive: try to make it to the end. We were all talking about it. It’s harder than we all thought it was going to be. We honestly didn’t know what to expect. It’s a pretty tough competition.”

Tough is a good way to describe the competition, with events beginning before dawn and ending well after dark, with only the moon and headlamps to light the way.

While this is a competition, it also helped enhance engineer skills.

“Sapper Stakes is the kind of event that absolutely augments the training the individual and team-based skills Soldiers are learning throughout the training year, at battle assemblies and at (Extended Combat Trainings),” said Capt. Chris Scott, commander, 688th Engineer Company out of Harrison, Arkansas, and officer-in-charge of Sapper Stakes 2015. “I would even say that it is another cumulative training event Soldiers can look forward to outside of ECT in terms of overall readiness and improving the warfighting abilities of the regiment.”

The competition focused on engineer skills, but also included plenty of physical activities to wear the Soldiers out including 500 burpees as a team for the nonstandard Army physical fitness test, 100 push-ups as a team between every two points during land navigation and nonstop pain-inducing carries of heavy objects throughout the competition.

Some National Guard Soldiers recognized the training value here.

“Sapper Stakes has been a challenge, beginning from day one. It’s not only a physical challenge, but it’s a mental challenge as well. There are different challenges that we don’t normally do so it’s good to come down here, train with other team leaders, other teams, see how they operate and combine arms, so we can take something out of this,” said Staff Sgt. Joshua Steffens, squad leader, 273rd Engineer Company (Sapper), Wisconsin National Guard out of Medford, Wisconsin and Appleton, Wisconsin, resident. “Worse case scenario, even if we do not place, we’re still training, we’re still learning, and we’re still meeting outstanding Soldiers from other units.”

The building of relationships across units and components was one of the goals of the planners of the competition.

“It’s going to develop because they’re all going through the same thing, they’re all hurting from the same events,” said Scott, a Fayetteville, Arkansas, native. “When you breed that level of intensity and that level of competition, it’s only going to draw these guys together and show them they are the same in so many ways.”

Some Army Reserve Soldiers said they wouldn’t have known the National Guard Soldiers from the Reserve.

“(Competing against the National Guard is) the same as any other Army Reserve unit. We get the same training everyday, whatever our weekends contain,” said Vitelli, a Rochester, New York, resident. “We’re all fighting for the same thing: ‘Merica. I’ve seen them compete, they’re pretty good. I’m sure they’re here for a reason.”

The Reserve Soldiers seeing the National Guard teams succeed may increase competitiveness, but leaders think that will grow into something more.

“Rivalry is great. Rivalry always breeds a certain heightened performance level, and that’s a great thing, but when rivalry also transcends into cohesion what you have is one fighting force. To fall into that old cliché, and it’s a cliché because it’s true, you have one team, one fight,” said Scott. “These Soldiers start to recognize that, and they start to work together. In the end, we’re all better for it and the Army gets better. We become more effective in how we fight, we become more effective in how we train.”

Scott has seen first-hand how competition can bring Soldiers together.

“I was a part of the 420th Engineer Brigade’s competition. At the start of the competition, they were all individual teams, they were all eyeballing each other and they’re looking at each other as adversaries and competitors,” he said. “By the end of that, it’s high-fives all around, and I guarantee if you watch social media as a temperature check trended, you’d watch friend requests and follower on Twitter just blasted left and right because all the sudden they interact and these guys are like, ‘Hey man, I’ll see you at WLC, I’ve got the same school days as you.’ Now that guy is your friend for life in the Army.”

While making a friend for life is great for the Soldier, the relationships built are also important for the entire engineer team.

“Some of these guys are going to go on and see each other at Sapper Leader Course or some other schoolhouse, and they’re going to be better because of this experience for these three day,” said Scott. “It has nothing to do with me, has nothing to do with the cadre who are out here. You could throw any cadre and any (noncommissioned officer-in-charge) or OIC out here working, and those Soldiers would experience the same amount of rivalry and cohesion and teambuilding that will effectively improve our Engineer Regiment going forward.”

In the end, these U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard Soldiers will finish Sapper Stakes knowing they competed in a grueling competition and built lasting camaraderie.