First of two parts
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — Deep in the woods, mosquitoes whine, flies buzz, and thick brown spiders dart from under one fallen leaf to the next, trying to evade the nearly 100-degree heat.
On her elbows and knees, ArmyCapt. Aston Armstrong crawls to the top of the hill, peers through the brush and spots the objective: an enemy airfield. The blond platoon leader devises a plan for her 33-member team to destroy the airfield by blowing a 20-foot crater in it.
She jogs back to her team and huddles with the platoon sergeant and three squad leaders. The men lean in as she whispers orders: They will have to pass her commands to the rest of the team, who are on watch to avoid ambush.
Leaves crunch under their boots as they creep into position. Sweat drips from their helmets as they set the charges.
“Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole!” Capt. Armstrong yells just before an explosion shoots a cloud of white dust into the air.
The mock-combat mission is a success on Day 24 of the Sapper Leader Course at the Army Engineer School at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., where soldiers who rig explosives, detect mines and set up firing systems come to train and push themselves to their physical and mental limits.
Capt. Armstrong is one of only a few women to undertake the sapper course since the Army in mid-May allowed female soldiers to serve in combat support jobs below the brigade level, placing women closer to the battlefield though still barring them from combat.
Band of brothers and sisters
Nine times each year, the best young combat engineers and soldiers are selected by their commands to attend the 28-day Sapper Leader Course, widely regarded as one of the Army’s toughest schools. Since 1985, 6,246 engineers have graduated from the course, but only about half of the 40 or so students in each class ever graduate.
Many who have completed both sapper and ranger training say sapper is tougher because of the course’s compressed time frame, number of subjects studied and grueling schedule. And there is no separation of the sexes in sapper school: Men and women work, eat, sleep and bathe in the same facilities, though not always at the same time.
Still barred from ranger training, women have attended sapper training since 1999 — and only 47 have graduated the course.
Of 36 engineers taking the course in June, three had dropped out, including one woman.
At 5-foot-4 and 140 pounds, Capt. Armstrong, 26, is a West Point graduate who had considered becoming an orthopedic surgeon before falling in love with the idea of being an Army engineer. She wanted to attend sapper school to prove to herself that she could do exactly what the guys do, and prove that she is a capable leader.