Second of two parts.
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — Bullets spewed from the M240 machine gun’s barrel so fast that it was practically spitting flames.
Lying in the grass, the soldier fired the machine gun at an “enemy” vehicle driving down the road. Its occupants fired back in spurts until, finally, it was quiet. Soldiers darted out from the woods toward the vehicle but stopped in the tall grass before reaching it.
An enemy fighter suddenly sprang up in the vehicle and began shooting again.
“What … were you guys waiting for? You guys are going to have to do it all over again!” Sgt. 1st Class Steven Jaynes, an Army combat engineer course instructor, yelled at the soldiers.
The 33 soldiers wearily jogged back to the tree line to wait for the enemy to drive through the clearing again.
It was 9 p.m. on Day 24 of the Sapper Leader Course, and the soldiers had been planning and conducting various missions since 6 a.m. in more than 90-degree heat. A 12-mile march carrying nearly 100-pound rucksacks still lay ahead of them that night.
For 10 days and nine nights during the second phase of the 28-day sapper course, the soldiers had carried on with only a couple of hours of sleep each night and one or two packaged meals a day — no beds, no toilets, no showers, no downtime. And they were watched and graded the entire time by a cadre of instructors.
“A lot of them will sleepwalk. A lot of them will hallucinate, due to the lack of sleep and the lack of food. But it’s designed so that the leadership and the students still have to make decisions even though they’re extremely tired and extremely hungry,” said chief instructor Sgt. 1st Class Troy Winters.
“Most of the students have poison ivy. Poison ivy is really bad here in Missouri because the vegetation is so thick,” he said, adding that ticks and mosquitoes also are plentiful. “There’s an abundance of snakes, but they usually don’t mess with you if you don’t mess with them.”
On the edge
Only the top combat engineers and soldiers from a unit are chosen to attend the Sapper Leader Course at Fort Leonard Wood — known throughout the Army as one of the service’s toughest training regimens. Many who have attended both sapper and ranger schools say that sapper is harder.
Less than half who attend end up graduating and earning the coveted “sapper tab,” or badge, to wear on their left sleeve as proof of their grit and expertise in rigging explosives, detecting mines and setting up firing systems. The sapper tab is one of three a soldier can earn through special training, along with the Special Forces tab and the ranger tab.
Women are barred from the Special Forces and ranger training, but have been allowed to go to sapper school since 1999. Graduation standards for men and women in sapper training are the same. Everyone carries the same equipment, has to make the same time on exercises and drills, and has to earn the same number of points to graduate.