- The Washington Times - Monday, July 9, 2012

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.

They waited.

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.

Since 1985, out of 6,264 graduates who have “tabbed,” fewer than 50 have been women.

Two women in the June class — Capts. Aston Armstrong and Stephanie Godman, both 26 — were determined to tab. Both had tried previously and failed earn the badge.

That night, they and their 31 male classmates marched until 3 a.m. They were required to sleep at least three hours for the next day’s mission — rappelling off a 90-foot cliff.

The path down to the cliff was narrow and steep, littered with small rocks that crushed and crumbled beneath their boots. At the edge, Sgt. Winters, the chief instructor, had tied one end of a rope around his waist and the other around a tree, and warned unsecured bystanders not to get too close.

“I’m too close to retirement,” he joked.

One by one, the soldiers appeared onto the path, and fashioned rope harnesses around waists, then carefully approached the edge. Sgt. Winters and a couple of other instructors checked each student and made sure their harnesses were secure before hooking them to the rope they would use to rappel down.

Capt. Armstrong approached the cliff, but she encountered trouble when she tried to tie her harness.

“My rope is too short, sir,” she called out.

“Lose some weight,” Sgt. Winters replied, joking.

“It’s all those fatty cakes, sir,” Capt. Armstrong retorted.

Mission: Possible

An instructor and senior medic, Army Staff Sgt. John Rapacz said there was no difference in procedures for examining female students, except for when checking uniform pockets for any loose objects that could fall out.

“We don’t check the females’ breast pockets. We just ask them if there’s anything in them,” the sergeant said.

After rappelling down the cliff, the soldiers navigated through the backwoods and across a river. They scarfed down their second meal from aluminum packets and marched about half a mile up a steep gravel hill to begin their next mission — planning and executing a raid on an enemy camp, a multiple-hour operation that would be completed about 11 p.m.

The next day, with the heat expected to reach 100 degrees, the soldiers started their day with an assault from the air with military working dogs.

A UH-60 Black Hawk landed near their campsite, whipping up a small tornado of loose twigs, weeds and leaves. An initial security team ran aboard and strapped themselves in. A Chinook followed to pick up the other students and the dogs.

After the Black Hawk made a soft landing, the soldiers ran out to secure the landing zone. Minutes later, the Chinook descended, its powerful rotors turning up anything that wasn’t rooted to the ground within a radius of 100 feet. The back of the Chinook lowered, and the soldiers ran out.

The students headed toward the final mission of their 10-day outdoor training — breaching a compound of multiple buildings filled with enemy forces. They would use so-called MOUT (military operations on urban terrain) tactics, not unlike those they could use in Afghanistan.

For the soldiers who were mission leaders, it was the final opportunity to show the instructors that they deserved the Sapper tab. Capt. Godman was a squad leader, in charge of 12 men. The soldiers would have to breach the main building using an explosive charge, then search and secure the three other buildings in the compound.

Failure or success

Enemy fire erupted before the soldiers could breach the main building. One soldier peeked around the corner to get a look at the door they had to breach, and was hit instantly. Other soldiers panicked, not sure about what to do.

Capt. Godman and her unit moved to secure one of the smaller buildings, a two-story structure. She directed her men to clear two floors of the building simultaneously. She told a team leader to go out the bottom window and meet her in the back of the building to go clear another building.

But when she got out there, she was alone, and she was gunned down by the enemy. Capt. Godman thought she had failed the mission, but she didn’t know the instructors had moved her team because they were standing too close to explosives that were going to be detonated.

The soldiers finally blew open the door to the main building and were confronted by the enemy up close. Inside, at least one troop was hit by enemy fire and had to be evacuated.

Capt. Armstrong administered a tourniquet on one of the wounded. Her battle buddy, Sgt. 1st Class Johnathan Guerrero, yelled for cover so they could evacuate him.

The main building had lots of walls and rooms, but no roof, which allowed the cadre to watch the mission unfold from scaffolds above.

“Where’s the [platoon leader]?” Sgt. Winters hollered.

“I’m here, sir,” called a distant voice from the woods.

“What the hell are you doing over there?” Sgt. Winters yelled.

The instructors shook their heads.

It was hard to tell whether this final mission was a failure or a partial success.

Go, no-go, retest

Hours after the mission, the soldiers lined up before Sgt. Winters and the rest of the instructor cadre to learn whether each of them had earned the sapper tab, knowing that the chief instructor would divide them into three groups — “go,” those who would walk away with badges; “no go,” those who had failed; and “retest,” those who might have to retake a few portions of the course in order to graduate.

Each waited anxiously to hear his or her name called.

Sgt. Winters called out three names — a small group that indicated those soldiers were to retest. Capts. Armstrong and Godman were not among them.

Sgt. Winters began calling names for the second group and directed them to the opposite end of the tar-covered courtyard. It was a big group — 10 soldiers — either “go” or “no go.”

Armstrong,” he called out.

Silence. Capt. Armstrong stood for a moment, waiting.

Armstrong,” the instructor yelled again.

“Moving, sir,” she said and ran over to the group.

She knew it was not good and buried her face in her hands.

Sgt. Winters started calling names for the next group, until the last soldier had been called. Capt. Godman was in that group, the go group.

Sgt. Winters walked over to Capt. Armstrong, whose face was red.

Armstrong, what’s the matter?” he said.

“I don’t know, sir,” she replied, shaking her head.

“Sapper,” he said to her, “get over there.”

He pointed to the where Capt. Godman was standing, acknowledging he had played a joke on her by assigning her to the no-go group.

Capt. Armstrong looked up in disbelief, and ran to join Capt. Godman. The two laughed and cried, almost simultaneously, choking for air.

Then they turned to the men in their group, who high-fived and embraced them. Out of the 36 soldiers who had started the course, 20 received “go,” 10 “no-go,” three would retest that evening and three had dropped out earlier.

Later, Capt. Godman said she was happy when she heard her name called for the go group but her “heart had stopped” because Capt. Armstrong wasn’t there with her.

But in the next moment, she was. And together, with the guys, they were all sappers.