FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (April 27, 2023) — One hundred Sappers assembled in two-Soldier teams on Fort Leonard Wood last weekend for a chance to win the 16th Robert B. Flowers Best Sapper Competition.
This year’s winners came from the 101st Airborne Division in Fort Campbell, Kentucky — Capts. Matthew Cushing and Joseph Palazini from the 21st Brigade Engineer Battalion of the 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
“They truly proved themselves to be the best Sappers this year,” said 1st Sgt. Christopher Hoffman, Sapper Training Company, 169th Engineer Battalion, 1st Engineer Brigade. “This competition showcases the abilities and capabilities of what it is to be a Sapper. Steal sharpens steal. They put their best foot forward and it paid off for them.”
The Best Sapper Competition began in 2005, as a means for service members to show-off their skills. With little-to-no sleep they covered 60 miles in 58 hours, while being tested on more than 25 Sapper tasks within the four days of events, April 21 through 24.
New this year, the opening ceremony and nonstandard physical fitness test event were held off post. Competitors made the grand entrance to Waynesville in a CH-47 Chinook helicopter.
“We wanted to give the community the chance to get involved,” Hoffman said.
Cushing, a native of Scarborough, Maine, competed in the 2019 Best Sapper Competition and said he enjoyed beginning the competition off post this year.
“I thought it was awesome. There were a lot of people out there. I love that park. Having everybody out there and having our friends and families there was great,” Cushing said.
Palazini agreed but wished he could have savored it more.
“It was great to have the community there. They were cheering us on, and it was awesome,” Palazini said. “I wish I could have paused it and looked around to see everyone. We were so tunnel visioned, focused on the physical fitness event, but what I could see from my peripherals was motivating.”
The first full day of competing tested the Sappers on skills, such as identifying an explosive device, creating a road crater with a claymore mine, mounting and tying knots on a raft, and conquering the rappel tower.
“We had to identify threat ordnance under 14-feet of water,” Cushing said. “We are good at threat ordnance but being underwater made it a lot more difficult to see and identify it without being able to hold it.”
Day two challenged the competitors to qualify with an M4 assault rifle and M240 machine gun, breach several entryways in an urban environment, and perform medical care and evacuate a casualty while under fire.
Palazini, originally from Franklin, Massachusetts, said day two was his favorite day.
“Being able to just show up with a weapon in hand, get ammunition and go to the range and shoot was awesome. I enjoyed the challenge of a non-standard range. Going from physical event to physical event was great,” Palazini said. “Every single lane pushed us to our limits. It’s called a competition, but it was a fantastic training event put on by the Sapper team here.”
For Cushing, the best part of the competition was training for it.
“It forces you to be an expert in everything. There are 404 pages in the Sapper handbook. We went through it line by line to make sure we were knowledgeable about all the items in there,” Cushing said. “We knew threat ordnance was one of the things we might get tested on, so we reached out to (an Explosives Ordnance Disposal unit) on Fort Campbell to get hands-on training. We also worked with the Best Ranger (Competition) teams to get access to ranges and rappel towers. We are going to use this training in more than just this competition.”
He said they started preparing for the competition in November.
“We made a list of about 200 tasks based off the Sapper handbook and previous competitions. We dedicated most of our personal time to studying. We studied on the weekends. We would work out in the morning and, instead of breakfast, we would study,” Cushing said.
In addition to making sure they knew their Sapper doctrine, they said not showing any weakness during the arduous competition gave them the winning edge over their competitors. Palazini said this was particularly useful during the culminating event — the x-mile run. The competitors aren’t told the length beforehand, but this year’s ended up being about 3-miles long with seven physically demanding stations placed along the route — like lunges, log cutting, and lifting and pulling heavy weights.
“I have blood blisters on the front of my toes. Going into the x-mile run, we told each other, ‘Whatever you do, do not look like you are hurt.’ So, we just walked normal. They said, ‘ruck up,’ and we immediately threw on our rucks. We were the first ones to get to the start point,” Palazini said. “At this stage of the competition people were limping. No matter how much it hurt, we acted normal, like it was just a stroll in the park. We got in people’s minds. It was a mental game.”
Cushing agreed, saying mental fortitude is the key to competitions like this.
“It’s a mental test of who can suck it up and drive on. You have to identify your breaking point, because you are going to find it and know how to push through it.” Cushing said. “A lot of the teams were top-notch individuals. We knew coming into it that a lot of teams were going to do great across the board. That forced us to be on our ‘A’ game and try to win as many challenges as possible to compete. Pushing nonstop the entire 50-plus hours was the hardest part for me.”
Palazini said another mental obstacle they had to overcome was not dwelling on their scores, because they didn’t know how many points they had or where they fell in the standings.
“There are so many events. You don’t know the grading, so the hardest part is not knowing whether you got something right or wrong,” Palazini said. “Our goal and mindset going into this was to put 100 percent into the task we were given. Then, put it in the past and focus on the next event.”
Hoffman said the competition has always been physically demanding, but this year, they added more mental stressors to the competition.
“It may seem kind of trivial, but my little diabolical addition to the competition was taking their watches away from them before the x-mile ruck march,” Hoffman said. “A lot of people use it for timing and pace. They didn’t know how long they had been out there, how fast they were going or what time it was. It was a mind game.”
Palazini said the x-mile ruck march was the most challenging event of the competition. Carrying 55-pound rucksacks on their backs, his team finished the 18-miles in 4 hours and 20 minutes.
“We stepped off on that ruck at 10 p.m., and we knew we had to do very well at that event. We knew we were probably not going to win it because there was a team of cadets from (the U.S. Military Academy at West Point) that were very fast,” Palazini said. “About three miles in, we thought we had separated from the pack. Then, we looked behind us and there was a team about 50-meters on our trail. That was the last time we walked for the remainder of the 18-mile ruck. We had to push each other for that. We were tired and temperatures were in the low 30s. We were soaking wet from sweat, so we had to be smart about keeping ourselves healthy and hydrated. We were looking over our shoulders a lot.”
According to Hoffman, besides taking the competitors off post to kick off the competition this year, another first for the Best Sapper Competition was having the first team comprised of a specialist and private.
“They placed 29th overall, so that’s pretty good,” Hoffman said. “They are two young Soldiers that probably have about five years total in the Army — between the two of them. They don’t have a lot of experience for a competition like this, so for them to cross the finish line through the castle just says a lot about them.”
Hoffman said it takes an entire year to plan a competition of this magnitude.
“We will start planning next year’s competition next week,” Hoffman said.
More photos from this year’s Best Sapper Competition are available on the Fort Leonard Wood Flickr page at https://www.flickr.com/photos/fortleonardwood/albums/72177720307690019
About Fort Leonard Wood
Fort Leonard Wood is a thriving and prosperous installation that has evolved from a small basic training post more than 80 years ago to a premier Army Center of Excellence that trains nearly 80,000 military and civilians each year.
Fort Leonard Wood is home to the U.S Army Maneuver Support Center of Excellence and three U.S. Army schools: the U.S. Army Engineer School; U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear School; and the U.S. Army Military Police School. In addition to training engineer, CBRN and military police specialties for the Army, Fort Leonard Wood also provides gender-integrated in-processing and Basic Combat Training for new Soldiers.
Fort Leonard Wood also hosts and trains with the largest Marine Corps Detachment and Air Force Squadron on any Army installation as well as a large Navy construction detachment.
More information about Fort Leonard Wood is at: https://home.army.mil/wood/index.php/about/mission