High stakes: Guard soldiers test skills in Sapper StakesA day-long training event around Jamestown Saturday put many North Dakota National Guard soldiers to the test. It’s called Sapper Stakes and nearly 90 members of the 817th Engineer Co. (Sapper) spent all day pushing their physical limits.
By: Ben Rodgers, The Jamestown Sun
A day-long training event around Jamestown Saturday put many North Dakota National Guard soldiers to the test.
It’s called Sapper Stakes and nearly 90 members of the 817th Engineer Co. (Sapper) spent all day pushing their physical limits.
“This unit has never done anything like this, nor has any other unit in the state,” said 1st Lt. Cory Cavette.
The grueling Saturday affair is what officers go through in officer school for the National Guard, only Saturday was considerably less demanding. This exercise was geared toward combat engineers and their skill sets.
Last July, 1st Lt. Robert Meland of the 817th Engineer Company went through the 30-day Sapper Leader Course at Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo. During the last 12 days of the course, sleep was prohibited. In comparison, Saturday was stroll in the park, he said.
“This is taking tasks from all the Sapper tasks and our engineer handbook and it’s a way to test our guys’ knowledge on it and award them with a trophy event,” Meland said.
Sappers are combat engineers who support front-line infantry.
The day started around 4:30 a.m. when the soldiers awoke. They then underwent a variety of physical tests, like pushups, pull-ups and sit-ups at 5 a.m. in Klaus Park.
For many that was the easy part, as temperatures remained bearable in the morning.
From the park the soldiers marched with their 35-pound rucksacks to the armory for weapons testing.
The six teams then had members dissemble and assemble three different weapons — the M249 SAW, a light machine gun, the M240 Bravo machine gun, and the M2 .50-caliber machine gun.
“Those are the primary weapons we use in the company,” Cavette said. “Everybody carries an M16 for the most part and that’s just too simple.”
After another ruck march the teams waited for a Blackhawk helicopter at Jamestown High School to transport them to the next stage.
The soldiers carried their gear in a single-file line while the helicopter waited. The crew chief, Sgt. John-Mark Kern with the 285th Aviation wing from Bismarck, waved them aboard, where they were packed in tight, facing the open doors with their rucksacks resting on their laps.
Soldiers on the ground snapped photographs as the first flight lifted off and moved out of Jamestown.
About 10 minutes after each flight started, the helicopter landed and Kern waved the team out in the middle of a field on the south side of Pipestem Reservoir. It took six flights to get all the soldiers relocated.
When the chopper lifted, Staff Sgt. David Rohrich told his team to “Move out!” to begin the next stage.
With the sun getting higher and the temperature steadily climbing, the troops started a 4 1/2 mile march.
“The most challenging part would be the 4 1/2 mile ruck march, probably due to the terrain just being so hilly and some of the hills were pretty steep,” Cavette said.
After the 4 1/2 mile ruck march, teams went into boats to cross the Pipestem. The first team could be seen about 90 minutes from the tactical operations center (TOC) on the north side of Pipestem as support staff waited for their arrival. The team was in a 12-foot rubber raft called a Zodiac, paddling together across more than a mile of open water under the hot July sun.
An hour later the soldiers docked the raft and marched up the hillside for a break by the TOC.
Soldiers ate Meals Ready to Eat for breakfast. MREs contain all the nutrients required for a meal and can be heated by just adding water.
There was more work to complete before lunch.
From the TOC, teams headed to different events designed to test their skills as soldiers.
“We pretty much covered all the north side of the Pipestem,” said Cadet Kevin Pham.
Teams were first sent to the medic station where they were tested on how to treat injuries and how to properly call in a medical evacuation.
From there teams marched to the monkey bridge, a 25-foot long bridge over shallow water that teams had to assemble and cross without falling in.
The next stage was demolitions as teams had to identify and assemble explosives, but nothing was detonated.
The last station was land map navigation skills, where teams used a map and compass and were rewarded with more MREs for lunch.
The final test was a inspection of the 35-pound rucksacks each soldier carried the entire day.
The soldiers each marched about 12 1/2 miles Saturday and rowed about 1 1/2 miles over Pipestem Reservoir, always with their rucksacks. Temperatures soared into the 90s and the air was humid with no clouds in the sky.
“It didn’t seem so hot, but you got all that gear on,” Cavette said. “Even the support staff, it kind of drains on you after a while — but we did plan for that.”
Considering all the planning, Cavette said he was pleased with the results as was the entire company.
“The event as a whole, I’m extremely satisfied as is the whole company,” he said. “From start to finish everything went pretty much as planned, every aspect, all the timing issues, logistics, there were no hiccups whatsoever.”
Sun reporter Ben Rodgers can be reached at 701-952-8455 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org