U.S. Army - Friday 19th May, 2017
JOHNSTON, Iowa - 'Hey, just one more event. Let's do it. One more event. Let's go.'
Cold, drenched with rain, and reduced to a painful, six-inch shuffle, two Iowans continued to find the tenacity to reach deep within themselves and doggedly place one foot in front of the other.
After surviving the first 24 hours of the 11th annual Best Sapper Competition, the team had completed more than 30-miles of running and rucking with a 70-pound backpack over Fort Leonard Wood's undulating terrain.
A total of 26 of the 48 combat engineer teams weren't as fortunate, dropping within the first day of the three-day competition.
Billed as '50 teams, 50 hours, 50 miles,' the annual contest tests combat engineers in a variety of challenges. Competition began Monday night with a written test, followed by physically challenging endurance and technical events early Tuesday morning.
The Iowa Army National Guard engineers comprising Team 35 -- 1st Lt. Thomas Bentley, executive officer for the Company A, 224th Brigade Engineer Battalion based in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, and Sgt. 1st Class James Roller, of Fort Madison, Iowa, a platoon sergeant also assigned to Company A -- stubbornly trudged into day two action.
U.S. Army Sappers perform a wide variety of combat engineer tasks, ranging from bridge-building, laying or clearing minefields, road and airfield construction and repair, demolitions, and executing field defenses. The term 'sapeur' can be traced back to the French Army in the mid to late 17th century, where it referred to an engineer who dug trenches and built field fortifications.
The Best Sapper competition began in 2005 as a challenging three-day ordeal testing each competitor's knowledge, physical prowess and mental fortitude. Besides a run, ruck march, day and night land navigation, and weapons qualification, contestants also complete technical Sapper events such as breach a target using the tactical torch cutting system, construct field-expedient antennas, or disable a bridge with explosives.
Within the first 12 hours of the competition, teams completed a non-standard physical fitness test, a physical endurance course which included an 800-yard buddy carry and a 150-200 meter swim. The teams were then placed into squads of 10 to carry a 350-pound zodiac boat to the lake, paddle across, and then carry the zodiacs to the Big Piney River and paddle downstream to their next event. They then participated in squad events, including laying an 11-row barbed wire barricade. That was then followed by an XX-mile ruck, complete with a 70-pound backpack, and the land navigation course, where participants had to locate two of six points without a compass, using only terrain association.
Approximately nine teams were eliminated following the ruck march/land navigation phase, with another dozen teams falling victim to the 'Nite Stakes,' an eight-station round-robin event testing engineers' technical skills.
'I may have hit my breaking point, but we kept going, we kept carrying on,' said Bentley. 'After the ruck, I felt like my feet were chewed up. I told myself, 'let's do another event,' so we went into the land navigation course. I know I was walking slower and slower, but I said, 'Let's keep going,' so we kept on going,' he said.
The Iowans made the most of the Nite Stakes, completing six of the eight stations.
'There was no stopping in the lieutenant, his heart was too big,' said Roller. 'Every event, I was looking at him and asking, 'Are you ok? Can we do it?' and then we'd do it.'
Before daybreak, the rain set in -- cold, wet and unrelenting. Those unforgiving Fort Leonard hill's continued with their own ominous challenge, as blisters began to rupture, turning wet feet raw.
Adding to the misery of the competitors, the severe weather also forced organizers to substitute in alternative events. For example, the morning's cliff rappel was replaced by testing on swiss seats and knot tying.
'Hey, just one more event. Let's do it. One more event. Let's go.'
Bentley and Roller completed the air movement and urban demolition phases of the contest, before being trucked out to the lake. There, they would have to re-enter the water after constructing a poncho raft, swimming with their rucks for about a quarter mile and back before hiking out to the weapons range.
Ultimately, it was only a matter of time before cold reality would relegate the Iowa duo to the sidelines. As his feet continued to deteriorate, the lieutenant could barely get off the bus at the lake.
'He couldn't say the words, he wouldn't give up,' said Roller. 'When he walked, he was hurting himself even more, by compensating how he walked to protect where it hurt.'
'When we trucked to the lake, I realized my feet were just too bad to go on. We must have walked a ton of hills at Fort Leonard Wood. There's very little flat terrain here. And it doesn't help having a 70-pound ruck on your back,' said Bentley.
Of the initial 48 teams, Iowa finished 22nd. Of the four National Guard teams in the competition -- Iowa, Texas, Utah and West Virginia -- only Utah and West Virginia continued on to the finish.
'I've done a lot of triathlons, tough mud runs and the Bataan Death March,' said Roller. 'I'd go back to Bataan in a second. It was amazing what we physically endured here. They hammered us for 24 hours. It was just physically demanding and they just kept hammering us, pushing us, driving us.
Bentley and Staff Sgt. Steven Russell, a supply sergeant with Company B, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry, Iowa Army National Guard, took part in the 2016 contest, finishing 37th after Bentley suffered an ankle injury during the 10th annual Fort Leonard Wood event.
'This was worse than last year's event,' said Bentley. 'Last year, during the Sapper Stakes, we rode in a vehicle to each of our points. This year, we rucked it.'
'It takes a lot of sweat and blood, literally, to keep going in this intense of a competition. It just gets to that point...' said Bentley.
'It takes a lot of discipline to continue,' said Roller. 'You look to your left and to your right, and you're not alone. You just keep on going. It's all you can do.
'We had only one hour of sleep,' he added. 'Physically, it's hard to get your gears back in motion once you stop. The good news, however, is we didn't get cut.'
The pair had worked together when Bentley was a platoon leader and Roller his platoon sergeant while their unit was at U.S. Army's Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La. After developing a good relationship, they decided to enter the Best Sapper competition together.
Bentley's fiance, 2nd Lt. Leah Mullenix, with the 326th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, of Fort Campbell, Ky., finished 7th in the 2016 Best Sapper Competition. She was also the first female engineer to complete the competition.
Bentley, who celebrates seven years of service in the Iowa National Guard in May, currently serves as a research assistant with Afrobarometer, a pan-African, non-partisan research network. Afrobarometer conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions, and related issues in more than 35 countries in Africa.
After graduating from Lakeside High School in Evans, Ga., Bentley earned a Political Science degree from the University of Iowa (2013). He's now in the fourth year of his doctorate degree at Michigan State University, where he's majoring in Political Science and specializing in civil war and rebel tactics.
Attending Michigan State provided 'a great opportunity to continue my education and to advance my military and civilian career,' said Bentley. 'They offer a unique opportunity to advanced students in international relations and Political Science.'
Roller, from Fort Madison, Iowa works full-time as a member of the Correctional Emergency Response team, a tactical team serving the Iowa State Penitentiary. With more than 13 years of service in the Iowa Army National Guard, he said he joined the military to 'serve my country.'
A 1991 graduate of Galesburg, Ill. High school, Roller has proven to be a committed and resilient Soldier. Following this competition, he'll receive his promotion to master sergeant, and then assume duties as first sergeant with Company B, 224th Brigade Engineer Battalion in Davenport, Iowa.
In his 'downtime,' he runs marathons, triathlons and obstacle races, to include the Warrior Dash, Tough Mudder, and Special Olympics' Law Enforcement Torch Run, as well as riding in RAGBRAI (The Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) with Team Gnarly.
According to Roller, the first thing he'll do when he gets home is unload his gear, put on comfortable, dry clothes, and 'probably sleep for about 10 hours.'
He'll also reminisce about the last couple of days of the Sapper competition and reflect on some very memorable moments. 'I'll forget about the pain, and just remember the achievement, the good times,' Roller said.
For Bentley, could it be a case of another year, another competition?
'I'm going to give myself some time to reflect on this experience and check our lessons learned to see if we can improve on preparing a team again next year. I don't want to say I'm going to do it again, because if there's a better sapper out there, they deserve to go. But I know for sure I'll be involved if there's any team from Iowa coming,' he said.
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