The 14th Best Sapper Competition will feature a series of firsts this year, as all-international, all-cadet, and all-female teams will compete in it for the first time in history, the U.S. Army announced Monday.
Capt. Hilary Thomas and 1st Lt. Alyvia Orsini, both with the 21st Brigade Engineer Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, will comprise the first all-female team of combat engineers to participate in the three-day competition.
Capt. Pascal Filiatrault-Veilleux and Sgt. Marc-Andre Bastille, of the Canadian Army Doctrine and Training Center, make up the first international team to enter, and Cadets Patrick Sutherland and Sean O’Leary comprise the first all-cadet team from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
To be held from March 30 to April 1 at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, home to the U.S. Army Maneuver Support Center of Excellence and the U.S. Army Engineer School, the annual competition requires teams to include at least one soldier who is a graduate of the Sapper Leader Course.
Both Thomas and Orsini each hold a Sapper tab. Thomas is the 27th woman to obtain a Ranger tab and only the third woman to hold both Sapper and Ranger tabs.
“The participation of an all-female team is a significant milestone for gender integration of the Combat Engineer technical field,” Maj. Gregory Bascomb II, 169th Engineer Battalion operations officer, told Army Times. “It demonstrates that the Combat Engineers continue to lead all other combat arms in this effort and the Sapper Leader Course leads the way over the other small unit tactics and leadership courses.”
All U.S. military personnel participating in this year’s competition hold Sapper tabs — another historic first. The coveted combat engineer achievement is also available to Australian, British and Canadian soldiers.
“Since the first foreign graduate in 1995, Sapper Leader Course has always welcomed our foreign allies to send their most elite soldiers to test themselves and hone their skills,” Capt. Tyler Sykes, 169th Engineer Battalion assistant operations officer told Army Times. “The first foreign represented team at the Best Sapper Competition signifies that our allies recognize and revere the training that takes place at Sapper Leader Course.”
The combat engineer teams will travel over 50 miles in 50 hours, which will test them mentally and physically with limited sleep, and the pairs will complete a "series of combat engineer tasks including demolition and land navigation, as well as jumping out of a helicopter into a lake,” the release stated.
“It is a three-day event that tests the intestinal fortitude of competitors while fostering competitive spirit across the U.S. Army Engineer Regiment, building esprit-de-corps, increasing awareness of the Sapper Leader Course, and showcasing engineer assets and capabilities,” Bascomb said over email. "Two person teams...participate in carefully selected events emphasizing engineer skills, mental agility and physical endurance to execute long duration combat missions.
In 2018, the competition was renamed in honor of Lt. Gen. Robert B. Flowers, who served as a combat engineer in Vietnam — also with the 101st Airborne — and got the Sapper tab approved for U.S. Army soldiers in 2004.
The retired general noted that the competition is an opportunity for combat engineers to come together and be recognized for their accomplishments as well as to meet sapper units from around the world, Army Times previously reported.
“When one nation needs a tough job done, they call in the Army,” Flowers said. “When the Army needs a tough job done, they call in the sappers.”
That same year, Maj. Gen. Donna Martin became commander of Fort Leonard Wood, the first women to serve in the position, and Sgt. Hailey Falk became the first female enlisted soldier to receive her Sapper tab.
Last year, two officers with the 39th Brigade Engineer Battalion were named Best Sappers, while two soldiers with the 21st Brigade Engineer Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division won in 2018.
While the Sapper Leader Course had its first female graduate in July 1999, this year’s competition is the first to feature one all-female team.
Dylan Gresik is a reporting intern for Military Times through Northwestern University's Journalism Residency program.