FREDERICKSBURG, Va. –
Since January, two Virginia National Guard Soldiers, Sgt. Nicholas Shidlovsky and 2nd Lt. Gregory Gerlach, have worked together nearly every day to train for the Best Sapper Competition, held at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, April 23-28, 2017. Going in, the two were confident, ready and exceptionally motivated. At the competition, they survived the grueling match that pushed them through lakes, over mountains, out of helicopters and over countless obstacles to become one of just 20 teams to finish a competition that 48 teams started.
“Crossing the finish was the best moment of our military careers,” Shidlovsky said. “Considering 28 teams that started with us did not make it through the finish, it was a great sense of accomplishment to be able to cross [the finish line].”
At the competition the Soldiers, both assigned to the Fredericksburg-based 229th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, were tested over more than 50 miles over 50 hours with nearly non-stop obstacles and events. Some events, like the ruck march, were anticipated by the Virginia Guard team, while others, like physical training with a combat rubber raiding craft, were a new addition to the competition, now in its 11th year.
“It’s a great honor to be able to go to,” Gerlach said of the competition. He explained that he and Shidlovsky were one of just four National Guard teams who competed this year. “We’re representing not only the Virginia National Guard, but the National Guard as a whole. I look at it as a responsibility, for us to go out there and perform well and to show the active duty that the National Guard is here and we can perform at the highest level with them.”
To compete at Best Sapper, both Soldiers on a team must serve in the engineer career field and at least one Soldier must be a graduate of the U.S. Army’s Sapper Leader Course. Both are required to hold the rank of E-4 or above. Both Gerlach and Shidlovsky are recent graduates of the Sapper Leader Course and Sgt. Shidlovsky earned the nickname “Lone Survivor” from Sapper Leader Course cadre when he managed to be the only Soldier of his class to finish the course and earn the coveted Sapper tab.
In preparation for the competition, Shidlovsky and Gerlach trained together nearly every day. They’d hit the gym once, usually in the morning, where they’d flip tires, do push-ups, pull-ups, flutter kicks and other strengthening exercises and swim. During they day they’d work on their technical skills, like knot tying or building a poncho raft and later they’d conduct cardio training, either a road march or run, which got progressively longer as the team neared the competition start.
Along the way, they had help from a few other sappers within the 229th BEB, as well as support from their leadership as they prepared for the competition. Last year, Shidlovsky also participated in a Sapper Stakes competition hosted by their sister battalion, the Fort Bragg-based 37th Engineer Battalion, 82nd Airborne Division, where the Virginia National Guard team placed first.
“We had done the last event, which involved pushing a Humvee, and were dog tired, all seven of us,” Shidlovsky said. “We’re looking around and there’s nobody around us and we’re like, there’s no way, no way, they must be resting and no kidding, the battalion commander came over and congratulated us. We surprised ourselves by beating out 15 other teams.”
Going in, Gerlach expected the competition to require them to know “everything that sappers are expected to know.” He explained engineers as a “kind of catch-all of the Army,” and explained that commanders should look to their sappers and “know that whatever obstacle they may have, or mission they need, whether it’s breeching or getting across water, whether it’s clearing a minefield, that sapper can figure out how to get it done.”
At the competition they were tested with events including tree climbing, urban demolition breaching, field expedient antennas, pathfinder operations, land navigation without a compass, a stress fire that included foreign weapon identification and a pace that didn’t let them stop for nearly three days.
“When they finish, wherever they place, they’re going to get self-wroth out of it,” explained 1st Sgt. Lewis Shadle, acting battalion command sergeant major for the 229th BEB, during one of the team’s training session before the competition. “Then, for my company, these two individuals are going to the Best Sapper Competition and are going to come back and talk about it and then the next sappers that get sapper qualified are going to want to try and do the same thing.”
Shadle said the two sappers were looking for more than what he could provide for them in a normal drill weekend and that the Best Sapper Competition provided the troops an opportunity to go above and beyond what’s normally required. He said the two served as inspiration for other young Soldiers in the unit and that they often took other sapper-hopefuls with them during training sessions.
Once the competition ended, and the trophies were handed out and the festivities completed, Gerlach slept for a solid 15 hours.
With the competition behind them, the two plan to continue training in preparation for U.S. Army Ranger School, with both hope to attend next year. They’ll also be assisting in training three Soldiers from their battalion who are planning to attend the Sapper Leader Course later this summer.