RICHMOND, Va. –
Following four fierce weeks at the U.S. Army’s Sapper Leader Course, Staff Sgt. Borys Vargas, a combat engineer assigned to the Virginia National Guard, was named distinguished honor graduate for Course 23-005. While Vargas appreciated the honor, he said he didn’t see himself as the distinguished honor graduate.
“I’m not the fastest guy. I’m not the strongest guy. I’m not the smartest guy, either,” Vargas said. “For me, it was consistency and staying humble.”
Vargas was deployed to the Horn of Africa with Task Force Red Dragon when he learned about the opportunity to attend the Sapper Leader Course. As a 12B Combat Engineer, he’d heard good things about the course, and intimidating things, too. As a leader wanting to set a good example for his Soldiers, he felt like it was something he had to do. He pushed his Soldiers to improve themselves, and he knew that to become better, “you have to test yourself.”
To prepare, Vargas teamed up with other noncommissioned officers to create a Sapper train-up program. They focused on building and improving their physical strength and endurance, and studied the Sapper Tactical Tasks. Every day for months, Vargas recited the Sapper Creed, and took each of its eight sentences to heart.
“The Sapper Creed is basically about what it means to be an NCO and a leader,” Vargas said. “You’re there to protect, you’re there to make yourself better. You have to believe it and train consistently.”
After he completed his deployment and spent some time at home reconnecting with his family, Vargas shipped to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, to begin the 28-day course.
“The instructors in the course do a very good job off breaking you down,” Vargas said. “When they break you down and you feel like you’re at your lowest, physically and mentally, that’s when we really get to know who we are and what we’re capable of.”
Vargas said teamwork was an integral component to succeeding in the course, especially during the last two weeks. Trust had to be established and all Soldiers had to learn to work together. Vargas found himself motivated by his peers, especially those who had been recycled. Their resilience and their drive to succeed pushed Vargas on his own path toward success.
“I was lucky,” Vargas said. “The class was receptive toward everybody. There was no arrogance, there was no ego, and we all set the tone that we’re here to help each other and that’s it. We’re here to help each other.”
While the course proved physically and mentally demanding, Vargas said it tested him emotionally as well. He’d just spent a year apart from his wife and children while deployed, but was able to talk to them almost daily. That wasn’t a luxury he had during Sapper Leader School and for a full month, he was out of touch. When he finally got his phone back at the end of the course, he was overcome with emotion when he heard his wife’s voice.
“It tested me emotionally. Not being able to talk to my family for that one month, emotionally, it hit hard. It was harder than the one-year deployment,” Vargas said. “It hit me really hard and when we got our phones back and I talked to my wife, I broke down.”
During the most difficult moments, when he was cold, tried and hungry, Vargas thought about those who are less fortunate.
“One of the things I was thinking of, is all the homeless people out there. I didn’t know how they survived,” Vargas said. “I just humbled me even more, and made me appreciative of what I have and of my family.”
Vargas was moved to serve in the military after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He was a sophomore in high school then, living in New Jersey. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but knew he wanted and needed to do something. Originally from Ecuador, he was still waiting for an update to his immigration status. Finally, in 2005, he was able to enlist into the U.S. Marine Corps, where he served for seven years. At the time, in 2011, he felt ready to get out of the military and try something different. His wife, also a Marine, was stationed at Quantico. He applied to jobs with local police departments, and ended up working for Prince William County. In that role, he met many new officers who were starting their second careers after serving 20 or more years in the military and he felt pulled to return to military service. In 2019, he enlisted into the Virginia Army National Guard.
For anyone planning or aspiring to attend the Sapper Leader Course, Vargas advises them to “just try,” without fearing failure.
“We’re in this life for a very short time and when I get old and I’m in the rocking chair, I want to think back on all the things I was able to do, not the things I could have done,” Vargas said.