A Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldier joined elite company when she graduated as the runner-up honor graduate at the Army's Sapper leader course. She became just the second female in the state to complete the grueling course at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and the 66th nationwide.
2nd Lt. Kayla Krueger, currently assigned to the Wisconsin Army National Guard's 229th Engineer Company, was the lone female in her class that began with 40 Soldiers. She graduated second in her class in August with just 13 others when the course concluded 28 days later.
The Army's Sapper Leader Course is one of the Army's most demanding courses, and it's the pinnacle of achievement for an Army combat engineer. It tests Soldiers on small-unit tactics, leadership, demolitions, mountaineering and weaponry, but perhaps more importantly, it tests Soldiers' mental and physical abilities to the limits.
The training involves a 12-day field exercise with a 65-90 pound pack, knots, rappelling and demolitions, where Krueger learned how to construct a claymore mine using a soap box. There was also the infamous boat physical training for which Sapper school is known, where trainees carry a boat that weighs hundreds of pounds for three miles as the instructors force the Soldiers to do flutter kick exercises and other calisthenics using the boat.
"That's when they try to get you to quit, because they want to try to get the weak ones out," Krueger said.
Each Soldier gets evaluated in various platoon-level leadership positions throughout the course. By the end, Krueger found herself near the top of her class.
"I was just always making sure I was carrying my own weight, always making sure I was helping out, and I think by the end I had a lot of respect," she said.
While there were times where she questioned her ability to complete a task or overcome an obstacle, Krueger persevered and focused on doing her part. The result - she can now wear the coveted Sapper tab that only a handful of Soldiers, male or female, have earned in the Wisconsin Army National Guard.
But gender was never part of the equation to Krueger or to many of her classmates.
"A couple of them mentioned that anyone who is here who is doing the same thing as me has the same respect as anyone else," she said.
That's the kind of attitude that the Wisconsin Army National Guard's first female Sapper would prefer to see.
Maj. Josephine Daniels, now the administrative officer for the 64th Troop Command, completed the Sapper Leader Course in 2006, shortly before taking command of Company B, 724th Engineer Battalion - at the time an all-male unit. She said she never thought too much about being Wisconsin's first female Sapper.
She hopes that when Soldiers see the Sapper tab on 2nd Lt. Krueger's shoulder or on her own, or on Maj. Brian Barth who was a Sapper honor graduate when he earned the tab and is currently serving in the Middle East with the 32nd Military Engagement Team, that they just see "Sapper," not a male or a female.
The Soldiers gender should be inconsequential, Daniels said. What should matter is that the Soldier completed one of the Army's toughest schools and demonstrated a competence and a confidence that can only be forged in training that tests a Soldier's limits.
"You have to be a strong communicator," Daniels said. "You have to be a strong team player, and as long as you're pulling your weight, it's about are you a team member? Are you a team player? If you're not a team member, you're not going to make it - male or female."
To her, what mattered most was demonstrating to her Soldiers that she was a competent, confident leader.
"It was all about those Soldiers having confidence in me as a capable leader," Daniels said.
"We're Soldiers first," she added. "I don't know the total number of Soldiers who have earned the Sapper tab, but I'm just one of those Soldiers."
For Krueger too, completing Sapper school was about building confidence in herself and her own abilities and assuring her Soldiers, most of whom have deployment experience, that she is a capable of leading them, building a team and accomplishing missions.