Two Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers competed in this year’s Best Sapper Competition — a 50-hour gauntlet for combat engineers — at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
1st Lt. Nathaniel Hitchcock, a personnel officer with the 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation, and Staff Sgt. Levi Parker, a survey team chief with the 54th Civil Support Team, were one of 50 teams to enter the 14th annual competition. An Army engineer since he joined the military in 2011, Hitchcock earned his Sapper tab in 2019. The tab indicates the wearer has graduated the U.S. Army Sapper Leader Course, a demanding 28-day class which teaches advanced techniques such as demolitions and mountaineering operations, and reinforces critical military skills.
“We conducted poncho raft races, live-fire breach lanes, paintball patrolling lanes, radio communications on a drop-zone with Black Hawk helicopter support, cliff rappelling operations, and a myriad of military explosive charges,” Hitchcock recalled. “Combined with miles and miles of ruck marching, this provided the thrill and exhilaration that has shaped my military career into what it is today.”
Hitchcock admitted he entered the Best Sapper Competition to relive his Sapper Leader Course experience. For Parker, this was a chance to realize a dream.
“I was going to wait until I had a [Sapper] tab of my own, but 1st Lt. Hitchcock reached out to me and asked if I would be his teammate,” Parker explained. “We used to be in the same unit” — the 273rd Sapper Company — “and he knows my passion for the engineers is equal to his own.”
“It’s definitely an honor to serve with him again,” Hitchcock said, “and in this competition.”
Preference is given to teams with two Sapper Leader Course graduates, but teams with one graduate are allowed. Parker is on the waiting list to attend the school this summer.
“I thought this would be a great way to be better prepared for school and hopefully be successful,” Parker said.
Parker has been training to attend the Sapper Leader Course since last August, so training for the competition was not a significant adjustment. He and Hitchcock both work in Madison, Wisconsin, and would meet twice a week after work to train both physically and technically.
“We tried to model a lot of our training after previous Best Sapper competitions,” Parker said.
“We coordinated to work with a TALON [military explosive ordnance disposal] robot,” Hitchcock said, listing a few of the training tasks they undertook. “We conducted some VIRS [verbally initiated release system] drop-zone training, we conducted ropes training at Devil’s Lake, and held a lot of mock knot tests.”
Unfortunately, Hitchcock and Parker were eliminated in the first day of the competition — but participation was its own reward.
“We learned a ton going through the competition this year,” Parker said. “There is no doubt that the best of the best were down here to compete this year. These teams came ready to win and fought hard.”
Parker said it was a bit intimidating being one of the few Soldiers without a Sapper tab in the competition, but noted that teams did not hesitate to share knowledge and experience with each other.
“That’s what good leaders do,” Parker said.
Parker said their technical proficiency was up to task, but the movement between lanes in the Round Robin portion of the event proved daunting.
“Our rucks weighed over 80 pounds,” he said. “Hauling them from event to event was grueling.”
Parker said he and Hitchcock would use the experience gained from this year’s Best Sapper Competition to help the next team prepare. For example, the physical training will be adjusted. He said he was glad to represent the Wisconsin Army National Guard and the 64th Troop Command, regardless of the result.
“This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but we never quit and that’s a win to me,” Parker said. “The only way you really lose is to never try.”