Cadets polish their military skills prior to graduation as top-three finisher at Best Sapper Competition

By Eric S. Bartelt PV Managing Editor Date: Friday, Jun 02, 2023 Time: 15:40 EST
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Before they received their diplomas, tossed their hats into the air at Michie Stadium and pinned their gold bars as commissioned second lieutenants on May 27, U.S. Military Academy Class of 2023 Cadets Mark Nylund and Cade Cunningham teamed up to compete in the daunting 16th annual Lt. Gen. Robert B. Flowers Best Sapper Competition from April 21-24 at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

A sapper, also known as an elite combat engineer, is a combatant skilled in a variety of military engineering duties such as minefield placement or clearing, bridge-building, demolitions, field defenses, and road and airfield construction. Sappers are responsible for tasks expediating movement of allied forces and obstructing those of their enemies.

The Sapper Leader Course is a challenging 28-day leadership development course that reinforces critical skills and teaches advanced techniques needed across the Army. The course, designed to build a esprit de corps, is often compared to the U.S. Army’s Ranger School in terms of difficulty and intensity.

The Best Sapper Competition is open to two-person teams throughout the Army and Marine Corps with at least one team member being a graduate of the Sapper Leader Course with branch and military occupational specialty being irrelevant to compete.

So Nylund and Cunningham, who branched Infantry but are Sapper-qualified cadets, were determined to test their knowledge, physical prowess and mental fortitude to compete against 49 other two-man teams of veteran enlisted and officer participants at the competition.

The process for them all began in mid-December at West Point with a physical tryout among the potential cadet competitors as Maj. John Baer, Department of Physical Education instructor and the team’s coach, selected the primary and alternate teams based on the results.

Once chosen from the results, Nylund and Cunningham returned from winter break in January to a rigorous physical train-up involving two workouts a day for six days a week.

“The train-up was constructed by Maj. Baer that incorporated endurance running, strength movements, high intensity interval training and hill work,” said Cunningham, who was a Business Management major from Sacramento, California. “As a group, we found time to work on the technical sapper skills needed for the competition. We trained physically and mentally … until the competition.”

Nylund said that it was during March and April when they spent more time on the technical and tactical training where they spent two-to-three hours working out or studying.

“Every Saturday, we would do a run in the morning straight into a ruck march, then into weightlifting followed by a swim, which would normally take anywhere from five-to-six hours,” said Nylund, who is from Houston. “Because the Best Sapper Competition requires so much aerobic capacity, we focused heavily on running and rucking ability.”

The train-up started at about 30 miles a week and then progressed to 50-60 miles a week of running and rucking as they neared the competition while adding lifting, intervals, obstacle courses and circuits as part of their training regimen. They also ventured to the Tronsrue Marksmanship Center to work with the Cadet Combat Weapons team who coached them on shooting the M-17.

As the competition drew closer, they focused on the technical training that included pathfinder operations, air assault operations, tactical combat casualty care (TCCC), field-expedient antennas, pulley systems, prusik climbs, engineer recon, demolition calculations and many other niche areas of expertise.

As they prepared for the mental and physical anguish of the competition ahead, both Nylund and Cunningham were built for success from their previous three years at the academy by participating in demanding sports and physical competitions.

Cunningham participated as a member of the Army West Point Men’s Rugby team.

“I have competed in physical competitions that have pushed my body,” Cunningham said. “Army Rugby instills a gritty mindset in every member of the team, which correlated to success as the (sapper) competition progressed.”

Nylund participated in Sandhurst, the International Military Skills Competition held annually at West Point, for the past two years.

“Sandhurst has helped me become significantly more confident in some of my tactical tasks such as TCCC, M-4 qualification and call for fire, which were all tested in the Best Sapper Competition in very similar ways to Sandhurst,” Nylund said.

Subsequently, all 50 teams converged on Fort Leonard Wood to begin the competition on April 21, a Friday night, with a non-standard fitness test and a nighttime quiz under a red lens. On Saturday morning, the physical rigors began with a five-mile boot run, which led into a round-robin event of eight engineer lanes that tested rappelling, demolitions, breaching, two different swims that involved knot tying and threat ordnance, weapons assembly and other engineer tasks.

The lanes consisted of 16.5 miles of rucking with 75-pound rucks that led into nighttime land navigation and a three-mile ruck back to the barracks to complete the day.

After roughly one hour of sleep, Nylund recounts, they began the “Sapper Stakes” on Sunday, which consisted of three major portions of the event: weapons stakes, demolitions stakes and medical stakes. There were five live-fire ranges for the M-4, a M-17 stress shoot, a buddy team bounding shoot with the M-4, a M-249 and 240 machine gun range with protective mask, and another M-4 and M-320 stress shoot. Then they moved into the demolitions stakes followed by the medical stakes and then into the X-mile ruck march.

“They removed our watches for (the X-mile ruck march), and we did not know the distance until we were done,” Nylund said.

The ruck began at 9 p.m. and ended at about 3:30 a.m. for the West Point duo. Nylund and Cunningham both said the ruck was about 18-20 miles while rucking with roughly 45 pounds.

Following the ruck, the two had about two hours sleep before the last event on Monday morning, which was the X-mile run.

“The X-mile run was approximately four miles but had high intensity workouts at 10 stations sprinkled throughout the course run,” Cunningham said. 

After completing the event, the competition ended, and they completed roughly 60 miles of terrain covered in over 50 hours. When it was all said and done, the team of Nylund and Cunningham finished third overall among the 50 teams at the Best Sapper Competition.

Both Nylund and Cunningham were gratified at the successful finish that they achieved to make the podium.

“It was extremely satisfying to be able to finish third in this competition,” Nylund said. “From day one, Cade and I decided that even though we were just cadets, our goal was to make it on the podium. For us to be able to make it on the podium after giving our best effort against an extremely competent, motivated and talented field of competitors made this outcome so sweet.”

Cunningham said it was amazing to “Represent West Point and everyone who contributed toward our success with a podium finish. Placing third would not have been possible without our coach (Maj. Baer) and training partners, (Class of 2023 Cadet) Christian Bobo and Maj. Blake Ritchey.”

But to be successful they had to work together as a cohesive team and had to strategize to attack each lane for the best outcome.

“Mark and I went into the competition with the mindset that we would dominate every physical event,” Cunningham said. “Our train-up focused heavily on muscular endurance, and most of the physical events in the competition played to our strengths. We won the X-mile ruck, five-mile boot run, three-mile boot run and placed third in the X-mile run. During the Round Robin and Sapper Stakes, Mark and I focused on putting our best effort into every lane no matter what was thrown at us. We stressed the importance of active communication during the lanes.”

Cunningham mentioned that as a team, he and Nylund constantly communicated to gauge how the other was feeling physically and mentally.

“We were able to push each other as the competition progressed without resistance or hostility, and this was due to the bond we created during the train-up,” Cunningham said.

Nylund said it was an “absolute blast” to be teamed up with Cunningham as they have been friends over the past two years and that the experience training brought them closer together.

“Our dynamic worked well together,” Nylund said. “Cade was faster than me and able to push me on all the runs, as well as being a talented marksman and land navigator. His fierce competitive mindset also helped push me to give my best effort on every lane.”

When they both described each other on how they brought out the best in one another, Cunningham said Nylund is “full of energy and he is extremely competent” while Nylund reiterated that Cunningham was an “extremely hard worker and fierce competitor.”

“He wanted to win no matter what and he had the confidence that we could hang with the best units in the Army, which held me to a level of energy, focus and confidence that I would not have been able to obtain by myself,” Nylund said about Cunningham. “He was not only an asset, but a crucial part of our success. I could not have done it without him and I’m so proud to be able to call myself his partner.”

The value of the Sapper Competition toward teamwork, leadership and graduating West Point

As Nylund and Cunningham graduated West Point and are now second lieutenants headed to their next destination as Infantry officers after their Basic Officer Leader Course, the value they took from the Best Sapper Competition from a teamwork perspective was immense as future Army platoon leaders.

“This competition has certainly taught me much more than expertise in technical and tactical tasks, but in terms of teamwork,” Nylund said. “I’ve learned that embracing patience, humility, encouragement and trust are essentially cornerstones for cultivating a healthy and successful team.”

Cunningham added, “This competition has shown me the importance of being physically and militarily competent because a unit is only as strong as its weakest link.”

Then there was achieving a third-place finish that can only build their confidence as they move forward as officers.

“After competing in the Best Sapper Competition against senior captains, countless high-speed lieutenants, and supremely experienced and motivated NCOs, I definitely gained confidence in my abilities as a future officer,” Nylund said. “Here we are, just a couple of cadets who were not even engineers, and we were able to hang with and even dominate some of the Army’s best units like the 75th Ranger Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), 173rd Airborne Brigade and others in physical and tactical tasks. It was certainly motivating and a huge boost in confidence to be encouraged and cheered on by many of the other competitors and even some of their leadership.”

Cunningham explained the competition confirmed that hard work and a driven mindset can lead to favorable results.

“Having completed the training and competition, I feel more comfortable teaching peers and subordinates about sapper skills and muscular endurance training,” Cunningham said.

As members of the USMA Class of 2023, their class motto is “Freedom is Not Free,” and as Nylund and Cunningham begin their careers as officers, what does the motto mean to them in terms of serving the country and their future units?

“The motto is a great reminder of the responsibility we are about to incur upon our commissioning,” Nylund said. “Knowing that we and our Soldiers could play a role in paying the steep price for freedom adds a newfound sense of urgency and significance to the jobs we are signing up to do.”

Cunningham said that the motto to him is a reminder of the “Soldiers before us who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for this great nation.”

“’Freedom is Not Free’ is a daily reminder of the sacrifice that every Soldier is willing to make,” said Cunningham, who won the 2022 national championship with the Army West Point Men’s Rugby squad. “It offers inspiration to me to perform my duties as an officer to the best of my abilities.”

Both Infantry officers had to overcome obstacles while at the academy. For Nylund, it was learning to manage his stress level. He talked about how his stress made him less productive, less effective and more irritable and self-centered toward his peers.

“After working through this and getting better at handling seemingly overwhelming events, I am extremely thankful for this lesson that I am learning now about stress,” Nylund said. “As an officer, I will almost certainly have too much to do and too little time to do it, which could easily make me stressed, less focused on my Soldiers’ needs, and a less effective and decisive leader. Instead of letting this happen, I feel confident in recognizing times when I could become stressed out and refocus myself on the larger picture, such as making sure my commander’s intent is being met, my Soldiers’ training is effective and their needs are filled, and that I am continuing to connect with my platoon and company on a human and personable level.”

Cunningham had to overcome a personal tragedy with the loss of his father during his Plebe year at the academy.

“I had a great support system of friends and family who helped me overcome the loss and refocus me on my path at West Point,” Cunningham said. “West Point has taught me to overcome adversity and stay focused on my goals.”

The academy can beat cadets down to their breaking point from a physical and mental standpoint, but the new graduates do offer some advice to the underclassmen on how to overcome their anguish.

“Do not be afraid to fail,” Cunningham said. “Learning from mistakes is what helps young leaders grow.”

Nylund talked about underclassmen taking what they do seriously, but, at the same time, not to take themselves too seriously.

“Having four years to do nothing but prepare yourself physically and tactically for the job you will inevitably have is a rare gift,” said Nylund, who was a Life Sciences major. “Especially in today’s climate, it remains crucial to take your preparation seriously and commit your best every day to becoming the kind of leader that your future Soldiers deserve. Because at the end of the day, the real truth is that we will be responsible for someone’s sons and daughters and that alone is worth taking seriously.”

And graduation day was the final step on the journey of Nylund and Cunningham at West Point, and their journey was completed when they tossed their hats skyward and embraced their fellow classmates in an exuberant, chaotic moment at Michie Stadium.

But what did that hat toss moment mean to both of them as they ended this chapter of their lives and their 47-month USMA experience?

“Tossing my hat (was) a symbolic act to close this chapter in my life, which despite its challenges has been exceptionally rewarding,” Cunningham said. 

Nylund has dreamed since Reception Day, his first day at the academy, about throwing his hat on graduation day and that it would be the “best day of my life so far.”

“I still believe this,” Nylund concluded. “It is hard to put into words how much graduating from USMA means to me. I am the first one in my family to graduate from West Point and the only one in my immediate family to serve in the Army – so for me to begin this next journey with my family in attendance is truly special.”