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Female Sappers forge path for women in combat

Jun. 24, 2012 - 09:28AM   |   Last Updated: Jun. 24, 2012 - 09:28AM  |  
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Capt. Christine Murray climbing out of the frigid water after the helocast and swim event of the 2011 Best Sapper competition.
Capt. Christine Murray climbing out of the frigid water after the helocast and swim event of the 2011 Best Sapper competition. (Army)
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As the Army considers opening Ranger School to female soldiers, women have shown their ability to tackle another prestigious Army course for the past 13 years.

The 28-day Sapper Leader Course at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., where combat engineers and engineer officers earn the coveted Sapper tab, has been open to women since 1999.

Since then, about 130 female soldiers have attended the course and about 50 have graduated, said Capt. John Chambers, the officer in charge of the course.

The graduation rate for the course is about 50 percent, Chambers said, adding that women averaged about a 38 percent graduation rate early on but now have leveled out at about 50 percent.

"We see a Sapper student as a Sapper," Chambers said. "You don't view women differently than the males."

On May 16, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said the Army is looking to open the core of the combat arms — infantry and armor specialties and even Ranger School — to female soldiers. The study, led by Training and Doctrine Command, is part of a sweeping review to expand opportunities for women in combat-related jobs. It comes after the Army opened six military occupational specialties to women and started placing women in combat units at the battalion level.

"We have to continue to attempt to look at, do we open up infantry and armor MOSs to females?" Odierno said then. "We're really now in collecting information, and we're setting a course forward on how we might take a look at this."

The announcement that Ranger School could be opened to women has sparked positive and negative responses, mostly from soldiers concerned that standards for the school might be lowered to allow women to graduate.

Capt. Emily Hannenberg, of the 554th Engineer Battalion at Fort Leonard Wood, graduated from the Sapper Leader Course in 2008.

The 2007 West Point graduate said if given the chance, she would welcome the opportunity to attend Ranger School — but only if the standards remain the same for men and women.

"I think it is absolutely imperative that … absolutely nothing changes about the standard of performance," Hannenberg said. "If you at all cheapen the value of that tab in the eyes of anyone who's earned it or who earns it in the future, you are doing a great disservice to the legacy of the Rangers and to the legacy of women."

Earning the Ranger tab "won't mean a thing" if women are allowed to earn it under lower standards, she said.

In the Sapper Leader Course, "there has been no change to the expected performance of graduates," she said. "In Sapper school, the [physical training] test is the male, 17-21 [years old] standard regardless of what is between your legs."

There has been a lot of discussion over the past decade about what opportunities should be open to which soldiers, said Brig. Gen. Duke DeLuca, commandant of the Army Engineer School.

"I am for every policy that allows the Army to have the widest selection of the most talent possible," he said. "I think changing the standards should only be done in order to address the mission of that particular school or unit. It shouldn't be as a result of desiring to change the throughput."

That's why, he said, the standards for the Sapper Leader Course have not changed, and they won't change this fall, when the course is expanded to take on more students each year. The impetus for the growth is a need for more Sapper-qualified leaders to fill billets in units across the Army, he said.

"We didn't change the standards when it was opened to women, and we're not going to change the standards now," DeLuca said. "Just because we need to move more people through the school doesn't mean we're going to change the standards."

In addition, DeLuca said, women serve in every kind of engineer formation in the Army, including in Sapper units.

"People who are able to do the job should be allowed to do the job," he said. "There are people who aren't cut out for every job in the Army, no matter what their gender."

The Sapper Leader Course is run nine times a year out of the Army Engineer School, Chambers said. The eventual goal is to offer 18 classes a year, DeLuca said.

It is designed primarily for 12B combat engineer enlisted soldiers — an MOS that is closed to women — and engineer second lieutenants through captains, Chambers said.

About 300 students attend the course each year.

During the first 14-day phase, students learn specialized engineer tasks and they are tested on land navigation. Students also do urban orienteering, ruck and litter runs, and a road march.

During the second 14-day phase, the students go into the patrolling phase. This includes a 10-day field training exercise and training on technical tasks such as demolition and urban breaching. Students also learn water operations — how to work with inflatable boats and rope bridges — and mountaineering, including how to move an element through cliffs and rappelling, Chambers said.

"It's about being a good Sapper leader, not just a good Sapper," DeLuca said. "It really brings out those who can dig deep … to be able to do what they need to do under great pressure."

Students, male or female, who complete the Sapper Leader Course become better leaders, Chambers said.

"The students come here and they leave with more confidence in themselves, more confidence in their equipment, more confidence in their leadership abilities, and all around a better soldier," he said. "They're a much greater value added if they had come through the course than if they hadn't come through the course."

Hannenberg attended the Sapper Leader Course as a second lieutenant, just weeks after she completed the engineer basic officer leader course.

"I wanted to be as best prepared as possible to lead soldiers, and I think most Army leaders know what an honor and what a great responsibility it is to lead young soldiers, and I wanted to be sure I did everything in my power to be ready," she said.

To prepare for the course, Hannenberg and about 20 of her basic course classmates trained together every day. They met 90 minutes before the regular PT sessions to work out and do ruck marches. They relied on a prior-service soldier who had attended Ranger School to teach them patrolling, while another officer who had attended Mountain Warfare School taught the group about knots and moving in mountainous terrain.

"I think we did a pretty good job of preparing academically and physically, but the environment [in the Sapper Leader Course] is very demanding, very intentionally stressful, to build your character and highlight how difficult it is to lead soldiers and peers in a stressful environment," Hannenberg said. "I don't think anything short of the course adequately explains what it's really like. I became intimately acquainted with my physical and mental limits during the course."

The lessons she learned during the course have been invaluable, Hannenberg said.

"I think the opportunity to go to a leadership course like Ranger or Sapper is vital," she said. "Every movement outside of a [forward operating base] is a patrol. I think the opportunity to teach and forge confidence in raid, recon, ambush, and in the basics of patrolling is something we owe leaders so they can properly lead their soldiers."

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