Sapper Leader Course History.

As deployments in the Middle East begin to subside after a decade

of continuous combat operations, the U.S. Army naturally is shifting its

posture to prepare for future conflict. Strategically, this means taking

a hard look at the force structure. However, it also means assessing

aspects that used to be perfected in the daily Army grind but may have

become rusty: counseling, evaluations, training management, command

supply discipline, maintenance, and combined arms maneuver. While these

areas will be reemphasized again, there is one area of focus that

remains relatively silent in this new conversation–unit histories.


Consider the Sapper Leader Course and the impact it has had on the

Engineer Regiment. Though the 169th Engineer Battalion (1) currently

oversees the course, oversight has shifted from one unit to the next

over the years since its inception in 1985. Remarkably, though it is an

important gem to the Engineer Regiment, the history of the Sapper Leader

Course remains largely undocumented. The course has a rich group of

former instructors who have served the Army well since the course

started, including at least 43 senior noncommissioned officer (NCO)

leaders (2) who continued to serve as master sergeants or command

sergeants major. Yet not even the U.S. Army Engineer School history

office or library has an inclusive publication pertaining to the Sapper

Leader Course. One might find the history of the term “sapper”

dating back to the 16th century, but will find nothing on the Sapper

Leader Course.

In its efforts to collect and produce the history of the course,

the 169th Engineer Battalion initiated the Sapper Leader Course History

Project in February 2012. The project consists of several steps. The

first step–contacting former cadre members–is filling the gaps of the

course’s segmented history. An e-mail survey of former instructors

and noteworthy graduates is collecting administrative information and

providing for cogent interviews at a later time. Sapper Leader Course

instructors who would like to participate should go to

, or look for the

Sapper Leader Course History Project on the Engineer School Knowledge

Network on Army Knowledge Online. Second, the project focuses on

creating systems to ensure the ongoing maintenance of Sapper history.

The Web site and its accompanying database will store contact

information, survey responses, and any digital donations or articles,

pictures, and videos. Interviews with influential leaders from the

Engineer Regiment conducted during the April 2012 ENFORCE conference

(including one with Lieutenant General Robert B. Flowers [Retired],

former Chief of Engineers and commanding general of Fort Leonard Wood,

Missouri) will be available on the Web site.


To date, more than 15 former Sapper instructors have contributed to

the project. Four of them, including Command Sergeant Major Iokimo

Falaniko (Retired), Command Sergeant Major Joseph T. Toth (Retired),

Master Sergeant James R. Watnes (Retired), and Sergeant First Class

William E. Rostad (Retired) shared their stories on camera at Fort

Leonard Wood. The Sapper Leader Course History Project interviews with

past and present instructors continue. Working with leaders of such high

caliber has been a sincere honor and a pleasure.


The project also has uncovered articles and annual command

histories documenting the early history of the course. In 1985, Captain

Michael J. Grove, the officer in charge of the first Sapper class, wrote

an article about the success and scope of the Sapper Leader Course from

the perspective of a company commander roughing it next to his own

platoon sergeants, platoon leaders, and team leaders. (3) The effort

also uncovered personal 1987 correspondence from Lieutenant General

David E. Grange (Retired) to Secretary of the Army John O. Marsh, Jr.,

with an appraisal of the course. U.S. Army Engineer School annual

command histories also provide insight on issues and significant events

between 1989 and 1999. Eventually, the Web site will include videos,

articles, and other products that tell the story of the Sapper Leader


In today’s circumstances–a shrinking Army, tighter budgets,

and increasing competition for talented officers and NCOs–there has

never been a greater need to tell the story of the Sapper Leader Course.

All Soldiers, especially engineers, know that the course is important,

that it is tough, and that its impact on the Engineer Regiment and the

Army has been immeasurable. Most Sappers might think that the course

will last forever, but it’s notable that it almost didn’t make

it through the early to mid-1990s amid constraints like the Army faces

today. Tough budgeting has always earned the course a serious look, and

talented NCOs are becoming harder to find. Combat rotations naturally

encourage NCOs to seek time with their families rather than seek special

training like the Ranger or Pathfinder Schools, and engineer units may

want to retain their best NCOs. Leaders across the Engineer Regiment

should encourage their best NCOs to serve as Sapper Leader Course

instructors, embracing the opportunity to increase the esteem of their

own units by putting their best foot forward.

Given the operational tempo of the past decade, there are sound

reasons why annual command histories were not always a priority.

Nevertheless, as the Army begins to re-emphasize the importance of

officer and NCO evaluations and stress the proper way to write

recommendations for individual awards, perhaps we should consider

reinstating the art of telling the stories of units as well. In this

case, keep an eye open for the history of the Sapper Leader Course, the

cutting edge of our country’s sword.


(1.) The 169th Engineer Battalion is arguably the most diverse

training battalion in the Army, consisting of advanced individual

training companies and detachments of divers, electricians, technical

engineers, geospatial engineers, plumbers, firefighters, and carpenters.

(2.) Twelve command sergeants major, four sergeants major, and 27

first sergeants or master sergeants have been documented so far by the

Sapper Leader Course History Project.

(3.) Michael Grove, “A New Rope to Climb,” Engineer

Professional Bulletin, Volume 15, No. 4, Winter 1985-1986, pp. 12-15.

By Captain Joseph A. Cymerman and Major Kevin R. Golinghorst

Captain Cymerman graduated from the Sapper Leader Course in June

2010 and now attends the Engineer Captains Career Course at Fort Leonard


Major Golinghorst graduated from the Sapper Leader Course in June

1998 and now serves as the executive officer of the 169th Engineer


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