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Gender-integrated squad wins first place

For the first time, women sappers in competition’s formation

555th Engineer Brigade photo Sgt. Devon Parker, left, and Pfc. Bryan Harness prepare a bangalore explosive to create a pathway for their squad through a wire obstacle during the Joint Base Lewis-McChord Sapper Stakes Competition Oct. 25.

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When nine Soldiers, rain-soaked and bone-tired, crossed the finish line of the Sapper Stakes combat engineer competition, they made two firsts.

They won first place and were the first gender-integrated squad to win the Joint Base Lewis-McChord contest since the Army opened up the combat engineer military occupational specialty to women in June 2015.

“For the first time, we saw women sappers in the competition’s formation,” said Col. Larry Dillard, 555th Engineer Brigade commander. “They demonstrated they could perform just as well, and in some cases, much better, than anybody else as a team.”

The top two squads included three female sappers in total. These integrated teams bested 11 mostly all-male squads on the same day Fort Benning, Ga., graduated its first female infantry lieutenants.

“They can handle anything we can dish out to them,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Steven Tetreault, the 555th Engr. Bde.’s command sergeant major. “What does a female 12-Bravo look like? She looks like any other Soldier: A Soldier who comes to our formation, who can perform his or her job.”

Through the Soldier 2020 program, the Army has created a pathway to fully integrate female Soldiers into combat branches such as engineer, infantry, armor and field artillery without compromising the physical rigors these fields demand.

For some combat engineers, the integrated squads’ top finish at Sapper Stakes was proof that it’s working.

“To see those female Soldiers in those squads was awesome,” Tetreault said, “Those Soldiers are going to be the future first sergeants, platoon leaders and squad leaders of our regiment. They are the trendsetters as we move forward.”

The two-day competition saw participating squads from across three brigades face nine lanes that tested their physical stamina and engineer know-how. The lanes included tasks such as detecting roadside bombs, building an 11-row concertina-wire obstacle, conducting a bridge reconnaissance, ambushing enemy forces and searching an area for land mines.

Once these tasks were complete, the squads embarked on their final challenge, a 12-mile road march in full battle gear carrying a 35-pound rucksack.

“The best part was seeing the chem-lights at the finish,” said Pfc. Britney Damuth.

The rain didn’t let up on the Damuth’s squad. It rained from their early morning start, to their evening finish. The visibility was so poor, the finish line had to be illuminated by military glow sticks. Damuth’s squad placed second.

Staff Sergeant James McQuillan, squad leader, led his Soldiers with steadfast confidence. Some of his sappers, like Damuth, are barely a year out of basic combat training.

McQuillan’s squad barreled through the competition, faces streaked in camouflage paint. Even before Sapper Stakes was over, the staff sergeant knew his troops outperformed most others.

“When I saw how quickly we got through the 11-row obstacle I knew my squad would rank among the winners,” McQuillan said.

The lane required Soldiers to create an obstacle by pounding 11-rows of metal pickets into the ground, then lay concertina wire over them.

McQuillan, whose squad was the most diverse of the competition, with two female and seven male sappers, said it took his team just 40 minutes to complete the obstacle that most other squads scrambled to finish in 50 minutes.

“I know my squad is good,” McQuillan said.

He was surrounded by his young sappers who clutched the Army Achievement Medals they each earned for their second place finish. The first place team, which included one female sapper, earned Army Commendation Medals.

“The significance isn’t that we had seven male sappers and two female sappers in a squad that won,” Dillard said. “It wasn’t seven males and two females — it was nine sappers. That needs to be normal, and I think we demonstrated that it can, and should, be normal.”

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