MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, CA -- They're the Marines who clear the path into combat. Marines called "sappers" use cunning determination and skill to defeat enemy defenses and they learn how to do it right in Camp Pendleton.
Sapper course offers combat- arms Marines an opportunity to learn new techniques, from field maneuvering to dealing with high explosives during combat.
The term "sapper" dates back to 1501. Sappers traditionally build and repair fortifications, but also include demolitions as part of their field skills. They breach enemy defenses for follow on infantry.
The six-week-long sapper course puts a Marine's mental capability and physical strength to the test.
"The Sapper course offers the Marines a good mix of both mental and physical challenges," said Gunnery Sgt. Dave J. Dill, senior noncommissioned officer-in-charge of Sapper course with 1st Combat Engineer Battalion.
The Sapper course mission is not only to build a Marine's mind and power, but also to teach them basic and advanced combat-engineering techniques.
"Sapper school's purpose is to push the junior combat engineer Marines through the course to understand the concepts of foot mobile breaching, demolition handling and dealing with improvised explosive devices," said Staff Sgt. Shaun A. Anderson, chief instructor of Sapper school.
Although Sapper school training focuses solely on combat engineering techniques, Marines don't have to be combat engineers to sign up.
"Basically most Marines in the combat arms (military occupational speciality) field can sign up for Sapper course," Dill said.
Signing up for Sapper school is an informal procedure, he added.
"Usually individual Marines call or e-mail us to see how many seats are available in the course for the Marines in their unit," Dill said.
"We had infantry and artillery Marines come in for Sapper course; we even had combat cooks attend the course," he added.
Sapper school consists of five phases that push Marines to their limits, Dill said. First phase is communication and land navigation, second phase is patrolling, third phase is reconnaissance, fourth phase is land-mine warfare and fifth phase is demolition.
After the Marines have completed all five phases, their knowledge is put to the test in a five-day exercise, Anderson said.
The students are dropped off by air into a training area. As soon as their feet hit the ground, their mission begins.
"The final test shows the Marines how to work under pressure, like in a real combat environment," Anderson said. "With little to no sleep and a small amount of food, the 'Finex' is just like a combat situation."
The instructors play an important role throughout Sapper course, Dill said.
Sgt. Albert H. Finan III, a former Sapper course student, agreed.
"The instructors were very helpful," said Finan, who now serves as an instructor. "They were quick to answer any questions the students had."
Marines occasionally feel they can't carry on and want to quit the course, but the instructors are determined to push the Marines through to graduation, Dill said.
"Most Marines who go through Sapper course become better Marines overall as a result of the training they endure," Dill said.