FORT LEONARD WOOD, Missouri — Capt. Alaimoana Paunga and 1st Lt. Eric Mattia, Team 17 with 20th Engineer Battalion, 36th Engineer Brigade, at Fort Hood, earned the right to be called Best Sapper during the 15th annual Best Sapper Competition held April 23-25 at Fort Leonard Wood’s Lincoln Hall Auditorium.
Paunga and Mattia competed against 47 other teams throughout the three-day competition, which saw Sappers traveling a total of 64 miles of rugged and rolling Missouri terrain over 54 hours while completing multiple mental and physical challenges with very little sleep.
“I was inspired (as) these competitors gave it all they had, even when their energy was absolutely exhausted, and their bodies were spent,” said Col. Daniel Hibner, commandant, U.S. Army Engineer School. “We were testing them mentally and continued to push them physically. It was their grit and sheer determination that kept them going and produced the winning team.”
Paunga described the winning feeling as “surreal.”
“We came in with the goal to win it all,” Paunga said. “We have former winners in our brigade, so it was definitely a goal of ours. Everything just kind of fell together one event at a time. It feels great to be recognized at the end of it.”
Mattia, who also competed in last year’s competition, agreed.
“We did a good job of segmenting it all. We just stayed focused, and the lanes were awesome,” he said. “We had fun with it, but we kept our eyes ahead.”
The team credited their coaches support and their training regimen, which included training with the other teams from their unit, in helping them bring home the trophy.
Both agreed the competition was tough, both mentally and physically.
“Overall, the competition was physically enduring. I think over the course of the three days, I got a total of three hours of sleep,” Paunga said. “There were times where we thought we couldn’t pull through, but we got over that mental block, finished it and accomplished the mission.”
Coming in second place was Team 16 consisting of 1st Lts. Raymond Hardaway and Jefferson Ryscavage, also with the 20th Engineer Battalion, 36th Engineer Brigade at Fort Hood.
The third-place winners were Team 34 consisting of Sgt. 1st Class Dustin Shepherd and Staff Sgt. Seth Yoder, 3rd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group, at Fort Carson, Colorado.