555th Engineer Brigade conducts Sapper Helocast at American Lake

By Kevin Knodell on October 10, 2014

Oct. 9 is a chilly, misty morning on American Lake. The water is still. It's quiet and peaceful as a pair of otters play nearby. Then a Ch-47 Chinook helicopter flies in low over the lake. The rotors spray water and kick up wind, violently disturbing the tranquility. One by one, soldiers jump out the back of the helicopter and swim to shore.

The soldiers shiver as they emerge from the lake, shaking and trying to keep warm. "That was awesome!" one of the soldiers shouts as he wades out of the water. Then they load up in vehicles waiting by the shore.

It's time to do it again.

The soldiers are members of the 555th Engineer Brigade, the Triple Nickel. They're conducting a Helocast - a water insertion by helicopter. I witnessed their confidence building exercise. About a quarter of the group is training to go to the elite Ranger School at Fort Benning, Georgia. But more of them are training to go to Sapper School at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

Sappers are combat engineers. They specialize in building things - and destroying things - under the stress of combat conditions.

>>> Members of the 555th Engineer Brigade wait to board a CH-47 Chinook helicopter to conduct a Helocast - a water insertion by helicopter - into American Lake on Oct. 9. Many are training to go to either Ranger or Sapper school. Photo credit: Kevin Knodell

Master Sgt. Don Batchan is overseeing the exercise. He says it's important for the soldiers to have this experience, and that it's about more than just confidence. He says waterborne insertion is something they may one day have to do on the battlefield. They have to be ready for anything.

Even so, the engineers don't often get opportunities for this sort of training. It's largely reserved for Rangers and Special Forces troops. It's hard to get the helicopter and the rest of the equipment on the same day to pull it off. But every once and awhile the stars align.

"I keep pushing buttons until it goes through," Batchan says.

>>> Master Sgt. Don Batchan / photo credit: Kevin Knodell

He explains the 555th has a 75 percent graduation rate for students it sends to Sapper School. That's a staggering achievement, as the average rate is closer to about 40 percent. Batchan credits intense training and preparation for this unusually high success rate. "We don't want anyone to say they were exposed to anything they weren't prepared for," he says.

>>> Sgt. Robert Parish / photo credit: Kevin Knodell

"You don't get this kind of training unless you're at Bragg," Sgt. Robert Parish tells fellow soldiers as they wait on the lake in their boats. Parish is in charge of safety on the water, leading a mini fleet of boats to grab weak swimmers if they start to struggle - as well as keeping civilian boats from entering the drop zone.

The helicopter comes back, spraying us all with rotor wash as it comes in low, and drops the soldiers into the lake for round two. Many of them are dragging ruck sacks in tow this time. They constantly banter and jeer. Parish shouts out to a young soldier going slower than the others, asking him what's holding him back. "It's just that I don't really feel like swimming today Sergeant!" the soldier replies. Parish cracks a grin.

"I wish I could be out there right now," Parish looks over and tells me. "Those are my guys."

1st Lt. Travis Emery was the first soldier to make the jump. A graduate of air assault school he's no stranger to helicopters. But this is the first time he's jumped into water. "This is definitely the best experience I've had jumping out of a helicopter," the young officer says.

>>> 1st Lt. Travis Emery / photo credit: Kevin Knodell

This experience is important. Emery says he's going to Sapper School next month.

Batchan says he hopes they will be able to do exercises like this far more often. He'd like to see the, do one a year - if not more.

The engineers load up to leave, soaked and tired. As luck would have it, the sun starts to shine through the clouds. "That figures," remarks one of the soldiers. Sgt. Parrish - still dry - looks back at the lake as the others leave.

"Next time, I'm jumping too," he says.

>>> 555th Engineer Brigade Safety Team / photo credit: Kevin Knodell

>>> Soldiers of the 555th Engineer Brigade float in the water to avoid the breeze. Photo credit: Kevin Knodell