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This Northern Virginia soldier is training to win an elite Army combat title

A pair of U.S. Army sappers
From left to right: U.S. Army Sgt. De Pradines and 1st Lt. Dewey, seen participating in the 16th Annual Lt. Gen. Robert B. Flowers Best Sapper Competition in 2023. (Courtesy 1st Engineer Battalion via Facebook)
U.S. Army sappers De Pradines and Dewey, both smiling
From left to right: U.S. Army Sgt. De Pradines and 1st Lt. Dewey, during the 16th Annual Lt. Gen. Robert B. Flowers Best Sapper Competition in 2023. (Courtesy 1st Engineer Battalion via Facebook)
U.S. Army sergeants Dewey and De Pradines and Dewey, smiling for the camera
From left to right: U.S. Army 1st Lt. Dewey and Sgt. De Pradines, smiling for the camera during the 16th Annual Lt. Gen. Robert B. Flowers Best Sapper Competition in 2023. (Courtesy 1st Engineer Battalion via Facebook)
U.S. Army Sgt. De Pradines holding a flag, next to two other soldiers
U.S. Army Sgt. De Pradines seen holding a flag, next to two other soldiers at Omaha Beach on the 79th anniversary of the assault that led to the liberation of France and Western Europe from Nazi control, in 2023. (Courtesy 1st Engineer Battalion via Facebook)
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A pair of U.S. Army sappers
U.S. Army sappers De Pradines and Dewey, both smiling
U.S. Army sergeants Dewey and De Pradines and Dewey, smiling for the camera
U.S. Army Sgt. De Pradines holding a flag, next to two other soldiers

When the U.S. Army needs to figure out how to move soldiers, it calls in the sappers — an elite group of combat engineers who know how to do anything the Army asks of them.

And one Fairfax County, Virginia, soldier is training to clinch the Army’s top combat engineer title in the at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri later this month.

“We know how to build a bridge, blow up a bridge, clear a mine field,” said Sgt. Renato De Pradines. “If you’re a sapper, you’re ready to take on anything.”

The two-person team contest is called “diabolical” for a reason.

De Pradines and his teammate, 1st Lt. Jedidiah Dewey, will work around the clock. The pair will have to outpace 49 other squads in some of the most grueling tasks, including marksmanship, land navigation, first aid, demolition and physical strength challenges.

De Pradines said having a partner makes it a little easier.

“He’s one of my best friends,” De Pradines said of Dewey. “I’m not going to win without him. My success rides on using his hands just as much as he uses mine.”

Contestants must also complete a long-distance run and travel more than 60 miles. Over the course of the 58-hour competition, sleep will come in short supply.

Because of that, De Pradines, a Falls Church native, said training is nonstop.

“We start out at 8:30 in the morning and hit a gym for three hours of cardio,” he said. “We’ll knock that out, then eat, (then) do an hour-and-a-half of weight training and end with some tactical skills.”

De Pradines said it’s the mental fortitude that could make the difference between winning and losing. He said he uses a combination of gratitude and grit.

“There are only 50 teams. That’s 100 people out of the entire regiment who get to do this — so I’m thankful,” he told Ƶapp. “I will definitely say to myself: ‘Right foot, left foot. Keep going.'”

De Pradines and Dewey, who’s from upstate New York, competed last year and earned fifth place, a gratifying spot for first-time contestants.

“It was grueling,” he said. “But we definitely ended up in the more competitive end of the participants. To go up against people that operate at that level, that’s what I’m all about.”

Besides taking home a trophy and the best Army sapper title, winners also get bragging rights, said De Pradines, who’s stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas.

The 27-year-old sergeant said the competition fits his personality. His commanding officer challenged him to qualify.

“I’ve always played sports and was always physically active,” he said. “My sergeant major said, ‘Hey, do you want to go do this competition?’ He knew the kind of person I am and that I’m a pretty hungry guy.”

De Pradines joined the Army a couple of years after graduating from James W. Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax and selected a job in the Army that “wouldn’t land him behind a desk,” he said.

Since then, he’s graduated from the Army’s Sapper Leadership Course, a 28-day leadership program that allows graduates to wear a sapper’s badge on their uniforms.

The Army only allows four elite service badges to be worn on soldiers’ uniforms. The sapper tab is one of them, said Lt. Col. Jefferson Grimes, a 1st Infantry Division and Fort Riley public affairs officer.

De Pradines said he’s grateful for family and friends in Falls Church and his wife, Lianet Ricardo, who will cheer him on during the competition.

“I’m not here because I’m like Superman or something like that. It’s taken a lot of hard work,” he said. “I want them to be proud of me.”

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Gigi Barnett

Gigi Barnett is an anchor at Ƶapp. She has worked in the media for more than 20 years. Before joining Ƶapp, she was an anchor at WJZ-TV in Baltimore, KXAN-TV in Austin, Texas, and a staff reporter at The Miami Herald. She’s a Navy wife and mom of three.

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