By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Fort Hood Herald
Sgt. Michael Garner already had a Combat Medical Badge, but he wanted more. If there was the potential to earn the Expert Field Medical Badge, he was "not going to sit on it," he said Friday, as sweat dripped down his face.
Garner, a combat medic in the 4th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, was one of hundreds vying for their Expert Field Medical Badges this month at Fort Hood. He was one of just 18 who crossed the finish line Friday.
The competition was open to any soldier of any rank in the medical field, and soldiers traveled to Fort Hood from across the United States to participate.
Though it was painful, Garner said it was worth it - "definitely worth it."
"Expert Field Medical Badge warriors, you did it," Lt. Col. Daniel Barnes, the 1st Cavalry's deputy division surgeon, said Friday at an awards ceremony that honored the Army's newest badge holders. "You persevered. You dug deep and earned the badge. You are the next generation to carry forth the Expert Field Medical Badge legacy. Wear it proudly - that badge says more about you than you know. I am proud of you. We are proud of you. Congratulations."
All units in the 1st Cavalry were involved in the planning and execution of the competition. The 1st and 3rd Brigade Combat Teams coordinated combat lanes; the 2nd Brigade Combat Team provided support like showers, generators and tents; the 4th Brigade Combat Team coordinated the road march; the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade provided aircraft for several events and the 41st Fires Brigade hosted land navigation.
This is the first time in eight years the 1st Cavalry has hosted the Expert Field Medical Badge competition. With constant deployments to Iraq and training centers, the competition was put on the back burner to make room for more essential training.
It finally became apparent that officials had to host a competition because the number of badge holders was dwindling.
The badge is elite, said Sgt. 1st Class Peter Kelly, one of the event's lead noncommissioned officers, and earning it sets soldiers apart.
Many of those involved in the competition said it was even harder than earning the Expert Infantryman Badge.
An official from Fort Sam Houston was at Fort Hood to ensure standards were met during the competition.
About 1 percent of today's soldiers hold the Expert Field Medical Badge, Barnes said, and the competition was necessary "in order to keep the legacy of the badge alive."
Barnes earned his badge in 1991 when he was a second lieutenant.
Planning for the competition began in March, Kelly said. Kelly earned his badge in 1989, before most of the soldiers competing last week even entered the Army, he joked. He will celebrate 23 years of Army service later this month.
Many units coordinated their own train-up period for their soldiers, and the 1st Cavalry hosted a week of standardization and training for all participants before the competition began, Kelly said.
The soldiers were not "thrown to the wolves," Kelly said.
The competition started with a 60-question written test covering everything from medical procedures to detainee operations and care. Those who didn't pass the written test were given the opportunity to continue with the competition during retesting Thursday. If they didn't pass it then, they were out, regardless of how they performed at the subsequent lanes.
The soldiers then visited 43 stations in three combat training lanes and made their way through day and night land navigation courses. Soldiers were required to pass 11 of 14 medical tasks, four of five communications tasks, 8 of 10 medical evaluation tasks and 10 of 13 warrior skills tests. They had to find three of four points during the land navigation portion, Barnes said.
Spc. Nichole Johnson, an operating room technician in the 1st Medical Brigade's 499th Head and Neck Team, was at first reluctant to enter the competition, but her enthusiasm increased as she continued to do well.
Johnson was intimidated by some of the unfamiliar tasks thrown at her during testing. To her surprise, she passed events like land navigation.
She was eventually knocked out of the competition by the radio assembly and check station.
"I'm heartbroken," she said Thursday before admitting she shed a few tears.
Competing for the rare and coveted badge was the hardest thing Johnson said she's done since enlisting - even harder than basic training.
Badge holders from units across post were tapped to oversee lanes and lead the training, an Army-wide requirement for the competition. Those soldiers even had to undergo a testing period so they were aware of the standards to which they would eventually test the hopefuls.
The testing is similar to that of the Expert Infantryman Badge, but many say the Expert Field Medical Badge is more difficult.
The Army-wide pass rate is anywhere from 10 to 15 percent, Barnes said.
Of the 154 who began a May 2007 competition hosted by the 1st Medical Brigade's 61st Multifunctional Medical Battalion, three walked away with the badge. Ten of 133 received theirs after an October 2007 competition hosted by the brigade's 36th Medical Evacuation Battalion.
Of the 241 soldiers vying for the coveted badges at Fort Hood this month, 90 were left as of 11 a.m. Thursday. Just 85 of those went on to the big final event Friday morning - a 12-mile road march or "12 miles of pain," as Kelly called it.
Just 18 crossed the finish line in the allotted time to earn their badges.
The event is stressful, said Staff Sgt. Jason Mielke, a combat medic in Charlie Company, 215th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, who earned his badge in the 1990s. Part of the success lies in the ability to perform under pressure, he added. That, coupled with temperatures in the 100s, made focusing difficult during trauma-testing events he helped oversee.
The soldiers were in full gear and had to remember intricate, life-saving details as they took care of "wounded soldiers." Forgetting even one detail could disqualify the soldier from the competition.
The competition is tough for those who have spent time in the Army medical field, said Staff Sgt. Merrick Barnes, a medical platoon sergeant in the 3rd Brigade's 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, because soldiers often develop their own methods as they gain experience during time in uniform or deployments.
The competition tests the smallest details as they were taught at the start of every medical soldier's career. It is often the newer enlisted soldiers and officer who excel because the tasks they are learning during the train-up period are new to them.
It was easier for Barnes' platoon leader, 2nd Lt. Luis Gonzalez, because "I never learned those things to begin with," he said Thursday.
Whether the soldiers succeeded in earning the badge, they gained much just by participating, Mielke said, because many likely performed tasks they never encountered in their units.
"You can't beat the training value," he said. "The training value's tremendous."
The heat proved to be medical soldiers' biggest foe during the competition. Heat led to fatigue, Kelly said, and it took its toll on their bodies and minds.
It was especially brutal Friday as soldiers headed into the final day of the Expert Field Medical Badge competition and the road march. High humidity and temperatures knocked out most of those soldiers before they crossed the finish line.
Testing took place at a Fort Hood range, and even though officials provided shade, water and air-conditioned sleeping tents, the heat - which stayed in the 100s throughout the event - took its toll on the soldiers.
Eight were taken to Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center with heat-related illnesses Friday morning, according to information from Fort Hood. Three were treated and released, three were admitted in fair condition, one transported to Killeen's Metroplex in serious condition and one was transported to Temple's Scott & White Hospital in serious condition, according to information from Fort Hood.
"This is some of the toughest training in the Army," said Maj. Chad Carroll, 1st Cavalry spokesman. "Our units had the proper personnel and medical equipment on hand to treat personnel and get them to the next level of care."
The intense Central Texas heat added an extra degree of difficulty, Brig. Gen. Joseph Caravalho Jr., who leads the Southern Regional Medical Command, said during the awards ceremony Friday after the road march.
Just because soldiers walked away without the badge didn't mean they didn't want it, he said.
"It just wasn't their day," he added.
Expert Field Medical Badge recipients
Pfc. Jonathan Black, 115th Combat Support Hospital, Fort Polk, La.: highest go rate, one no-go
Spc. Stephen Hanna, 4th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division: 12-mile road march winner, 2 hours, 50 seconds
2nd Lt. Matthew Hester, 1st Battalion, 21st Field Artillery Regiment, 41st Fires Brigade: highest written-test score, 54 of 60 points
Pvt. Aaron Dillingham, 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry
Pfc. Hernan Borunda, Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center
Pfc. James Bottoms, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division
Pfc. Peter Guidry, 115th Combat Support Hospital, Fort Polk, La.
Pfc. Billy Denley, 27th Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division
Spc. Brandon Reid, Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center
Spc. Andrew Thomas, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division
Sgt. Benjamin Corbett, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division
Sgt. Morgan Dunne, 4th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division
Sgt. Michael Garner, 4th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division
Sgt. David Stout, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 4th Sustainment Brigade, 13th Sustainment Command
Staff Sgt. Dontre Robinson, Bayne-Jones Army Community Hospital, Fort Polk, La.
2nd Lt. Katie Helmrick, Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center
1st Lt. Maxwell Carroll, 3rd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division
Capt. Tyler Cortner, 115th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division