FORT BENNING, Ga. - A few hundred Soldiers are expected to earn the Expert Infantryman Badge today after a week of testing punctuated by a 12-mile foot march early this morning.

The 197th Infantry Brigade hosted the annual event for every unit on Fort Benning except the 75th Ranger Regiment and 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, which conduct their own testing. Most of it took place at the Selby Hill Combined Arms Collective Training Facility.

The badge is a measure of individual Soldiering skills. A total of 441 candidates started out, but Monday's Army physical fitness test and day and night land-navigation courses whittled the pool to 325.

Graders evaluated the remaining Soldiers in 30 tests spread over Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday on three distinct lanes: urban, patrol and traffic-control point. Tasks included engaging targets with hand grenades, performing first aid, identifying and clearing foreign weapons, conducting patrols involving ambush scenarios, properly entering and clearing buildings, and staging medevacs.

"These are basically things we do on a daily basis in theater or back at home station when we're training up," said MSG Octavis Smiley, NCOIC of Fort Benning's test support office and the EIB manager. "It is an actual test of how competent and confident that Soldier is in doing his everyday job ... It's not very (difficult), if you train for it.

"But if you go out here and have no idea how to do your skill Level I test, you're not going to pass, plain and simple. So you have to take the time and effort to want to learn your tasks."

CSM Bill Morgan, the 197th Infantry Brigade's command sergeant major, called the EIB a "rite of passage in the Infantry world."

"Soldiers get tested and graded on all their skills by an NCO standing over them, and they have to do it perfectly," he said. "That is a very tough task to be able to do when someone's watching over you."

The badge is only awarded to Infantry and Special Forces personnel.

With operations in Iraq and Afghanistan covering much of the past decade, many Soldiers have been exposed to hostile fire and earned a Combat Infantryman Badge. But Smiley said the EIB is a "mark of excellence" across the Army.

"It shows you are an expert at the base level of being an Infantryman. It sets you apart," he said. "It's an individually earned badge. No one is there to help you, so it's definitely a personal thing to a lot of people. That's what makes it special."

In the past, the EIB test consisted of 30 separate stations arranged in a large circle. It was played out over four weeks, with candidates training in the first 21 days by repeating the same individual task, then being graded on it.

Fort Benning refined the EIB process last year, when Smiley helped devise a new pilot program, officials said. Candidates now spend five days training up, while testing was condensed into a single week and expanded to include multiple tasks.

Morgan said EIB testing used to be a resource-intensive process. Since 2008, however, planners have significantly cut down on the number of resources and amount of time needed for the test, "because those are the two things brigade combat teams don't have a lot of," he said.

"We believe you can set this thing up and test all within two weeks, with less people and less equipment than the old way we did it," he said. "Therefore, more people and more BCTs are apt to actually test for the Expert Infantry Badge."

Smiley travels to Army posts around the world, teaching units and leaders how to set up the standardized model conceived here. The test emphasizes precision, speed and decision-making - based on certain situations, he said.

Just to be eligible for the EIB test, Soldiers must qualify as expert on the M4 rifle. If the candidates survive the APFT and land-navigation segments, they are scored as "pass" or "fail" on the three lanes.

There were 10 tasks within each lane. Candidates are timed on most, and they can't receive more than two "no gos" per phase.

Within the urban lane, Soldiers got 20 minutes to engage and detain an enemy, using Arabic phrases, said SFC Jason Benjamin of the 6th Ranger Training Battalion, the phase's NCOIC. Magazine failures were simulated, and the Soldiers had to assess and treat two "casualties" - one with an open abdominal wound and another with a suspected leg fracture.

The traffic-control point lane, meanwhile, required four Soldiers to move as if in a convoy, engaging targets with the .50-caliber machine gun mounted on each Humvee. After stopping, they dismount and go to an M240 B to take on more targets, before tending to another mock casualty.

That scenario represents a vehicle ambush, Smiley said.

"Just like in theater, if a vehicle goes down, you don't have all day to change a tire. You have to do it now, you have to engage fire and you also have to treat your wounded," he said. "So you have to be confident enough to know that you can perform all these things without someone there to walk you along the way."

SSG Matthew Merced of A Company, 2nd Battalion, 29th Infantry Regiment, was testing for the second time in his career. His first attempt came as a private in 2003. The revised EIB test is built around tactics Soldiers will actually use on today's battlefield, he said.

"It's been fairly physical (and) tough, but not anything that's not accomplishable," he said Tuesday. "If I want to progress in my career, this is definitely one of the hurdles you have to make. Also, I'm going to have Soldiers who will be going out for it. In order for me to train my Solders and motivate them to go out and get this, I myself need to have it."

SSG John Guin of A Company, 2nd Battalion, 29th Infantry Regiment, tested twice before - in Kuwait and South Korea - and said he believed his military experience would make the difference this time.

"I'm just trying to complete each task and do it as we trained up," he said. "(The EIB) is the basis of an Infantryman. It's a pride thing. It's something that's coveted. All Infantrymen want to earn it."

As the week progressed, Guin knew fatigue might set in but said he hoped to use today's 12-mile foot march as motivation. Soldiers must complete that final task in three hours while carrying a 35-pound pack.

"At that point, you're so close," he said. "It should give me the willpower to suck it up and finish."

The EIB awards ceremony is scheduled for 11 a.m. today on Todd Field. The guest speaker will be CSM Chris Hardy, the Maneuver Center of Excellence and post command sergeant major.

Smiley said numerous resources are available to young Soldiers testing for the first time and they can also consult with veteran Infantrymen.

"They should go out, obtain the knowledge and teach themselves," he said. "Don't sit around and wait. If they want this badge, if they want the mark of excellence, they should seek the knowledge themselves.

"We'll point them in the right direction, but we're not gonna put the bottle in their mouth and feed them all the knowledge."

Page last updated Fri April 16th, 2010 at 15:21