CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait - Weary soldiers lined the road in the pre-dawn hours of what promised to be another sweltering day in Kuwait. After enduring a variety of grueling mental and physical tasks, 22 service members were all that remained of the 138 that began the competition five days prior. Looming ahead of the remaining candidates and their goal was a daunting 12-mile road-march course.
The participants needed to complete the course with a ruck sack and gear before a prominently displayed clock, set at three hours, counted down to zero; all for the honor of earning the Expert Field Medical Badge, a symbol of soldier proficiency and medical skill authorized only to Army medical personnel who successfully complete the rigorous testing.
"Everyone in the Army knows the EFMB," said Spc. Corey Crisostomo, a combat medic with the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, as he prepared for the road march. "It's one of the most prestigious badges that you can earn as a medic. It definitely shows people that you are serious about the military and that you're here to do some good."
The testing, held on Camp Buehring, Kuwait, Oct. 11-16, included three separate lanes involving a mix of tactical combat casualty care, medical and casualty evacuation, and warrior skills.
"It's both mentally and physically exhausting," said Maj. Erin C. Robinson, a medical operations and plans officer with U.S. Army Central. "You're not ready for the physical demands that it puts on your body, you're not really expecting that. Only getting four or five hours of sleep at night, and getting up and doing it all over again, with no breaks, takes its toll."
Robinson, who was trying for the EFMB for the first time in her 10 year Army career, said she arrived in Kuwait in September and didn't have much time to train on her own before the event started.
"Honestly, I never thought I would go out and try for the EFMB because I've never really had the opportunity to do it," she said. "So for me it would be amazing because of the prestige and honor of knowing that I've earned it. You don't see too many of them out there right now and I think it kind of separates you from your peers."
"This is the first time since 1999 that EFMB testing has been conducted in Kuwait," said Cpt. Sara Rodriguez, brigade medical planner for the 1st ABCT and operations officer in charge of the testing. "Soldiers came from Bahrain, Afghanistan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and even the United States to participate in this event."
Rodriguez said because the testing isn't held very often, and the pass rate was around 17 percent in 2012, earning the badge is a huge accomplishment for Army medical personnel.
"The most challenging part has been the constant get up and go," said Crisostimo. "You get a lot of down time, but during that time you always have to be preparing for the next event because you are always rolling into another test or another lane that could eliminate you."
Crisostomo, who tried to earn the EFMB in a previous attempt, said he used that experience as motivation to push himself through this round of testing.
"The medical lane tripped me up the first time I did EFMB testing," said Crisostomo, smiling. "I got a 100 percent go on that lane this go-around, so I definitely came back with a vengeance."
Robinson said she learned a lot from the testing but one of the biggest things she was going to take from the experience was the interaction with the other candidates.
"It's so motivating to be around these soldiers. Just coming out here and seeing them so energized and so motivated really drives me to want to be here too, and I actually get a lot out of that," she said. "Being here and getting a small taste, on an exercise level, of what they do out in the real world is truly amazing; I have a new level of respect for all of our medical professionals."
Crisostomo and Robinson, along with all but one of the soldiers who survived the testing up until the road march, managed to cross the finish line in time, claiming their badges.
"At about mile eight I had a major cramp in my leg and I was slowing down a little, but I gave it everything I had," said Robinson. "I saw that white tape and mustered up the energy and went for it."
Robinson, who was the only soldier from U.S. Army Central to make it through the entire event, earned special recognition and an Army Commendation Medal for being the only soldier to not fail any tasks throughout testing.
"I just dug deep, I thought about my family and how proud I wanted to make them and that got me through the event," she added. "I never thought I would even finish, and now to have finished and have all go's is just a shock and a pleasant surprise.
Rodriguez said they were very fortunate to have a lot of support from surrounding units and from U.S. Army central, which provided personnel to assist with the testing as well as materials and planning support.
"Being in a deployed environment is difficult because you don't have easy access to resources that are easier to come by stateside, which was a challenge," said Rodriguez. "The weather was obviously a big concern as well. We made sure we could hold the event without putting the candidates and staff in danger by building all of the events and lanes with safety in mind. It was a challenge but not impossible, and I think we were successful."
Robinson said she was very impressed with the training and all of those involved did an outstanding job putting the even together.
"The standardization was perfect," she added. "They taught you everything you needed to know and then you just had to go out and execute it. So I think that the level of professionalism from everybody was amazing."
Even though not every participant walked away with the badge, Rodriguez said there are other valuable things to take from an event like this.
"At the end of the day, even for those that didn't make it, just to hear them say they enjoyed the experience, that they feel positive about what they did and that they are proud of themselves makes me feel good that we were able to provide that kind of quality training," said Rodriguez. "It's great knowing that these soldiers are becoming that much better at being a medical professional when they come out on the other side, even if the badge isn't earned."
"Because ultimately," she added. "What it really comes down to is taking care of people and being the professionals that our patients deserve."