By Staff Sgt. Leah KilpatrickMay 10, 2016
FORT HOOD, Texas -- In his mud-caked uniform with his face in the dirt, lying flat against the ground, the exhausted Soldier drags himself. "You're a no-go at this station," the grader stoically informs him when he completes the task at hand. "Go back for retraining. Try again."
The scene played out over and over during the two-week train-up portion of the 1st Cavalry Division's Expert Infantryman Badge training and testing taking place, April 25 through May 13.
On the cusp of test week, more than 700 candidates seeking the coveted badge practiced basic infantry skills, imprinting performance measures into their memories and ensuring themselves a fighting chance at success.
Established in 1944, the badge serves as testament to the professionalism and proficiency of the U.S. infantryman.
"In our MOS, absolutely it is the diamond in the sky, because anyone can earn it, from private all the way up to the field grade officers," said Sgt. 1st Class Jared Benjamin, first sergeant of Company B, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division. "You look at him as a professional, because he knows exactly what he's doing. He's been tried and tested."
The candidates are tried and tested in the Army Physical Fitness Test, day and night land navigation, and 37 tasks comprising four lanes - weapons lane, medical lane, patrol lane and Objective Bull. In addition, they must complete a 12-mile foot march in three hours or less, wearing a 35-pound ruck sack.
Objective Bull consists of a series of medical tasks that must be completed to standard after the foot march in order to earn the honor of wearing the badge.
"That's why when you encounter another infantryman, and you see that little blue badge, that's an indicator right there that, okay, you know what that guy's been through," Benjamin said. "You know what he did and what it took to train up and get that."
The gauntlet that is the EIB experience has evolved over the years to reflect the changing nature of war. In 2009, the structure of the EIB transitioned to scenario-based outcomes with patrolling lanes, urban lanes, and combat lanes, in response to the more urban nature of modern combat.
Even with the changes in structure, however, the challenge has remained daunting, with only a 14 percent pass rate throughout the Army, according to the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence.
"I want to set the example for my guys," said 1st Lt. Enrique Zalaya, an infantry officer assigned to Company D, 52nd Infantry Regiment. "I want to show them that the basic things are important to know, because that's where you gain your skill sets from. I'm out here. If I'm out here doing it, you should be doing it."
The tasks are basic tasks that every infantryman should know, but everyone trains those tasks differently. Some people invent little shortcuts and work-arounds to make things easier or more efficient for them, but the EIB graders have a standard and all tasks must be completed by the book.
"I used to be a medic, so when I go through the medical lanes here, it's really difficult not to use my old basic skill sets," Zelaya said. "Now I'm just learning, 'Okay, how do you want it done? Got it. Now I will execute the way you want it done.'"
The candidates have to pay close attention to the details and ensure they are performing exactly to standard.
"The biggest killer out here that I've seen is sequence of events, so attention to detail, listening to the performance measures is key," said Benjamin. "You have to do A through M in that order. You can't skip from A down to C. You just can't do that, and that's what trips guys up. It's mega attention to detail and not worrying about the task that you just conducted if you messed it up and got a no-go."
If a candidate gets a no-go in an event, he has one hour to retrain and get back in line to be retested. Two no-gos in one event will eliminate the candidate from testing entirely. And three cumulative no-gos will also eliminate the candidate.
"There's going to be things I know I'm going to mess up on, and I'm going to have to retest," said Zelaya, who is attempting to earn the badge for the first time in his 10-year Army career. "It's just one of those things, but a person who's never failed doesn't know how to get up. I've failed things. I know how to get up. I got it. Shake it off. Let's do it."
Soldiers who have attempted before and failed to earn the badge came into this experience with lessons learned, ready to redeem themselves.
"This is my third year doing this, and I feel pretty confident in everything I've been working on," said Spc. Aaron Paxton, an infantryman assigned to 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cav. Div. "I know now that I need to slow down, pay attention to the task, work on it and move on. That's what I know now, and it's working for me."
The entire training and testing process is demanding and exhausting, but the Soldiers who truly want it will persevere.
"You've got to have drive," Benjamin said. "You've got to have motivation. You've got to want it in the first place."
Zelaya said the trick is pacing themselves and taking breaks, especially among the young troops.
"The first week we were out here you could see the mental exhaustion on their faces," he said.
"They were like, 'Wow, I just got all this information. How am I supposed to regurgitate it to standard?'"
Soldiers like Paxton, though, have buckled down and pushed through the fatigue to try and meet this challenge head-on.
"Wearing the badge is definitely going to indicate that I'm not here to lollygag and take from the Army, that I'm here to be a Soldier and be the best Soldier that I can be," Paxton said. "When I see someone else wearing the badge, it definitely means to me that they put forth the effort to be the best they can be, and it makes me want to be what they are. I look up to people who have their EIB. Yes, I'm a little drained, but I'm more excited than anything knowing that I'm one step closer."