In the pre-dawn hours, with sweat dripping down their foreheads and a rucksack that seemed to get heavier with each step of the 12-mile march, U.S. and South Korean Soldiers pushed themselves to exhaustion and to a finish line that meant they had just one more challenge ahead.

For 12 days, 627 Soldiers from all over the Korean Peninsula trained for the grueling five-day Expert Infantryman Badge testing that started May 22 and ended in May 26 at Schoonover Bowl at Camp Casey, South Korea.

The EIB is a prized and respected badge for Infantrymen through out the US Army.

"It sets that individual apart from his peers - that he has demonstrated skills, attention to detail, and proficiency in his trade of arms," said Sgt. 1st Class Aaron Kerns, an Infantryman with Company B, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, serving as one of the graders on the grenade testing.

The 1st ABCT, or "Ironhorse" brigade, hosted the Expert Infantryman Badge training and testing for all US infantry on the peninsula and gave Republic of Korea Army Soldiers, including four female Soldiers, a chance to try and earn a certificate of achievement to honor their attempt at the EIB - currently, South Korean Soldiers are not authorized to wear the U.S badge.

Infantry Soldiers from 1st ABCT participated in the event, along with their peers from the 2nd Infantry Division, the Eighth U.S. Army, and others.

"We also have Soldiers from the U.S. Forces Korea Noncommissioned Officers Academy, Command Post TANGO, USFK Honor Guard, the United Nations Command Security Battalion, and the Republic of Korea Army - they're coming from all over to train and compete in the EIB," said Sgt. 1st Class Richie Pozo, operations NCO, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st ABCT.

To earn the EIB, candidates first qualified expert on their assigned weapon and conducted two weeks of EIB-focused training from May 9 - 20.

During the five-day test week from May 22 - 26, the 627 EIB candidates started with the Army Physical Fitness Test, having to score 80 points on each event. Then candidates were tested on thirty individual testing stations organized as a "Weapons Lane," a "Medical Lane," a "Patrol Lane," and a day and night land navigation course.

Candidates concluded their week of testing with a 12-mile forced march in less than three hours followed immediately by a series of core tasks, performed under simulated combat conditions and completed to an expert standard on "Objective Bull" at the Schoonover Bowl at Camp Casey.

"It's like baseball, if you get three strikes, you're out," said Pozo. "If you 'no-go' three stations, you're out. If you 'no-go' one station twice, you're out; if you fail a station you have one hour to come back and re-test. And if you fail to come back in the allotted time, you're out."

U.S. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall initiated the development of the EIB in 1944 to represent and honor U.S. Army Infantryman.

The first testing consisted of 100 noncommissioned officers from the 100th Infantry Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. They were selected to undergo three days of testing to select the Army's first Expert Infantryman.

After all the testing only ten NCO's remained. Those ten were then interviewed and on March 29, 1944, Lt. Gen. Lesley McNair, commander of Army Ground Forces, awarded the first EIB to Tech. Sgt. Walter Bull.

The first candidates to complete the ruck march, finishing at the two-hour mark, were 1st Lt. Nicholas Kiser, a platoon leader from Company A, 2nd Bn., 5th Cav. Reg., 1st ABCT, followed quickly by ROKA Sgt. 1st Class Do hoon Lee.

Kiser, along with teammate Capt. James Teskey, plans officer, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st ABCT, recently placed sixth at the Army's Best Ranger Competition April 17 at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Included in the final number to complete the challenge were more than 40 ROKA Soldiers, including Republic of Korea Army 1st Lt. Ji Eun Jeong, a platoon leader in the 115th Mechanized Infantry Battalion, 90th Mech. Inf. Brigade, 30th Mech. Inf. Division. Jeong was the first female ROK officer to earn the EIB. A female ROK NCO completed the grueling challenge last year to earn her EIB.

"I want a specialty for infantry, and EIB is a challenge for female Soldiers," said Jeong.

Of the 627 Soldiers who started the EIB testing in South Korea May 22, only 131 finished and earned the honor of wearing the Expert Infantryman Badge. And of those, 29 distinguished themselves as "True Blue" Infantryman by successfully completing every event without retest and receiving first time "go's" on every evaluation - 18 U.S. and 11 South Korean Soldiers.

Gen. Vincent Brooks, commanding general, USFK, personally pinned those recognized as True Blue Infantry during a ceremony May 26.

"Well done by each and every one of you earning this coveted and very distinguished badge," said Brooks, who earned the EIB as a captain. "I am especially impressed by the number of True Blue Infantrymen. To this day, the EIB remains one of my most proud accomplishments in my 40-year career."