By Sgt. Christie SmithApril 11, 2017
JOHNSTON, Iowa, - For something to be both prestigious and elite, it must also be elusive.
This certainly applies to the Expert Infantry Badge (EIB). This badge, first awarded to Soldiers during WWII by Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair, commander of Army Ground Forces, is earned over a five-day period which includes more than 30 mentally- and physically-taxing events.
On average, the EIB pass rate is just 18 percent. Approximately four out of every five Soldiers attempting this badge will fail.
Recently, 25 Soldiers representing the 2nd Brigade Combat Teams, 34th Infantry ("Red Bull") Division, Iowa Army National Guard, traveled to Camp Blanding in Starke, Florida, in pursuit of the badge.
The "Red Bulls," identified by their signature 34th Infantry Division patch, spent two weeks in Florida for the training and testing phases of the EIB, enduring hours of day and night land navigation and completing more than 60 Soldier skills and tasks.
In the end, five Red Bulls earned the badge. Beating the course average with a 20 percent passing rate, the Iowa Soldiers undoubtedly have a lot to be proud of in their accomplishment.
But what about the 80 percent who were unable to earn the badge this time around?
"The military's not an easy career by any stretch, so you're going to have setbacks no matter what," said 2nd Lt. Nick Kuehn, platoon leader with Company A, 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry, of Carroll, Iowa, "You take what you learn here and use it to better prepare for the next event. Take what you learned here back to your units, to help them prepare for the next event, too."
Kuehn, a Polk County (Iowa) sheriff's deputy, was disqualified during the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) on day one.
The EIB APFT requires a score of 80 percent in each of the three tasks -- push-ups, sit-ups and a two-mile run -- compared to the normal Army standard of 60 percent. It's one of just three events which can't be retested, along with land navigation and the final 12-mile ruck march. Candidates are allowed a mulligan during the other 30 testable events, but they can only retest on two events.
2nd Lt. Vinh Ly, platoon leader with Company B, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry, of Iowa City, Iowa, said his first attempt at the badge was eye-opening. He was also an APFT casualty, missing his run time by a mere three seconds.
"Before we came here, I had a big misconception on what the EIB actually was," Ly said. A pharmacist during the week and an infantryman on drill weekends, Ly expected the EIB, like many infantry tasks, to be very physically-demanding.
"It's mostly just attention to detail," Ly learned. "You go through the steps, you're told what to specifically do and you just do it, in that order. You don't deviate from anything [the cadre] tell you."
Although the EIB requires candidates to endure physical challenges, like a 12-mile ruck march carrying 35 pounds of gear at a 15-minute-per-mile pace (or faster), Ly said the key to success is an acute ability to receive, follow and remember directions.
As testament to the balance between the mental and the physical, there are two days known to be the most fatal -- the first day, with its APFT and the combined 8,000-meter land navigation courses; and the second day, with its 10 weapons lanes, where candidates must follow timed, sequential steps for assembling, disassembling, operating and troubleshooting multiple weapon systems.
2nd Lt. Devin Vander Molen, platoon leader with Company B, 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry, of Shenandoah, Iowa, was a third victim of the APFT. Without a doubt, he said he'll attempt the badge again.
"The majority of people don't get it their first time," Vander Molen said. "You talk to a lot of the cadre and they had to try multiple times to get it."
Vander Molen said one of his fellow candidates was a former Ranger instructor attempting the badge for the second time.
For the lieutenants, there was one major take-away from their brief introduction to the EIB -- an opportunity to embrace the situation.
"You won't get the same kind of training [at home] you'll get here at the EIB," Ly said. "The experience you take back is very good for an overall experience on the very basics [of Soldiering]."
With a training phase built into the week prior to the tests, candidates get to perform each of the tasks they'll be evaluated on and hone skills they don't often get the opportunity to use.
"Especially as officers, we've messed with weapon systems here we typically don't see," Vander Molen said. "So understanding more about those weapons will help us understand what our Soldiers need to understand about those weapons."
As the test week progressed, more and more Soldiers found themselves out of the running, but still part of the competition.
"We're just walking around, checking on the guys from our unit, seeing how they're doing and trying to help them out," Vander Molen said.
Disqualified Soldiers still showed up each day to provide motivation, or act as training aids, role-playing as wounded for medical lanes, or as the enemy for patrol lanes.
Master Sgt. Jason Nelson, assistant operations Noncommissioned Officer for Headquarters, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, and Non-Commissioned Officer in charge of the Red Bulls at Camp Blanding, said he was proud of his Soldiers' performance at the EIB, and knew they had learned valuable skills to take home. He earned his badge in 1999, on his second attempt.
His advice for candidates hoping to try again in the future was, "put common sense in their pocket." He also offered advice he knows all too well from almost two decades as an elite infantryman.
"Educate [your] Soldiers and make the next generation better," Nelson said.