By Ms. Elyssa Vondra (Jackson)April 5, 2019
Ninety-nine infantrymen entered the testing arena for their Expert Infantryman Badges on Fort Jackson this year, and 23 came out victorious, with seven earning the title of "True Blue."
The EIB is a special skills badge awarded to infantry and Special Forces Soldiers who have demonstrated superior infantry skills.
Unlike the Combat Infantryman Badge that is awarded to any infantryman who has taken part in active ground combat, the EIB is only earned by those who successfully complete a series of tests. The "True Blue" title goes to those who pass all tests on the first attempt.
"Infantrymen are the whole reason why the Army exists," said Master Sgt. Keith Heidemann, the EIB Non-commissioned Officer in charge. "If we weren't here, then there'd be no reason for an Army."
"(Infantrymen are) the ones who are on the battlefield. They're the ones who are in close combat with the enemy," added Sgt. Maj. Sidi London, Fort Jackson's operations sergeant major and president of the EIB committee. "No one wakes up and says, 'I want to go sleep in the woods, sleep in the dirt, be gone all the time.' You have to have a special mindset to do that and do it with pride."
The badge is a way to recognize their sacrifices, London added. This year, EIB training and testing was held on-post March 11-29.
"If you're associated with an infantryman in any shape, form or fashion, you know that today is a big deal," said Brig. Gen. Milford H. "Beags" Beagle Jr., Fort Jackson commander, during the awards ceremony March 29 at Hilton Field. "There's very few MOS' or ranks that have a badge that identifies or signifies that you are an expert."
"You've earned that today. There's nothing more special than that," Beagle told the awardees. "Wear it proudly."
Earning the EIB helps Soldiers advance their careers, London said.
Last year, 94 percent of infantry staff sergeants were promoted to sergeants first class had earned their EIB, said Staff Sgt. Justin Parker, an organizer for this year's testing who got his EIB as a specialist in 2012 on his first attempt.
That's what brought Staff Sgt. Jeremy Tewalt, from Fort Campbell's Company C, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, to Fort Jackson this March to try for his EIB for the fourth time.
"It's a big thing for career progression," Tewalt said. "If you don't get it, it's just harder to get promoted later on."
"It's just one of those things that helps separate you from your peers," added Staff Sgt. Donald Panaway, a drill sergeant for Fort Jackson's Company A, 3rd Battalion, 39th Infantry Regiment, who earned his EIB March 29.
The challenges test Soldiers on level-one tasks that have to be done step-by-step according to the book. The infantrymen can't miss a step or go out of order if they want to pass.
Though these skills are learned early in Army training, "you get bad habits" as you rank up and learn shortcuts, Parker said.
Tewalt said that for him, doing tasks according to doctrine was the most challenging part of the testing.
"Attention to detail, that's the biggest thing," he said. "Everything has to go in sequence."
Some tasks, like Mk 19 -- the automatic grenade launcher -- are "not very forgiving" and have a lot of components that must be done in a particular order, Panaway said, adding that for him, it had been the most difficult task.
"(EIB testing) reinforces all the skills that (Soldiers) need to know to be an effective infantryman," Heidemann said. "Everything is very skills intensive."
The fight for an EIB all starts with a train-up session, this year held March 11-24, when infantrymen leave behind their day jobs to prepare full time, learning how to correctly complete the drills.
"It's all about practicing and making sure you're using all the time you have," Tewalt said. EIB hopefuls must "stay calm, focus and drive on" to be successful.
The real challenges begin with a physical fitness assessment, including a four mile run to be completed in 32 minutes or less, and land navigation testing. Both are non-retestable.
Soldiers then face 30 individual weapons, medical, and patrol testing stations, with two chances to pass each.
On the last day, EIB hopefuls must complete a 12-mile ruck march in three hours or less and clear, disassemble, assemble and perform a functions check on either an M4 or an M16 to pass.
Proving they can perform these tasks to standard prepares them for combat situations when applying such skills is key to keeping comrades safe, London said.
On average, between 10 and 14 percent of infantrymen who try out are awarded their EIB annually.
"My battle buddies to my left and to my right" have provided motivation throughout the challenges of the testing, Panaway said during the second-to-last day, "(but) they're no longer here. They kind of fell out the past couple days ... that's the way the cookie crumbles."