By Sgt. 1st Class Miriam EspinozaAugust 21, 2019
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. - Failure was never an option for Col. Fernando Güereña, a native of Baja California, Mexico, who joined the U.S. Army Reserve in 1985 and transitioned to active duty in 1999. His dream as a young, medical officer had always been one - to earn the Expert Field Medical Badge.
On Aug. 8, at the age of 61, the Madigan Army Medical Center doctor began his sixth attempt to attain the coveted badge.
"The Expert Field Medical Badge is the highest proficiency for medical Soldiers," said Command Sgt. Maj. Clark Charpentier, Regional Health Command-Pacific's command sergeant major. "It represents your ability to survive in today's modern battlefield."
Fernando got a glimpse of just how difficult it is to attain the badge in the late 1990s while assigned to the Walter Reed Institute of Research, in Maryland. He attended an EFMB competition with a group of medics where only one medic attained the badge.
"I realized then what I was facing regarding the hard work it takes to succeed," Fernando said.
Fernando graduated from medical school at the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California, Mexico, has held various positions of responsibility and has an extensive education in Internal Medicine, Preventive Medicine, and Infectious Diseases.
So what made this badge so important to him? The significance behind the badge goes far back into Fernando's life before joining the military service.
Fernando grew up in Tijuana, Baja California, in Mexico, and had always had an inclination for the military and admired the U.S. armed forces. He still recalls stories of World War II as told by his family when the serious rationing of food was felt all the way south of the border.
"I recall the admiration I felt for my older cousin, Tony Palacios, drafted at 19, trained at Fort Ord, Calif.," he said. "Luckily, he returned alive and well. However, I recall the daily news on TV and the anxiety they created among my family."
Although he is a doctor and a colonel in the Army, which is not easy to attain, for him attaining the badge was not about the accolades or the having another award to his name, for Fernando, it was what the badge represented.
"To me every person in the medical field needs to be a combat life saver and the ultimate sign of excellence is the badge," he said. "It's my responsibility to become a better medic, be with these guys in the field and learn as much as I can and challenge myself."
Fernando had wanted to be a medic since he can remember. As a young adult, he recalls his grandma, who was a nurse, taking care of casualties.
"For me, it's a drive, a passion that I have," Fernando said. "I had always wanted to be a Soldier -- I always wanted to be a combat medic. It happened that I became a doctor, but it's in my blood, it's in my genes, it's in my family history."
Looking back to this attempt, Aug. 8 began like a cool, Thursday morning. Seventy-four hopeful medical professionals started the 2019 Expert Field Medical Badge competition on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, among them was Fernando.
The competitors began 144 hours of testing on medical tasks, Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear tasks, land navigation -- both day and night -- weapons, communication tasks and their physical capabilities including the ability to load and transport casualties weighing more than 200 pounds.
The competition is both physically and mentally exhausting for any Soldier, but at 61, Fernando was pushing his limits side-by-side with 20-year olds.
"I learned that, although I am 61, if you really believe in yourself and you're healthy, you can push and do anything," said Fernando. "To the young medics, try - keep coming back, do your best, even if you don't pass, it will make you a better Soldier."
During the competition, Fernando became the motivating force for the candidates and the subject matter expert, who helped guide them throughout long and stressful days of studying.
"Colonel G was a father figure - he was awesome," said 1st Lt. Brad Kempka, clinical staff nurse, Alpha Company, at Madigan. "He was mentoring, giving us pointers, helping us study for the lanes and for the written test. He also brought comedic relieve throughout the competition."
Commands only get a certain amount of spots for the EFMB. So in order for medical professionals to have a spot in the competition, their commands select only the best medics for those coveted spots.
In the case of Madigan, there were nine slots. According to Command Sgt. Maj. Victor Laragione, Madigan command sergeant major, Fernando fought for his chance to attend the competition.
"He has a never-quit mentality," Laragione said. "He is one of the most motivating people I know - six attempts and never quit. It's important to him because it's part of his quest to display that he is an expert at his craft - and he truly is an expert."
The final day of the competition was Aug. 14. Up until that day, Fernando had passed all tasks with flying colors, but the 12-mile ruck march remained. At 5 a.m., the 11 remaining candidates, took their first step for the march.
Three hours are allotted to complete the ruck march. At 7:54 a.m., just six minutes left in the time allotted for the march, the cadre, Madigan and fellow competitors looked anxiously for Fernando to come in sight. Finally Fernando came in sight, tired, but eager to cross that long awaited finish line.
"We can't be more proud for him and his accomplishment," Laragione said. "There's plenty of Soldiers out there who would attempt two or three times and quit, but he continued to fight. He didn't just get a spot on the team because of his rank or position, he had to earn a spot - attending unit train-ups -- and show that he was at the top of the order of merit list to make it to this point.
"He displayed it."
This was Fernando's last attempt at the badge as he was planning to retire from the Army after 34 years of service. He now has been extended for four more years and plans to be actively involved in the EFMB to help others attain the badge.
"Every person in the medical field needs to be a combat life-saver," he said. "And the ultimate sign of excellence is the badge, so I am ready to go to the battlefield and take care of casualties."