FORT MEADE, Md. -- This past year, the Army approved standards for the Army Combat Fitness Test, introduced a new proficiency badge and altered how it promotes Soldiers. The Army also began the groundwork to better manage its talent, while a leadership shuffle brought in new top brass.Below is a list of some of the biggest stories that impacted the force in 2019:EXPERT SOLDIER BADGEOn the Army's birthday in June, senior leaders introduced a new proficiency badge.The Expert Soldier Badge is the equivalent of the Expert Infantry Badge and Expert Field Medical Badge, but for all other military occupational specialties in the Army.To qualify for the ESB test, Soldiers must pass the Army Combat Fitness Test, qualify as an "expert" on the M4/M16 rifle and be recommended by their chain of command.The test consists of another ACFT, day and night land navigation, individual testing stations, and culminates with a 12-mile foot march.The first 11 Soldiers to earn the badge were honored by senior leaders in October during the Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition.The badge looks exactly like the Combat Action Badge, minus the wreath. It displays the same M9 bayonet knife and M67 frag grenade inlaid against a solid, gray rectangular bar.MERIT-BASED PROMOTIONSThe Army officially started its first major overhaul to its enlisted centralized promotion board in 50 years, as it looks to deliver "the right person, at the right job, at the right time," according to G-1 officials.The effort centers on a transition from time-based to merit-based policies and practices. Intended for active-duty Soldiers and those serving in an Active Guard Reserve capacity, the change ensures the best-qualified Soldier will be the first one eligible for promotion.It will take three to four years to implement an improved merit-based promotion system, officials said.The Army also released results from its first officer merit promotion board in October.Army Human Resources Command conducted the board for prospective majors by incorporating a new initiative from the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act. It allowed promotion selection boards to recommend officers of particular merit to be placed higher on the promotion list.In the future, merit-based promotions will apply to officers being considered for promotion to major, lieutenant colonel and colonel in select categories to be determined by the secretary of the Army, officials said.ARMY COMBAT FITNESS TESTIn the fall, officials announced changes to the ACFT before all Soldiers will be required to take it next October.Official testing standards, each one tailored to a Soldier's military occupational specialty, were revealed in September. The new test also became a graduation requirement for all new Soldiers and officers.The arm-extension pushup replaced the hand-release pushup as one of the six events in the test, which is set to replace the current Army Physical Fitness Test that has been around since 1980.The changes came after roughly 17,000 Soldiers from over 60 battalions took the test during its initial implementation phase.In May, Army senior leaders approved the development of alternate assessments for selected Soldiers with permanent profiles. Instead of the 2-mile run, a Soldier can do a 5,000-meter row, 15,000-meter stationary bike ride or a 1,000-meter swim. Each event will be completed in a set time, targeted at 25 minutes or less.PARENTAL LEAVEParents of newborn infants received more good news earlier this year when the Army doubled the amount of parental leave given to fathers and other secondary caregivers, as well as provided more flexibility to mothers.The directive increased parental leave from 10 to 21 days for Soldiers who are designated secondary caregivers of infants. The new policy made the Army's parental leave comparable to that of other services and in compliance with the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act.Mothers can also now be granted six weeks of convalescent leave directly after giving birth and can be granted another six weeks of leave as primary caregiver to bond with their infant anytime up to a year after birth.UCMJ CHANGESA host of changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice became effective Jan. 1, modernizing definitions for many offenses, adjusting maximum penalties, standardizing court-martial panels, creating new computer-crime laws, and much more.The changes strike a balance between protecting the rights of the accused and empowering commanders to effect good order and discipline, a military justice official said.Among them were stiffer penalties for recruiters, drill sergeants and others in "positions of special trust" convicted of abusing their authority over recruits or trainees.Many of the changes came about after a review by the Military Justice Review Group, consisting of military and criminal justice experts whose report made recommendations to Congress.ESPORTSA new Army esports team hit the ground running this year, with thousands of Soldiers applying for a chance to be a part of it.One of Army Recruiting Command's outreach efforts -- which also includes a functional fitness team -- the esports team represents the Army in competitions and events across the country.Team members are not recruiters but they do link up with recruiters during events. They also receive a crash course on Army enlistment programs to answer questions from those interested in learning about the service.While on the team, Soldiers still conduct physical training, weapons qualification and other responsibilities that come with being a Soldier. They will also need to maintain certifications in their military occupational specialty.RE-UP BONUSESThe Army announced this year lump-sum bonuses up to $81,000 -- the highest amount in more than five years -- in an effort to entice Soldiers to reenlist in some of the most in-demand careers.In addition to critical fields, the fall announcement offered a wide range of cash options for Soldiers re-upping for longer commitments, or reclassifying into needed fields.The payouts were based on critical skills and selective retention. The Selective Retention Bonus program is designed to incentivize Soldiers to maintain their current military occupational specialty or reclassify into another MOS based on demands for the individual jobs.TACKLING HOUSING ISSUESEarlier this year, Army senior leaders placed housing as the No. 1 priority for quality of life, following complaints of health concerns inside homes and mismanagement of housing contractors.In the past 10 months, the Army identified governance flaws, initiated commander-driven town halls and created 24-hour helplines to hear feedback directly from families, leaders said.Backing these efforts, housing operations have now been assigned to the commander of Army Materiel Command, Gen. Gus Perna, who has delegated authority to slash incentive fees for housing contractors.The Army has over 86,000 privatized homes. Of those, one-third need to be rebuilt and another one-third need minor repairs.About $1.1 billion in budget requests to improve housing is currently awaiting approval by Congress. An overall analysis of the Army's privatized housing requirements is also underway, leaders said, and is slated to be completed by the spring.NEW LEADERSHIPA leadership carousel of sorts occurred this year following promotions and a retirement among the Army's top leaders.After former Army Secretary Mark Esper became the current secretary of defense, Ryan McCarthy, who served as his undersecretary, was confirmed by the Senate to take over the Army's top civilian post.Gen. Mark Milley was also promoted to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, leaving the door open for Gen. James McConville to succeed him as the Army's chief of staff.Gen. Joseph Martin, who served as the director of the Army Staff, took over McConville's previous position as the Army's vice chief of staff.Former Sgt. Maj. of the Army Dan Dailey then retired as Michael Grinston, the former senior enlisted leader for Army Forces Command, replaced him as the Army's top enlisted Soldier.TALENT MANAGEMENTThe Army moved forward this year on the most comprehensive reform of its three officer personnel systems across the force since 1947.The Army is developing a new talent management system to acquire, develop, employ, and retain the best officers for the future. Congress granted new authorities that provide more flexibility for the Army to determine characteristics of the system.A big part of it is the Army Talent Alignment Process, which is enabled by Assignment Interactive Module 2.0. ATAP is a decentralized, regulated, market-style hiring system that aligns officers with jobs based on preferences.The majority of active-duty officers and units began to participate in ATAP in October for their summer 2020 assignments.ATAP is slated to fall under the Integrated Personnel and Pay System--Army, an online human resources system designed to maximize Soldier talent through integrated personnel and pay data in a single system for all Army components.