CONCORD, Mass. (Sept. 21, 2020) – It was a typical, bright Saturday morning for the families, solo hikers and dog walkers strolling through the Minuteman National Park in Concord, Massachusetts. All donned masks and social distanced as they admired the scenery along Paul Revere’s famous ride.
It was not so typical to see 67 Soldiers and Airmen rucking along the dirt paths.
The warfighters, who were from the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine and the Massachusetts National Guard, were competing for the German Armed Forces Proficiency Badge. The three-day competition was recently held in multiple locations around Massachusetts, and the 12-kilometer ruck march was their final event.
The GAFPB is a highly sought-after decoration of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Germany. It can be awarded to all German soldiers, and it can also be awarded to allied warfighters that meet the standard. It can be worn by any rank of service member, and it is one of the few foreign awards that can be worn on the U.S. Army uniform. Warfighters who qualify for the badge can earn either a gold, silver or bronze GAFPB.
The Massachusetts National Guard hosted the competition, with oversight from the German Army Liaison, Command Sgt. Maj. Alexander Behrendt. This is the eighth year they have held the event.
COL Troy Morton, commander of USARIEM, was one of the Soldiers who came to cheer the competitors on. He remarked on how these competitions strengthen relationships between fellow and allied service members, and he was glad that the competition was held this year.
“This event brought these soldiers and members of the German Army together on U.S. soil,” Morton said. “Working as a joint team in a collaborative effort brings our two countries closer and creates strong bonds between all those who participated. These types of unified efforts strengthen U.S. and German partnerships, which work to increase freedom across the globe.”
The competition for the GAFPB consisted of six events ranging from marksmanship to physical fitness and even swimming. The intensity and variety of events is designed to test warfighters’ physical abilities and mental toughness.
Warfighters who competed in the event said the swimming portion was the most difficult. The event required competitors to swim in a pool for 100 meters in under four minutes. Competitors swam in full uniform with their training uniform on underneath. Once completed, they had to remove their outer uniform’s top and bottom portions, and throw them out of the pool while still treading water.
“Swimming and treading water while in uniform is always the hardest,” said Capt. William Neumeier, a research psychologist from USARIEM. “But having that comradery from our USARIEM Soldiers was a big motivator to push ourselves. You’re in the competition for the individual badge, but you’re also there for everyone else too.”
On the final day of the competition, warfighters rucked 12 kilometers in under two hours through the Minuteman National Park while carrying a 35-pound rucksack. Despite the rigorous physical demands, the cheering voices of Soldiers and civilians was a morale booster for many of the competitors, including USARIEM Soldiers Sgt. James Toney and Spc. Joshua Sally.
“Coming back uphill, I lost motivation for a minute,” Toney said. “I had a corporal following me the entire course. When we linked up coming back, she said to me, ‘Hey, you got this. Let’s go!’ A lot of civilians who were running the course were also cheering us on. It was really nice to find the motivation, even when you couldn’t find it yourself.”
“The time and comradery we had today means a lot more than the badge,” Sally said. “That’s the most important part about it.”
Due to the impacts of COVID-19, the normal number of 150 to 200 candidates who compete for the GAFPB in Massachusetts was cut down to 67. Only 40 warfighters earned the badge. Sixteen earned gold, 22 earned silver and two earned bronze. All USARIEM Soldiers who competed qualified for a badge.
Maj. Gen. Gary Keefe, adjunct general, Massachusetts National Guard, spoke at the event, thanking the German Armed Forces Liaison Office and the National Guard for their hard work in coordinating the event while enforcing health and safety regulations in a COVID-19 environment. He also commended the competitors for their strength and resilience over the past three days.
“This is the stuff that makes wearing the uniform a little more enjoyable,” Keefe said. “You push yourself, and it’s going to make you better Soldiers and Airmen for doing it.”
Behrendt also congratulated the competitors for their performance. He explained how GAFPB helps boost comradery between allied militaries.
“We are living in turbulent times with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Behrendt said. “This makes it all the more important for enforce old alliances and have them evolve over time. It made me really proud to watch you over the last three days. I hope you are proud of what you have achieved.”
The competitors were required to wear masks while running, and they had to stand six feet apart when receiving their badges. Yet, all of the Soldiers were in high spirits. Many, like Neumeier, were happy to see their fellow Soldiers and have some sense of normalcy during the pandemic.
“Getting to know your fellow Soldiers and bond with them like this really special,” Neumeier said. “We’re all in different offices right now or teleworking, and being able to interact again is incredible.”