FORT POLK, La. — One hundred sixty-five Soldiers from the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk and area National Guard units from as far away as Houston, Texas, set off on an 18.6-mile road march April 21 with one goal: Earn the Norwegian Foot March badge.
When the day was done, 105 Soldiers had completed their goal and won the right to wear the coveted badge on their Army service uniforms.
Participants had to complete an 18-mile road march with 25-pound ruck within an allotted time period, then work a full day — not an easy task when many of the MPs who participated were working 12-hour shifts.
Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Blumberg, 519th Military Police Battalion, learned of the opportunity to host the foot march on Fort Polk. As a rule, the event is typically held where a Norwegian military member can be on-hand to grade the event. Due to COVID-19 constraints, Blumberg said the Norwegian military allowed local leaders to provide the grading.
“You used to not be able to wear the badge on your dress uniform,” Blumberg said. “But recent changes to the regulation allow you to wear it.”
Blumberg said when he learned in February that a Norwegian military member did not have to be on hand he started researching what it would take to host the event on Fort Polk.
“I thought this was a great opportunity after COVID left us with few chances for personal growth,” he said.
Blumberg said he contacted the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C., with a plan and the Norwegians approved it. “We began marketing it to our Soldiers and what an honor it is to earn the badge,” he said.
The event kicked off at midnight on April 20. Blumberg said there were certain stipulations on the foot march that led to the midnight starting time.
“The foot march had to be completed before sunrise,” he said. “And the temperature could not be greater than 77 degrees.”
Time requirements based on age and sex ran the gamut from four hours and thirty minutes for a male age 18-34 to six hours for a female age 60 or older.
The course included eight laps along the Warrior Hills Golf Course walking trail —complete with its hilly terrain — that added extra physical exertion to the already taxing event.
“Soldiers from all ranks made it,” Blumberg said. “I personally wanted to quit several times, but pushed through and made it by one minute.”
Other requirements included carrying a 25-pound ruck — weighed before and after the march — and then completion of a normal duty day.
Participants from Fort Polk included MPs, engineers, transportation Soldiers, chaplains, Operations Group Soldiers, National Guard from New Orleans and one Soldier – Blumberg’s spouse, Staff Sgt. Tabitha Lambert — from USAREC Houston.
“Not only did we have all of these Soldiers participating, but we also had plenty of other Soldiers who assisted with weighing rucks, setting water points and checking in those who attempted the march,” Blumberg said.
Spc. Erik Mateo, a traffic investigator with the 519th MP Bn, was one of the 105 Soldiers who completed the march. He said calling the event a challenge was an understatement.
“It was actually a great experience,” he said. “When you go out there, you know you’re about to experience about four and a half hours of physical pain and — for me — a 12-hour work day.”
Mateo said at about the 8-mile mark, the pain began to set in.
“I was running and it got to me,” he said. “I thought, ‘this is gonna be a long one.’ It’s definitely a mental game.”
As the march dragged on, Mateo said he developed blisters and his feet began to go numb.
“I just pushed through it,” he said. “On the last lap, I admit, I thought about stopping, but I remember my wife telling me the day before, ‘you got this.’ I dug down deep and finished that last lap.”
Mateo said he looked at his watch after he finished and saw that he had walked 36,000 steps and lost more than 3,000 calories.
“I’m a very fit person and go to the gym a lot, but I gotta tell you, this was tough on my body,” he said. “I went in with a clear head, but once you hit that threshold, it messes with you.”
Following the march, Mateo said his body was beat, but then he realized he had to work a 12-hour shift, that included body armor and an equipment belt.
“You think you’re through, but then you realize you’re not and you wonder if you’re going to make it,” he said. “But you do it. I think I would do it again if given the choice.”
Spc. Mark Barney, an engineer with the 519th MP Bn, said the first four laps are about willpower and the last four laps are like inner strength.
“The last two laps are where the true testament is,” Barney said. “I definitely learned about myself.”
Pfc. Joe Kayoka, 519th MP Bn, said he set a quick pace early.
“I started out really hot, about a 10-minute per mile pace,” he said. “But at about mile 14 it hit me and reality struck: My feet, back and knees starting hurting and I had to slow it down. It was a unique experience. I learned a lot about myself.”
As for what was the most difficult part of the march for Blumberg, he said not giving up on himself proved a daunting task.
“I had never done anything that physically demanding,” he said. “I wanted to show my Soldiers that if I could do it, they could. Lap five and six were tough: I had charley horses and cramps, but I kept walking and decided I was not going to quit.”
A ceremony to present certificates and badges will be held once they are received from the Norwegian Embassy.