What does it take to lug a 25-pound rucksack almost 19 miles in about four-and-a-half hours?
If you were competing for the Norwegian Foot March badge at Fort Bliss, Texas, January 20, it took a good attitude in the cold, as it was only nine degrees warmer in El Paso, Texas, as it was in Oslo that day.
Chaplain (Maj.) Kevin Mucher, the Bliss Family Life chaplain, who has previously served as a battalion chaplain in the 75th Ranger Regiment, was at the NFM starting line and said it was more than that.
“Deep down, when you look into the ‘warrior soul,’ I think the question people ask themselves is ‘am I good enough?,’’do I have what it takes?’” said Mucher. “That’s what we who joined the Army ask ourselves – I’m almost 50 and I still do this.”
The chaplain and the Fort Bliss Religious Support Office partnered with the installation chaplain community and Bliss Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Sports to offer the NFM for hundreds of contestants who answered the call and took to the roads and tank trails of East Bliss for the challenge.
First held in 1915 as an endurance test for the Norwegian military, the NFM started as a focus upon moving troops quickly during World War I, while staying battle ready with their weapons and gear, which is why modern day NFM contestants are made to carry the 25-pound packs.
The march at Bliss was a featured event as a part of the installation’s “Bliss is Back” campaign, a multi-week focus on the many events and services available at Fort Bliss year-round following three years of pandemic-related restrictions.
Mucher, a 30-year Army veteran, said that while Soldiers are measured by their 12-mile roach marches, the NFM gets some first-timers out of their comfort zones, and that was part of the value of the challenge.
“When you’re around the large-scale energy with the group at something like this, there’s something in the shared experience – even if it’s a shared ‘suck’ experience – it’s still a shared experience,” said the chaplain, “and being able to complete it and say ‘I was a part of that,’ there’s something definitely unique about that.”
Today’s NFM challenges are overseen by the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and, unless COVID considerations prevented it, an active member of the Norwegian military must be on hand to witness each formal march.
The badge itself, called a “Marsjmerket,” is authorized for wear in Army Class A uniforms, one of few foreign military badges authorized for wear. The first award has a bronzed trim, while challengers who have completed two NFMs receive a silver-trimmed Marsjmerket, and those who have earned five get a gold-trimmed badge.
Beyond completing the march in the allotted time, there are three additional standards to the NFM: uniform, weight, and track and route.
Service members must be in an approved military uniform, including boots. The course must be in good order, and packs are weighed before and after the event. Civilians must also be carrying 25-pound packs and their clothing, including boots, must weigh at least 3.3 pounds.
According to 1st Lt. Clark Scalia, a platoon leader with 4th Battalion, 70th Armor Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, who marched with his team for the NFM, teamwork was what it took to make sure everyone in their group crossed the finish line and the power of the shared experience Mucher spoke of before the march was part of it.
“The 18th mile sucked, but we finished it,” he said. “Having someone next to you makes it a heck of a lot easier than doing it by yourself. It’s about trust – I knew my guy ‘Sliwa’ would push through, I knew I'd push through, so we paced each other well and I knew we’d get there together.”
“Events like these aren’t about readiness, it’s about bringing out the ‘esprit de corps’ of an organization and giving Soldiers a sense of belonging,” Mucher said. “You can miss that, especially in an era when we see a lot of isolation across our formations.
“And even if someone didn’t finish, still, ‘I tried,’ and gutted it out,’” said Mucher. “I did this race at Fort Hood, and at mile marker nine, eleven, or twelve, we got the chance to come up alongside each other and encourage and spur each other on; [the NFM] is an individual test, but it’s still that group (effort) because we all want everyone to be successful. Anytime we can come out and do hard stuff – even if it’s rainy, even if it’s windy – it’s an opportunity where we can build the team and build individual resiliency to say ‘hey, you know what?, I did it.”
For details on the “Bliss is Back” campaign and more upcoming events, visit home.army.mil/bliss and then click the banner at the top of the page.