By T. Anthony BellMay 17, 2012
FORT LEE, Va. (May 10, 2012) -- Soldiers use a variety of approaches to defeat the various training challenges put before them during the course of their military careers.
For Sgt. Vernon K. Barnes, the only way to leave Fort Dix, N.J., with the coveted Expert Field Medical Badge was to leave every ounce of desire out on the training lanes.
"I was going to get this badge or die trying," said the Medical Department Activity Soldier.
Barnes obviously lived to talk about his experiences, but more importantly, earned an honor that that has an 80 percent failure rate. The 25-year-old was one of three MEDDAC Soldiers who participated in U.S. Army Northern Regional Medical Command EFMB testing April 17-29 at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.
Barnes, who arrived at Fort Lee less than a year ago after a stint with the 101st Airborne Division, said there is a bit of substance to his rather extreme frame of mind going into the competition.
"It's the same mind set I take toward patient care," said the health care specialist who has a tour in Afghanistan under his belt. "If I have a battle buddy out on the field, I'm going to get to that battle buddy, and I'm going to save his life -- I'm going to die trying."
MEDDAC 1st Sgt. David Faughnan said the EFMB is truly a distinguishing accomplishment because it is difficult and specialized, like the Expert Infantryman Badge in combat arms.
"It sets him above his peers," he said of Barnes. "It makes him the crème of the crop. That's why it's called the Expert Field Medical Badge. It shows that he has become an expert at his or her craft."
EFMB testing is rigorous. It consists of a bevy of medical tasks such as "Treat a casualty with an open head injury" and a few common Soldier tasks that involve moving under direct fire, reacting to direct fire and reacting to unexploded ordnance or improvised explosive devices.
Especially concerning the medical tasks, the tests are strictly by-the-book, said Faughnan, who earned the badge 16 years ago.
"They require expert precision by doctrine, by the manual to the exact specifications," he said. "People can train for a long time, but they'll make a crucial-step mistake and then they're a 'no go,' be asked to leave and come back later. I think it comes down to determination -- how bad you want it. And if you want it, you'll study extra hard to get it."
On top of the medical tasks, there is a written test that boasts a 50 percent failure rate, said Faughnan. Other demands include an Army Physical Fitness Test, weapons qualification and a 12-mile ruck march with a standard load that must be completed in three hours. Sandy conditions in the latter made for a very difficult event, said Barnes.
"In sand, it always feels like you're going uphill," said the Chesterfield County native. "No matter how far out you look, it always seemed like an incline, and no matter how long of a stride you took, you felt like you were only moving an inch forward."
Barnes said he passed all of the medical tasks without any "no goes" and went on to do well on all of the other events. In the end, he was one of 21 who earned the badge. One hundred and twelve made the attempt.
"It still kind of feels unreal," he said. "I walk by a window or a mirror and I see it (the badge) and I'm like, 'What's that?' Oh yeah; I don't think it has really has sunk in."
Sgt. Natalie Goin, a fellow MEDDAC Soldier who also made the attempt to earn the badge, said what has sunk in for her is how hard it is to obtain the badge.
"It shouldn't be easy and it wasn't," she said. "It's probably one of the hardest things I ever had to do. Basic (training) was physically tough, but this was very mentally challenging. We were completely stressed."
Nevertheless, Goin said she intends to package up her failures, re-focus and try it again later this year.
"Failure is always an opportunity to learn," said the eight-year Soldier. "Whatever you're weak at, you can improve and make yourself better."
Barnes had visions of making himself better four years ago while undergoing initial entry training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, seeing cadre proudly wearing the EFMB. He said he now feels like he's part of something special.
"It's great," he said. "The more I think about it, the more I realize that it's such a small fraternity of people who have it. The whole time I was going through it, my mind was in the moment. Now, I'm kind of looking at the bigger picture, and it's just unreal."
The bigger picture for Barnes includes fulfilling his duties at the primary care clinic at Fort Lee's Troop Medical Clinic No. 2, getting married and satisfying a desire to return to Afghanistan.
"This isn't something my fiance wants to hear, but I want to get back to Afghanistan and make sure we bring all of our boys and girls home … if I can save one life and bring one person back home to their family, then that's all I really want."
Barnes' long-term goals include attendance to fligh medic school.